In the era of Insta tourism, artist Maja Godlewska’s newest works invite viewers to slow down and connect with art and nature.
by Michael J. Solender
Above feature image: Islands, 2020, water soluble paints and inks on watercolor paper
For mixed-media artist Maja Godlewska, life’s journeys are portals beyond the immediate destinations — throughways to discovery, learning and wonder.
Early in her career, after Godlewska completed her M.F.A. in painting and graphic arts at the Eugeniusz Geppert Academy of Fine Arts and Design in her native home of Wroclaw, Poland, she was awarded a postgraduate fellowship to continue her education. Though she’d applied to study painting in Lisbon, Portugal, she instead found herself assigned to the textile department of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. Undeterred, Godlewska embraced the unexpected appointment with gusto and used it as an opportunity to explore new approaches to her work.
“I was surprised (at the assignment to Ireland) but thought, ‘Okay, let’s see what this means,’” says Godlewska, an associate professor of art at UNC Charlotte’s College of Arts + Architecture. “It was before Ireland joined the European Union and a quite different country than just a few years later. I learned techniques like heat transfer and silk-screen printing on textiles. At the time, I’m not sure why I’m learning those, but 15 years later, I’m commissioned by the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh to create an installation for the museum entrance. I think, ‘Okay, I will use textiles, and print and paint on them.’ It was the beginning of a body of work I created for years.”
Godlewska’s CV, or resume, is lengthy, crammed with solo exhibitions, group shows, residencies, public works and museum collections where her work is showcased. Her talent has earned her fellowships from the Fulbright Program, the New York City-based Kosciuszko Foundation and the North Carolina Arts Council.
Several of her large-scale public artworks are celebrated in Charlotte, including Outer Bands for Dzidzius, amonofilament mesh installation in the lobby of uptown’s Duke Energy Center, and Imaginary Cloud, an installation at the Beatties Ford Branch Library commissioned by the Arts & Science Council. Glissando, a massive paintingdevoted to speed and movement, is on view at the NASCAR Hall of Fame lobby, and four large-scale paintings from her Un Bel Composto series are featuredat the Bank of America Plaza’s lobby. Godlewska came to Charlotte in 1997 through a grant from Polish American Foundation and as part of a project arranged through Wroclaw, a sister city to Charlotte. Ultimately Godlewska relocated here, and after several years teaching at CPCC she joined UNCC, where she’s been on the faculty since 2004.
Wherever Godlewska finds herself is precisely where she discovers her muse. She’s captivated by landscapes and architecture experienced during residencies and travels that have filled her passport, with stamps from locales as disparate as Chile, France, Spain, Iceland, Greenland, Mauritius, Tasmania and South Korea.
Godlewska credits Andreas Bechtler for encouraging her work during a 9-year artist residency she held at his Little Italy Peninsula Arts Center at nearby Mountain Island Lake, where she also gained inspiration from fellow artists.
“This was the most amazing gift of a studio space and a community of fellow creatives,” Godlewska says, “To be in a forest full of wild turkeys and nightjars, by a blooming meadow, on the water, with the view of passing clouds. This experience influenced my work for years to come.”
Her fluid abstract paintings and large-scale works invite viewers on private journeys to places unknown yet achingly familiar in the solitude they evoke. Godlewska’s most recent exhibition, Trophy Vistas at Raleigh’s Artspace earlier this year, presented large serpentine scrolls in a maze-like installation, unfurled and arranged to allow visitors to navigate among them as if hiking through a mystical forest. Sweeping kinetic strokes of paint and ink on watercolor paper immersed viewers in a verdant palette of emerald, azure, earthen, bronze and rust.
Found here is a hint of Godlewska’s stay on the tiny island-nation of Mauritius, off the coast of Madagascar. In an ironic twist, she worked to capture the island’s exotic natural beauty in the context of how today’s omnipresent digital adventurers — also known at Insta tourists — consume — rather than experience it.
“Global tourism is a geological force,” Godlewska says. “I’ve become increasingly interested in how the experience is mediated by the electronic device. … how tourists use sublime landscapes just as the backdrop to their glamorized selfies. There is an idea that all the geotagging and Instagram posting makes remote destinations available for everybody. This has become a big problem in many places that are very fragile and not prepared to accommodate large numbers of visitors. I started to create work in response to this phenomenon. These long meandering scrolls of watercolor painting are an invitation to contemplate something, to slow down and to just be.”
Irina Toshkova, founder of Toshkova Fine Art Advisory, has exhibited Godlewska’s work for many years. “In a world that is increasingly digitally and technologically influenced, it is so refreshing to see a great painter and mixed-media artist enter into the journey of human experience connecting with nature,” Toshkova says. “Maja’s work is a window into another world, sharing over the years her own journey from figurative to abstract work — she’s masterful.”
Godlewska is not one to overthink her work, nor engineer layers of messaging for viewers to ponder. “There’s no clear division to me between what’s figurative and what’s abstract. I think everything happens on a spectrum. Even if we think about high realism, photorealism or hyperrealism it’s always some kind of an agreement between the creator and the viewer, because here somebody just uses paint and some surface to communicate three-dimensional worlds. I’m trying to communicate what we perceive as the chaos of nature. Of course, whether it’s really chaos, I would argue we don’t know. It’s a form of organization that is beyond our understanding.”
Godlewska’s work represents an intimate relationship and deep concern for her subject matter, notes Charlotte artist, critic and writer Barbara Schreiber. “There is so much going on in Maja’s work,” Schreiber says. “Her observations about tourism and the way we interact with the environment involve deep research, personal experience, subtle observation, passion and catharsis. Add to that the physical demands of working at such a large scale. The work offers so many points of entry, you can engage with it whether or not you are knowledgeable about the subjects addressed or simply to gaze at a beautiful object.”
Studio artist, teacher, mentor, art writer, performance artist, photographer and global traveler are just a few of the hats the indefatigable Godlewska wears, often simultaneously. It’s in the grandeur of everyday life where she finds inspiration.
“I think most experiences, they shape us and are worthwhile,” Godlewska says. “Meeting new people, going somewhere — even if you don’t have the time, if you think you are busy, but there is a chance to go to a new place, meet a new person or see a new artwork, I think you always should do it.” SP
In addition to her public works at various locations around Charlotte, Godlewska’s works can be seen in the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s Twentieth Century Women exhibition through Sept 26th and in Uncanny Terrain, a two-person show with Alabama artist Bryce Speed April 2 – May 26 at the Greenville Center for Creative Arts in Greenville, S.C.