There comes a point in nearly every man’s life when he sees his parents in a whole new light. For me, it’s come in the last six years since my dad had heart surgery, stunning his family, who had always seen him as a thin and healthy doctor. But once the emergency operation happened, he had to quit his job at a Veterans Administration hospital and find a new way to occupy his time.
My dad had always seemed a restless man, having emigrated from Poland in 1969 to America, where he took advantage of his newfound freedom — unshackled from a communist dictatorship and early years dealing with the Nazis — by writing opinion letters to newspapers as often as possible. An incredibly hard worker, he strove to make our lives better while passionately caring for his patients and speaking out against policies of his hospital he felt were wrong.
But we didn’t seem to have a whole lot in common at times on a personal level. We not only had to deal with a generation gap, but a pretty big cultural one as well. I’ve been obsessed with comedy and getting into the comedy biz for as long as I can remember, and he often didn’t understand the nuances of what was funny in a different country. He was far more serious-minded and scientific as well.
Neither he nor anyone else in the family could have ever predicted that dad would become an artist. As he recovered, my mom finally told him to try painting as therapy, as a means of keeping himself busy with a new hobby and of taking his mind off the frustrations of early retirement. Little did we realize that he’d become so good at it, he would win a statewide contest and have his art displayed in the official chambers of the Arkansas State Senate.
And thanks to his new Web site, www.oilsbykoz.com, Dr. Ludwik Kozlowski is starting to sell a lot too.
“All my life I liked visiting art galleries, even in Poland, and had exposure to great old Polish architecture and loved the Polish folk art,” he said. “I felt that life during and after the war was difficult but the landscapes and museums had a positive influence on my mind and made me realize life is worth living despite the hardships. But though my father painted a little bit in his spare time, I never knew I could do it.
“Sometimes, you just don’t know until you try; it’s unbelievable. Now it’s good for me, really uplifting, and a great diversion and escape because when you’re retired you have to do something.”
Dad stumbled into his style, which has been described alternately as unique or impressionistic, because he chose to dab at his painting like dots rather than risk smearing paints with broad strokes. He’s proud of the comparisons, since his favorite artists are Monet and Van Gogh. His art, which often depicts the lush landscapes and classic architecture of his homeland, but with extravagant color schemes, hangs at galleries throughout my hometown of Little Rock as well as in Hot Springs and Memphis, and he’s thinking about conquering the LA art world next.
He tries to paint two days a week and has become very fast at finishing a canvas. In fact, he finished his first-class painting in an hour. Now that he’s painting more complex works, he can start a sketch in the morning and finish painting 12 hours later. A simpler piece can be finished in five hours, but when he reaches beyond landscapes and buildings to make portraits related to his devout Catholicism, he can take a lot longer.
“It took me seven months to finish a portrait of John Paul II, correcting it off and on to get the color just right in his face and skin,” he recalls. “I also made several portraits of Christ after ‘The Passion’ came out, and when I saw a photo of Mother Teresa in a photo in the paper and I challenged myself to get all her wrinkles, and when it was finally done I couldn’t believe it myself. I sold it the day after I finished.”
He donates some of his paintings to charity auctions, but even when he sells paintings, my dad donates all his net profits to various charities. He also has the advantage of having friends all over Europe, so his work hangs privately in homes not only in Poland but in Germany and the Czech Republic as well.
“Personally, I don’t feel old; I feel 20 years old. It would be fun to be called Grandpa Moses,” he says, referring to famed painter Grandma Moses, who also started painting late in life. “I do feel that this is a country of opportunity, and I went from working minimum-wage jobs while relearning medicine here to becoming a doctor and having a good life. You just have to work on it yourself.”
Dad learned a lot about life the hard way, having been born one year before the Nazis invaded Poland and World War II erupted. He recalls his mother telling him the experience of that invasion was unbelievably harrowing, as people fled from Hitler’s evil forces, leaving even their pets behind. His parents managed to escape with just their five children, losing all their possessions in the process.
Even though the war ended in 1945 when he was 7, he still had to grow up under the thumb of another evil superpower when Poland was handed off to the former Soviet Union. Yet, even amid what he describes as a gloomy society, he noted that the will to find happiness never died amid the Poles.
“You stayed in line for everything, waiting five hours for a loaf of bread before waiting for eggs in another store, and even then you were stuck with bread soup some nights because the meat supplies were sent on to Russia,” he recalls.
“But we didn’t complain about it because everyone was in the same situation, and we had the best jokes about it. You always had your friends and culture to stand by you, and because the apartments were so overcrowded, everyone would crowd the cafes, making one cup of coffee stretch through six hours of conversation.”
Even then, he recalls living in constant fear of being spied upon amid the dictatorship and having to wonder whether each new friend was a contact for the government. On every corner stood a policeman in uniform and outside any window there was the threat of a secret policeman, ever threatening to adversely affect your life and career.
Dad went through medical school in Poland, met and married my American-born mom when she was visiting relatives in 1967 and finally beat his way through two years of red tape after she returned to the United States, finally arriving in America in 1969. Though he had been in specialty training in Poland, he had to start virtually from scratch in his medical program in the US because his English was poor.
“I was nothing in the beginning, but with very hard work and discipline, you can make a good living in America,” he says. “No one was catering to my poor English, and I had to do my best to make it. My father knew a number of languages, though, and he said try to memorize ten new words every day. By the end of the week, I’d have 70 words and at the end of the month, 300.”
With that positive attitude and drive, I’ve finally come to a pretty great understanding with him since we’re both in the arts now. We both have something pretty strong in common after all: a desire to express ourselves creatively that can’t be quenched.
“I used to wonder how to know if I can be satisfied with a painting, but when you look at a canvas and it makes you feel good, then you’ve created a good piece,” he says. “You don’t have to ask anyone else’s opinion.
“The more you do, the better you get at it. You just have to keep working on it.”