Jan Sawka, Artist

Rex Grantee’s Daughter Continues His ‘Voyage’


We’ve all got our tales of the first time we heard the Grateful Dead. Few of them, however, are as notable as that of Polish artist Jan Sawka, who, imprisoned in a military camp for his protest activities, heard their 1969 Woodstock set live with his fellow inmates, on a radio they’d tuned to Radio Luxembourg.

Grateful Dead with Jan Sawka's banners, Greek Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by Susana Millman

Grateful Dead with Jan Sawka’s banners, Greek Theatre, Berkeley. Photo by Susana Millman

Years later, after the regime exiled him in 1976, he brought his family to the US and continued his career. There he would eventually connect with the band, and come up with a solution to a problem that bothered Jerry Garcia more and more: Now that the band’s popularity forced them to play stadiums, how could they make that environment a bit more appealing? Sawka created a collection of colorful banners that served as a memorable backdrop for the band’s 25th anniversary shows.

A bit later, as many countries formerly under Soviet domination gained their freedom, the 1992 World Exposition was to take place in Seville. Poland, participating for the first time as an autonomous nation, invited Sawka to present his installation “My Europe” — but had no money to bring it to Seville. Just as one Rex grant helped get the Lithuanian basketball team to its bronze medal in Europe that year, another got “My Europe”  to the Expo. (Image from “My Europe” below.)

Banner from Jan Sawka's My Europe

“Awakenings,” Jan Sawka, acrylic and pastel on loose canvas, 144″ x 90″, 1991-92

At the time of his death on August 9, 2012, Sawka was working on a large multimedia project called “The Voyage,” with music by the Mickey Hart Band. “The project originated during conversations between Jan Sawka and Jerry Garcia, during the creation and installation of the 25th anniversary tour set,” explains the artist’s daughter and curator, Hanna Sawka. “’The Voyage’ is a rich, visual and artistic trip through the spectrum of being human, from the most beautiful aspects, to the most dark. It is a visionary piece, one that can open portals of perception in and of itself.”

The final work will be 90 minutes long, consisting of 1,202 original, hand-painted artworks animated to music, intended to fill the audience’s field of vision as it’s projected on a large surface. In 2003, a pilot won the Premio di Lorenzo Il Magnifico Gold Medal in Multimedia at the 4th International Biennial of Contemporary Art in Florence.

“The Voyage” is now in pre-production, says Hanna Sawka, who’s launched an indiegogo campaign for the first stage of completing the project: “While all artistic elements exist, the projections need to be processed and edited into performance-ready form,” she says. If you’d like to be part of the journey, find out more here.