Teaching Sculpture to the Deaf-Blind

By Fox, Frank | The World and I, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Teaching Sculpture to the Deaf-Blind


Fox, Frank, The World and I


A Pioneer in Poland

Every May, sculptor Ryszard Stryjecki teaches clay sculpture to the deaf- blind in the village of Oronsko, Poland--and it is beginning to attract international attention.

The documentary begins with a scene of pastoral beauty. Stately trees frame a meadow filled with yellow wildflowers. Birds dart in and out. It is almost a picture postcard. Almost, because in the middle of the screen one sees two older men kneeling over a board piled high with red clay. The younger one, wearing a dark blue sun hat, grasps the arms of his gray-haired companion and with gestures that might seem grotesque holds him firmly by the elbows. In a series of jerky moves he joins hands with him overhead. They are conversing. Their linked fingers move in unison and separate, questions asked and answered. Guttural sounds are heard.

The man with the hat is Ryszard Stryjecki, a teacher of the deaf-blind at the Center of Polish Sculpture in Oronsko, seventy-five miles south of Warsaw. His companion is his student, sixty-year-old Stanislaw Koza, deaf-blind since the age of two. This is the language of the deaf-blind--communication by touching, by spelling letters on palms, by "speaking" in a way that is known and understood by the community of those for whom the sight of wildflowers or the sound of birds does not exist.

Stryjecki, who is not deaf-blind himself, places Koza's hands on the wet clay. The pupil begins to knead the clay firmly into a circle, a base for his sculpture. The fingers of both teacher and student are work-thickened and red- colored from the clay. A few seconds later, we see another deaf-blind student has joined Koza. It is Henryk Kowalczyk, also sixty, dark-haired, beetle-browed, deaf since he was four and blind from a beating he received thirty years later. Now both search out in each other's palms the advice given by the teacher. They are working on a joint project. Kowalczyk touches his forehead. It is a sign to himself. He understands.

I watched this scene while visiting the sculptor Stryjecki in his next-door neighbor's cramped apartment on the outskirts of Warsaw. I came to see a documentary of his work with deaf-blind students made by Polish television. We were in a grim, gray block of apartment houses Poles have inherited from the time of Soviet domination. The unfinished stucco gave the building an appearance of a silo rather than a habitable place, but once inside one felt as if in a cocoon, surrounded by the warmth and hospitality (and of course abundant food and drink) that Polish hosts are famous for. There were some antiques that had survived the war, as well as old family portraits and heirlooms. Books, many books, lined the walls. The apartment house seemed a metaphor for Stryjecki's work with the deaf and blind. The rough exterior offers no clue to the private life, the treasures within, that one shares with only a few.

There is another scene in the documentary when Kowalczyk is putting the finishing touches on a clay chapel almost large enough to hold a parishioner. He and Stryjecki hover over the clay building while standing on a landing of the studio stairwell, faces wreathed in smiles, arms and fingers intertwined over each other's head in an intricate twist, tapping each other's palms with staccato messages. The sculptor and his student are congratulating each other.

Bucolic Setting

The Center of Polish Sculpture is housed in a nineteenth-century villa that is the setting for not only sculpture collections and exhibits but facilities that enable the finest artists in Poland to come and work. It is also a place where fifteen deaf-blind children and adults from Poland and other European countries are invited every summer for what is known in Polish as a Plener (after the French plein air), an outdoor exhibit where students set up their work. The Polish word for the deaf-blind is gluchoniewidomych, a term that includes those who are hearing-and vision-impaired as well as those who are completely deaf and blind.

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