Józef Sławiński
A Polish Academic Information Center Exhibit

A Polish Artist on the Niagara Frontier
by Anne Garner, M.F.A.

Professor Józef Sławiński is an artist whose work has much enriched the community of Western New York. One of his works, The Artist as Creator located at Daemen College, introduces us to him and can be viewed as representing his presence. The artist in this mural, the artists sketch for which is illustrated above, is portrays the artist as a dynamic being, transforming elements of the natural world into man-made structures. This image projects a universal view of the artist who can choose a variety of roles, beginning with that of a shaman. He can be an entertainer, a documentor historical events, or someone who makes social statements or creates divine, spiritual images. A review of Slawinski's work, demonstrates that he took his role very seriously. He considered the artist an essential worker in society and lived his life to the fullest to demonstrate this view. Indeed, photographs of him after he moved into the United States show a very enthusiastic individual.


The Artist as Creator - Józef Sławiński, 1968, sgraffito
Daemen College, Amherst, NY

Early Training

Sławiński was born in Warsaw, Poland on November 27, 1905. In an interview in The Voice of the Alchemist, an arts magazine, he describes how his career in the arts began. He states, "As a youth, I labored in a factory, but every free moment I had, I used to draw - to draw anything and everything with all the chalk (which was most readily available) that I could get my hands on. My employers did not seem too happy at the situation, since everything they touched or brushed against was covered with chalky artworks - so they fired me. Sensing my talents, my parents sent me to night school in addition to the regular thy school. Soon the teachers learned of my talents and before long I was honored with a scholarship. High school was followed by a special art school. There I concentrated on studying the chemistry in art - the science of colors, mixing, blending, pigments - in those days we had to learn the basics. Paints just didn't come ready mixed in handy tubes or jars. Later, I studied the properties of metals, rocks and sand and eventually got into the science of putting paintings on walls."

Apprenticeships and Scholarships

Between 1920 and 1930, Sławiński completed a 9-year apprenticeship in the art of conservation and artistic decoration of the interiors of public buildings, both secular and ecclesiastical. From 1930 to 1934 he studied at the Higher School of Painting and Decorative Arts in Warsaw. He also studied the technology and practice of mural art with two noted Polish muralists: S. Kalinowski at his studio in Lublin, and W. Drapiewski at his studio in Pelplin. Later, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw where he succeeded in earning four important scholarships, one of which was for study in Italy. The latter resulted in some 15 visits to Italy and an extensive education in all the possible techniques and styles of wall painting such as alfresco. tempera, sgraffito, mosaic, encaustic and stained glass windows. At this time he also wrote a treatise on the work of the Italian artist, Giotto, but the manuscript was lost during the war.

Restoration Work in Poland

With this impressive education. Sławiński became a Professor at the Fine Arts Academy in Warsaw where he taught for a total of 13 years. Additionally, he was constantly involved in restoration and conservation of paintings and murals in churches, palaces and other public buildings which had been severely damaged during the war, completing in toto, some 150 such projects. He had the requisite knowledge to fully restore the interiors, including pews, altars, mosaics and stained glass windows. Examples of his work from that time can be seen at many sites in Poland. thus at Parczew, Garwolin, Grybów, and the Franciscan Monastery at Niepokalanów, to name a few.


Though Sławiński mastered many techniques, his favored medium was, without question, sgraffito. The word sgraffito is derived from the Greek word 'grapho' meaning 'to draw'. The translation of the Italian prefix S is roughly 'to undo' with an overall meaning of removing to create an image. This is consistent with the definition of sgraffito as a subtractive method in that it removes layers of pigmented cement to create an image. Sgraffito is a technique that was used extensively in the ancient world and evidence of its use has been unearthed in the catacombs of Rome, in Pompeii, Babylon, Egypt, India, and in Etruscan tombs. It came into prominence as a mural technique in Europe in the late middle ages (13th and 14th centuries) and has been employed in Poland for the last 700 years..

To fully appreciate the work of Sławiński, it would be useful to enumerate the steps of preparing a sgraffito mural. A sgraffito mural is a labor intensive and time consuming project. It requires the maximum of organization beforehand and strict discipline on the part of the artist so that the work can be completed before the cement dries, which takes place in approximately 48 hours. At this stage of his work, Sławiński describes stopping work only for in situ naps and light meals.

The Artist's Philosophy

Sławiński defines a mural as follows:
"The true mural should combine and blend with the architecture. It is, by necessity, a part of the structure in which or on which it is executed. This technique does not stifle the wall, it blends chemically with the wall and allows the wall to breathe. This technique has been used and has lasted for thousands of years."
There are many reasons for creating a work of art. Sławiński's clear intent was to make readable social and religious statements that the community could come to appreciate in everyday life. During his life in Poland, he experienced first hand the hardships of war and lived in the wasteland created in Europe by World War II. The theme of world peace is prevalent throughout his works. Given his experiences, his intent is clear. He says, "These days, everyone talks about peace but no one does anything about it. It seems rather that most are preparing for war. An artist such as I - a muralist - would love to create a lasting tribute to the idea of peace. I have prepared many projects with this theme in mind."

Western New York

In 1963, he was invited to the United States by the Very Rev. Monsignor Bogacki, pastor of the Church of the Assumption in Buffalo. Much of his work in Poland had been restoration of war ravaged buildings, work which he evaluated as a "priceless experience." Now, however, he was full of ideas for projects he wanted to complete and he found the prospect of working in the United States exciting.

At the Church of the Assumption he created five sgraffito panels portraying scenes from the Life of the Blessed Virgin. Next he became involved in a number of projects at Stella Niagara. He was joined for this set of projects by Michał Baranowski, who was also a member of the Polish Artist's Union and a graduate of the Higher School of Decorative Arts and Painting in Warsaw. Together they renovated Stella Niagara's Chapel of our Lady of the Sacred Heart completing an Altar Screen, religious icons and stations of the cross. They also created sgraffito murals in the little Chapel of St. Francis which stands on the bank of the Niagara River. While they were working on the little Chapel, President Kennedy was assassinated. The artists, Baranowski and Sławiński, were deeply affected by that tragic event. They developed a project wherein the love and respect of the Polish people for President Kennedy could be conveyed. The theme was based on a quote from Pope John XXIII: "Peace among all peoples requires Truth as its foundation, Justice as its rule, Love as its driving force, Liberty as the atmosphere."

In 1966, Sławiński created a large sgraffito mural for the West Hertel Middle School in Buffalo. It depicts an important moment in the history of the Black Rock district of Buffalo. The time frame of the depicted scene is the War of 1812-1823. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry is shown with shipbuilder Thomas Eckford from whom he commissioned a number of warships. With these he successfully engaged the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, thereby giving the United States control of the Lakes. That same year, Sławiński presented a hand hammered copper replica of the City of Buffalo seal to the then Buffalo Mayor Sedita. It replaced an earlier seal made of cardboard and continues to hang in the mayors office to this thy.

Given Sławiński's high level of education in the arts and his sense of community responsibility as an artist, it is no surprise that he has contributed richly to the cultural fibre of Western New York. Rejecting an offer of employment from a religious architectural firm in New York City, he chose to live in the vibrant, evolving Polish community in Buffalo, maintaining a studio at 1244 Fillmore Avenue. Later he moved to Niagara Falls where he opened the Niagara Falls Gallery and Studio Sgraffito at 125 Buffalo Avenue. His work can be defined as an homage to both his fellow countrymen and to the new country to which he had emigrated. In this sense, there is a universal sensibility in much of his work.

Comparisons to Mexican Muralists

Sławiński's work can be compared to the Mexican Muralists in both style and intent. Artists such as Diego Rivera turned to art as a medium for social commentary and found a ready audience in a socially conscious Mexico. Similarities can be listed as follows:
  1. The large scale frescoes of the Renaissance inspired a large scale format to make social statements.
  2. Certain stylistic inspiration was derived from the Cubists. Sławiński spoke of meeting Picasso and admiring his style. This style is evident in some work.
  3. Rivera worked with a student of Ingres to learn the sound draftsmanship of the French Classical School. This sound draftsmanship is clearly evident in the works of Sławiński.
  4. Rivera was concerned with his nation's welfare as was Sławiński in his work regarding universal peace after the devastation of war.
  5. Rivera's work is highly decorative as is Sławiński's.
  6. Rivera is concerned with the working people. Sławiński is concerned with art being available to all people in the community, regardless of income.
  7. Diego Rivera glorified his native culture as did Sławiński, extending that glorification into the American culture to which he had immigrated.
A Directly Literate Style

The style in which Sławiński worked in the sgraffito murals is a directly literate style designed to be understood completely by the viewer. While fully appreciative of abstract art and capable of employing principles of abstract art in his work, he felt that abstract art was not always appropriate for the work he chose to do. He pointed out that "People are puzzled by abstract works. They don't understand it and it becomes a wasted effort. The purpose of art is to tell something to people." In reviewing his work, it be comes clear how truly he achieved this purpose. He viewed his work as also having a further, humanitarian purpose. In speaking of murals in the public places he states, "There are many who are poor and underprivileged to whom a public mural would represent the only art in their lives. It would be theirs. Some part of it. Some means of identification. I can see an individual passing it and saying to himself: 'See that huge mural. You own a piece of it by virtue of being a citizen of this community. You helped pay for it and now it is there gracing the city, open for everyone's enjoyment.'

In discussing the Mexican muralists and how their works brighten the cities and the lives of the city-dwellers, Sławiński said "Why should art be confined to the galleries and walls of millionaires?" Buffalonians are beneficiaries of that vision.

The above is the edited text of the presentation made by Anne Garner, M.F.A. at the November 1994 meeting of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo.
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