Marek Cecula, long a mainstay of the contemporary New York City ceramics scene when he was head of ceramics at Parsons School of Design for 21 years, left New York in 2004 and now lives in his native Kielce, Poland, where he grew up with his family. His Modus Design Studio is in the same building where he lived with his family until 1960 and where his father had an auto-parts store. Cecula took time from his busy schedule as head designer for the legendary heritage porcelain factory, Cmielów (which recently celebrated its 225th anniversary with an exhibition at the National Museum in Kielce) to look back at his career as a teacher, an artist, a curator, a designer, a writer, and a sought-after international ceramics competition juror.
In 1960, fifteen years after World War II, Cecula’s father died prematurely after having survived the Holocaust and narrowly avoiding the July 4, 1946 pogrom in Kielce that killed 42 Jewish residents. After his father’s death, Cecula lived on a kibbutz in Israel for 12 years. While there, he studied ceramics. Next, he moved to Brazil and, later, to New York City. While in South America, he created Earthwork Art Project 79 (1979). He removed an enormous geometric chunk of earth from a clay quarry in Curitiba, fashioned it into hundreds of fired bricks, and reset them into the gash in the hillside.
This was later documented by Museum of Arts and Design curator Ursula Ilse-Neumann in a Katonah Museum of Art catalog along with an installation shown there, Klepisko (2008), which is a Polish word for the primitive earthen floor in peasant dwellings. Nineteen tons of clay were poured into large Styrofoam molds (with the help of students at the State University of New York–New Paltz) directly into the museum galleries. The molds were later removed and the cracks were filled with clay facsimiles of Classical architectural details for visitors to walk over.
Easily shifting back and forth between factory and home studios, outdoor site, and indoor museum or design office, Cecula uses the look of industrial porcelain forms—cruets, urinals, sauce boats, and creamers—to create unique or editioned sculptures such as his Tree Set (2009, with Edyta Cieloch), which transferred birch-bark reliefs to the exteriors of porcelain vessels.
While in the US, Cecula had several shows at Garth Clark Gallery in New York, New York, starting in 1993 (the gallery has since closed) and was also given solo shows in Germany, Israel, and Norway. His work was shown at other US galleries as well, in Kansas City, Missouri; San Francisco, California; Ferndale, Michigan; and Racine, Wisconsin. Numerous art museums in Europe and the US own his ceramic sculptures.
Two projects in particular blend his life experiences as a child with an enthusiasm for working with young people. Kielce Chronicle (2011) used hundreds of porcelain shards with photo decals of the artist’s family members affixed to the surface. During an interactive installation at the Center for Contemporary Sculpture in Oronsko, Poland, visitors took out, examined, and then replaced the photo-covered shards, creating what Cecula called “encrypted archaeology.”
Children of Kielce Remember (2009–present) is an ongoing, annual outdoor installation at Pakosz Jewish Cemetery, where Cecula earlier created the 2010 monument of flat, black granite in memory of the July 4, 1946 pogrom. During the May 1943 liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Kielce, Nazi officials decided to kill 40 children rather than send them to an orphanage after the deportation of their parents. Each year, Cecula told me, “I work with a small group of young kids in my ceramic studio. . . After a discussion, the children make small clay figurines and toys, which they paint with colored glazes and fire. We go to the cemetery with the kids and permanently glue the works to the granite grave slab.” Anticipating today’s community-based art projects loaded with social and historical significance, Marek Cecula blended his own childhood experiences with crucial events of the past that must not be forgotten.
the author Matthew Kangas is an independent art critic living in Seattle, Washington. His latest book is Paul Havas (University of Washington Press, 2017).