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Artist Dave Motak's 'Polish thing' takes him to Asia

| Monday, Feb. 6, 2012

Dave Motak started working on an art form he and some colleagues called "that Polish thing" as an experiment in 2003, and it has turned into "a completely new career."

That career has taken him to art galleries in New York City, national embassies and consulates and, a few months ago, to a show in Hong Kong.

"He is a modern classic," says Jay Saykiewicz, honorary Polish consul in Pittsburgh and a professor of business at Duquesne University. "He has passion for what he does, and he does it well."

Motak, of Bethel Park, makes artwork known as szopka (pronounced shop-kah ), which originated as an ornamental setting for morality plays as well as patriotic and legendary figures.

He is the communications director for the Polish Falcons and the editor of that ethnic group's magazine, but he, perhaps, is best known as an artist who is commissioned to make szopki (plural, pronounced: shop-key ) and lead workshops on their creation.

Angela Seals is program manager of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side, where Motak offered workshops in 2008 and '09. She calls Motak "one of the jewels of the Pittsburgh arts scene" and is particularly pleased about how his programs "engage" adults and children at the same time.

Motak also points proudly at how szopka-building can draw joint enthusiasm from boys and girls.

"Boys love putting them together and girls love decorating them," he says.

Motak even is investigating the possibilities of marketing the small szopka packages he uses in some of the workshops.

But the szopki he builds are anything but simple. The table in his workshop is loaded with small, cardboard-like pieces that fit together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The szopka commissioned for the Hong Kong fair took 300 hours to bulld, he says.

"This has me busy in so many ways, I'm reaching the point where one of my biggest goals is: Finding Time for Dave," he says.

Szopki began in the 18th century in the Kracow region of Poland and depicted famous castles and churches in that area. They also did what Motak does today: mix cultural, folk and religious images.

Saykiewicz describes how original szopki would mix images of saints with those of folk characters or national heroes.

In the szopka Motak created for the Hong Kong show, he used an image of a famous tower in that city as the model's centerpiece. It has three working clocks in the top and, at the bottom, a dragon emerging from an open doorway.

"That has a very Asian appearance," he says, "but there also is a great legend of a dragon in Kracow."

Saykiewicz points to that mix of elements as one of the techniques Motak "does very well."

The Polish consul says szopka-making originated in the Kracow region because the soil there is not good for farming, so residents found other ways of supporting themselves. They became builders and carpenters as well as taking to other trades.

When cold months came, the tradesmen started building elaborate stages that could be used for street theater taking place all over the nation.

Motak believes those "blue collar" roots make szopki a good fit for Western Pennsylvania.

Motak, of Polish lineage, knew about szopki when he was growing up in Cambria County, but was not involved in building them. He says, though, he was a fan of building plastic models, so developed some craft skills.

He also developed a sense of his culture. He studied at Alliance College in Crawford County, a school founded by the Polish National Alliance, and did some work at a school in Poland.

He was serving as executive director of the Sweetwater Arts Center in Sewickley in 2003 when the idea of making szopki emerged as a cultural-arts program.

"It just sort of took off," he says, "We started doing workshops, and that led to calls for more in other places."

With grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the state Humanities Council, the creation of szopki and teaching how to build them grew into what he calls the Pittsburgh Szopka Project.

Since then, he has traveled to Poland eight times to meet other builders and trade secrets such as how to animate figures through the use of small motors. He has been part of the annual szopka competition in Kracow, been commissioned to create szopki for galleries in New York City and Louisiana, and received the National Cultural Achievement Award from the American Council on Polish Culture.

Szopka-making has found its way into the 21st century.

Motak believes his blending of elements -- so well regarded by Saykiewicz -- is one of the strongest sides of his work.

"So many szopka makers use the same styles over and over," he says. "I like to use the broad range of time."

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