Artist, activist, adventurer: A Pole apart
February 11, 2004
All he wanted was to be an artist. From the beginning, he was immersed in art. Janusz Obst was born in Zamosc, Poland, a city built by a Renaissance artist and architect in the 15th century.
“It was his backdrop,” said Obst’s wife, Margaret Sadowska.
On a rainy day in Glenwood Springs, the gray liquid light shines wanly through the picture window as Janusz, 56, tells his story.
He enrolled in one of Europe’s premier art institutes, a traditional school that gives students a firm grounding in classic arts, literature, music, theater and art history.
Obst learned sculpture as a craft and artistic expression.
“To graduate you had to be an excellent stoneworker,” he said.
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After completing his course of study, Obst had to be accepted in the artists’ union, somewhat like the guilds of the Middle Ages.
Once in the union, young artists worked their way up from apprentice to journeyman to master. Eventually they could accept art commissions as full-fledged professionals.
“The union was responsible for the quality of work,” he said, so it was necessarily selective and rigorous.
Obst appeared to be on a straightforward trajectory. But in the Poland of the the 1960s, all Polish men, upon completion of their schooling, had to serve two years in the military. At the time, Poland was under the dark shadow of the Soviet Union, controlled and governed directly by Moscow.
Obst was drafted into the Polish Navy. He served for three years.
Coming out of the military, all Obst wanted was be accepted into the artists union and begin his true work. But he was refused.
“They didn’t want me and nobody told me why,” he said. It must have been political influence, he reasoned.
Meanwhile his anger was growing against the unseen forces that thwarted his desire to be an artist. He became deeply involved in the underground movement.
Using the only other skills he had, he applied for and was accepted in the Merchant Marine.
“My childhood dreams collapsed,” he said.
Then began a curious odyssey that took him all over the world. Because of his skills as a specially trained soldier, he became part of a Soviet partnership with UNICEF.
He worked in China, Pakistan, Vietnam, Lebanon and Chad, rescuing children from war zones and taking them safely to refugee camps.
Back in Poland in 1973, Obst tried again for the artists’ union. During his time with UNICEF he also managed to produce sculpture and mount a few exhibits, which made his reputation.
He also continued his involvement with the underground movement that grew to be known as Solidarity.
In 1974, he married and his first son was born. Change was afoot in Poland.
Although the government promised economic prosperity, fruits of the factories went directly to the Soviet Union, Obst said. Pressure was building to overthrow the regime.
Meanwhile, Obst was accepted into the union and joined the crew rebuilding the royal palace in Warsaw, which was leveled by bombing during World War II. Obst led a team of 63 sculptors who recreated, down to the finest detail, all the original classic sculptures in the palace.
Life now began to move in a good direction for Obst.
He settled into his work and pursued another passion, mountain climbing. He said during his time in China he climbed Mount Everest from the Tibet side, the classic North Face route. He attempted the peak two more times, once again from China and once from Nepal, but failed to reach the summit because of weather and illness.
As the ’70s drew to a close political unrest in Poland reached a boiling point.
“We were a country at permanent war. It’s a different way of thinking,” he said.
“People pulled together,” said Sadowska, who has her own memories of Poland. “They laughed and cried together and raised their kids together.”
And people made do with what they had.
“I can fix anything with a nail file,” she laughed.
In August 1980, Solidarity staged a general strike. The communist government eventually toppled and a duly elected government took its place.
Obst continued to prosper. He received commissions from the union and formed a group of sculptors, architects and contractors who specialized in building churches. In 10 years, his company constructed 12 churches, he said.
By 1991, Obst was divorced, and he decided to move to America. Although the new Polish government was much more amenable, a decision to grant amnesty to the leaders of the communist regime was the last straw for Obst.
But leaving his country “tore my heart out,” he said.
He landed in New York.
There, a mutual friend introduced him and Sadowska.
Now 43, she had emigrated to the United States at 25, with a keen curiosity to see the world, and particularly the Rocky Mountains. They continued living in New York, where Sadowska earned credentials from the Swedish Institute of Massage Therapy. In 1996, they moved to the valley they found “by accident” the year before.
A six-month stay in Redstone led to a permanent home in Glenwood Springs. In addition to the beautiful surroundings, the couple could see the valley fostered a large group of artists. It felt like home.
Since 1996, the beginning of their life in Glenwood, Obst has made his mark creating commissioned art for upscale homes in the valley. He continues to create his own work in sculpted stone and oil painting.
Obst was also recently chosen to head up a team of sculptors trying to win the commission of a lifetime: rebuilding of a significant portion of the Tomb of the Unknowns in Washington D.C. The work would be done from marble quarried from the Yule Quarry in Marble.
For now, Obst continues to pursue his heart’s work, his art, and with Sadowska, the raising of their two children, Adam 11, and Natalie, 17.
Contact Donna Daniels: 945-8515, ext. 520