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How They See - Issue #8: Alicja Bielawska about what is a sculpture, using common materials and how to store large objects

Alicja Bielawska is an artist based in Warsaw Poland. I attended her figure drawing classes in Atelie

How They See

August 22 · Issue #8 · View online
How They See will help you to meet artists from all over the globe and understand their perception of art. Published weekly on Saturday.

Alicja Bielawska is an artist based in Warsaw Poland. I attended her figure drawing classes in Atelier Foundation in Warsaw, back in 2018/2019. During this time I have learned a lot about depicting human body and composition of the drawing. Those classes have evoked in me curiosity and made me to explore art environment further. Back then I have also joined composition workshops, which influenced my art a lot. I have also found out that Alicja is creating sculptures, using common materials, used to produce every day objects. The most fascinating thing about those objects, is that viewer can approach them from different perspectives, engaging the whole body. You can walk inside it, touch and feel the texture, embrace the colours and different materials.
You can find more about Alicja Bielawska on Instagram or on her website.

I have read in your CV that you have completed two fields of study and are currently in the process of doctorate. I had the opportunity to meet you as a teacher and mentor during drawing classes at the Atelier Foundation. How much does the perspective change when you are standing on the other side of the desk?
For me, learning is a multi-element process where listening, individual approach and asking questions are crucial. By teaching others, I also learn all the time, it gives me a lot of satisfaction and leads me to many discoveries. And this is regardless of whether I run a workshop for children or make revisions for students. Being an artist, I also learn all the time by watching exhibitions, movies, going to galleries and museums. I am fascinated by the wealth of contemporary art and I also rediscover old art. I find artists with whom I feel a creative affinity, some kind of dialogue, even though we don’t know each other. It is also part of the creative process for me - recognizing what is happening in art, even though so much is happening that I have no way to comprehend everything. I also advise pupils and students to make the most of what other artists convey.
You have studied, among others, at the famous Gerrit Rietveld Academie. What are the differences between artistic studies abroad and in Poland?
In Poland, I have studied art history at the University of Warsaw, hence I didn’t have any close experience with the academy. Only now, during doctorate studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, I am observing the academy. I can say more about what my studies abroad gave me. Studying in Amsterdam was a very inspiring time for me and most of all I had great mentors who treated students as partners. At the Rietveld Academie, there was no division into painting, sculpture, rather than there were: fine arts, audiovisual and lots of design departments, all in two buildings next to each other. I had friends at various departments of the university and I could watch how they work and I could try different techniques or participate in various workshops myself. I soaked it all up like a sponge, and at the same time, I have made specific decisions in which direction I would want to go. The atmosphere at the academy was very open, it was extremely refreshing for me and helped me define myself.
Alicja Bielawska "Hidden Doubts", 2017, exhibition view, Kasia Michalski Gallery, Warsaw, photo: Frederik Gruyaert
Alicja Bielawska "Hidden Doubts", 2017, exhibition view, Kasia Michalski Gallery, Warsaw, photo: Frederik Gruyaert
Most of your creations are spatial works: sculptures, installations; in my opinion, different than drawings or paintings. How does your creative process on such objects look like?
First of all, I draw a lot and most often spatial works emerge from the drawings. With the help of drawings, I translate the loose images from my head into the paper. However I don’t treat most of my work on paper as working sketches. They are individual works for me and some of them are leading me to sculptures. Drawings, as two-dimensional worlds, have their own rules, and the shapes that I want to introduce to the three-dimensional world need scale and matter. Then I build models of the sculpture to feel the scale and proportions. I start looking for materials and specifying colours. Sometimes items that I have or that I have seen somewhere become the inspiration. For example, the circular stoneware vase from my apartment has become a model for the ceramic beads that appear in several of my works. Often, individual elements of the work are created separately: I order a metal structure from a locksmith, the fabric is digitally printed, and I make some ceramic parts myself. I combine them and check if the sculpture forms a coherent whole. I always keep a margin within which there is room for change even at the final stage of the process.
It is somehow related to my previous question. I’ve read that you don’t like your works to be called installations, you prefer the word “sculpture”. I suspect that many people will associate sculpture unequivocally. Why do you prefer such naming?
I think it is actually despite the common understanding of the word “sculpture” why I use this word very often. The sculpture has been crossing its borders for almost a hundred years now. I am not doing anything new in this matter, the paths are already marked. For me, the sculpture is a spatial work that requires the audience not only to engage the sense of sight but the whole body as a sense. The recipient goes around the sculpture, sometimes enters it, sees it from different perspectives, both in the context of space and his own body. I find the relationship between viewers and sculpture the most fascinating.
Your final work, as I have read, is a result of the effort of a large group of people, weaving workshops, sometimes other skilled technologists. Can you tell more about this process?
In the case of some of my works, implementation leads to cooperation with specialists, craftsmen. But this is not necessarily the rule. It depends on the particular sculpture requirements. Sometimes it is cooperation with a seamstress and locksmith, and sometimes with a factory producing blankets or ceramics. This kind of work requires dialogue. I come with sketches, mock-ups and finished projects. We are talking about my ideas and possible solutions. It is extremely valuable to me that I can benefit from their knowledge of materials and their experience. Some of my ideas are modified during the technical consultations stage. During the realisation of the project, a lot depends on the used materials. I try to listen to the materials, because the shape of the work depends on how the material works, for example how the fabric is arranged or how the metal bends. I like to follow the material, with that I discover new things and my work may even surprise me.
How do you perceive the result of your work? Does it have to reflect your concept perfectly, or are you open to imperfections?
The error and mistake themes are inscribed into my works. Already in my freehand drawings, I see imperfections in the ways I draw shapes which then becomes interesting as a different way of looking at reality opens up. The shapes in my drawings are influenced to a certain extent by everyday life that surrounds me, however, it is their transformations that create unexpected imperfections. In the process of creating sculptures, I leave room for changes. It is interesting for me to follow the shapes that are formed, which are sometimes arranged differently than I thought.
Which of your works has been the biggest challenge so far?
Certainly, the realization of the work “Dreamed at Night by the Light of Day” commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw was the greatest challenge, both in terms of the scale and the context of the space. I have created a work specifically for the interior of a cafe in the Museum building on the Vistula river. It is a huge, very high interior. My task was to introduce a work that would change its character. The work has been there for two years and I am still satisfied with the way it affects this space.
When I was looking at your last works, the name that suddenly appeared in my head was: Sheila Hicks. Do you know her art, and if so, does it affect you?
Oh, yes! I love her work, especially the way she uses colour and fabrics, and how her work can be monumental and delicate at the same time. Unfortunately, I know them only from photos. I’d love to see them live. When I watch her works, I feel an affinity, they are very close to me, perhaps this feeling can already be described as an influence.
You have been to several artistic residences, what does creative work during such stay looks like?
Each residence has a different character depending on the place in which it is located and the company of other resident artists. So far, I have made residencies in places off the beaten track, outside the cities, close to nature. It always takes a while at the beginning to get a feel for the place before I sink into work.
For myself, I am creating new routines and habits. For me, the time at the residency is a break from everyday life, which is full of distractions and during such stay, I have the opportunity to be constantly in the creative process. There are also other advantages, like meetings, inspiring conversations, friendships are formed. By being in one place for two or four months you can focus on work.
I have read in interviews with you about your interest in typical, everyday materials. What are the greatest challenges of using them in creative work, what is the most demanding material?
Speaking of everyday materials, I mean those from which objects that surround us are made, or those that are present in interior design, for example, fabric, ceramics, steel, aluminium, plywood, wood. But I am not interested in all available materials, In my works, I use only those that inspire me. For several years I have been fascinated by fabrics, it is an incredibly rich world of textures and colours. Working with fabrics gives almost unlimited possibilities and is constantly inspiring. I use them as materials covering shapes or building spaces. Currently, I am starting a large project devoted to hand-woven fabrics made of natural fibres, which will create an exhibition for the Polish pavilion at the 3rd London Design Biennale. With this project, I feel that I am entering new, huge areas.
Your works are presented in different spaces with all of their strengths and weaknesses. Do you consider such things when you work on the concept of a new sculpture?
Some works are created for specific spaces and then I work holistically, thinking equally about the characteristics of the interior and the shapes of the sculpture. Sculpture and interior become one. Most often, however, the works are created in the studio and only when they are in the space of the gallery or other interior or exterior, I start a dialogue with space. In some cases the objects are so big that I cannot see them as a whole in the studio, only when the exhibition is assembled I can see them finished. Then it is the time to quickly decide how well to show the object in a given space. It is extremely important for me to create links between sculpture and space. And I am always interested in how one work can function in completely different interiors, creating new situations that I did not expect.
What happens to your works when the exhibition ends? These are not paintings, which are relatively easy to store.
Most of the works return to my studio, but since I have limited storage options, I try to make them as easy to disassemble into smaller parts as possible at the stage of creation. I have such a modular approach to sculptures. I learned this after graduating from the academy when I was changing the studio from time to time and I had to deal with the transport of the works myself.
The modern world is filled with disposable objects and materials with clearly marked expiration dates. How does awareness of the transience of an object’s or item’s life influence your work? 
I am very partial to objects, especially the older ones, those with history, and put a lot of effort in refraining myself from collecting them. I am drawn to objects that are handmade or machine-made and have served a long time, been passed from generation to generation. I like to watch objects in museums, look at their shapes and textures. At flea markets, on the other hand, I can freely touch old objects. I collect such impressions and then they influence my works, not necessarily in a direct way. I don’t mean to represent a particular object, but to recall the shape, memories of colour, touch. The mass scale and quantity of produced objects scare me, I try not to buy new objects or clothes at all. However with my work, admittedly, I contribute to the production of objects, but I think that my actions are very small in scale. I want to believe that these are not one-off activities, also in the sense of visual consumption. I think of my works as material shapes that can be returned to. I also happen to use fragments of older works in new projects. This is some kind of my own creative recycling. In general, I think of my works as inclined to contemplate shapes and materials, that act subtly and require to stop.
What advice would you give self-taught artists?
The creative process is constant learning. It is worth being open to what emerges from it and choose what you want to follow. Excitement and doubts are part of the creative process, it is worth accepting them because they are equally necessary. And seek a balance between absorbing inspiration and processing it.
What is your favourite colour?
I don’t have one favourite colour. Depending on the day and mood, I am attracted to different colours. Sometimes they are specific, basic colours, sometimes delicate half-tones of colours. But some colours rarely arouse my feelings, these are beige and violet.

If you have enjoyed reading my interview with Alicja Bielawska I would like to kindly ask you to share it or leave a thumb up at the bottom of this page. In case you have any feedback, questions or you are an artist willing to show up in How They See, you can connect with me on Instagram or just hit a reply back button in case you are a subscriber reading this text as an e-mail.
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