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“I must turn the tragedy into some good for others.“
An Interview with Małgorzata Palka
In 2015 you published the book She Simply Disappeared. Who is the She in the book’s title?
It is my daughter, Justyna Palka, who was hit by a bus on May 3, 2011. She died as a result, at the age of 26. Two years before the accident Justyna graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BA in graphic design. Just starting her new career she was employed as the Artistic Director by Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s largest marketing firms.
Please, accept my deepest sympathy for your loss. With such tremendous pain in your heart, you have done a lot to commemorate your daughter —through publishing She Simply Disappeared, organizing exhibitions, and supporting grants. We will talk about these initiatives in a moment, but first please describe Justyna as a person.
Justyna was my youngest child. Growing up with her two older brothers, she kept up with their levels of knowledge and experience. “If you think I’m pretty cool, pampered, cheeky, hardworking, unique, outspoken, strong, stubborn,” she said, “it is because of them. I love my brothers more than they can imagine.” She was smart, energetic, and curious about the world. Firm in her decisions, she always kept her word. She was the soul of the party and had many friends. Anyone who met her would never forget her.
Please talk about Justyna as an artist.
Justyna was an artist by profession and heart. She planned her projects carefully and put a lot of work in them. She would stay awake the whole night to make sure that everything was done perfectly. She liked to experiment, striving for her own style. Her works often related to what she had experienced in life. For example, her chapbook about storks was inspired by a story she heard from me about storks I fed before she came into the world. In her beautifully designed booklet Justyna described the life of storks as migratory birds. She illustrated it with her own drawings.
For me Justyna’s most beautiful work is the sculpture L’amitié, which she created in high school. Through the arrangement of the bodies of its figures the sculpture represents friendship and emancipation. Justyna familiarized herself with the works of Albert Giacometti and decided to create something that would differ from Giacometti’s classical style. She wanted to show loneliness and isolation of a human being; to reduce the distance between people. The sculpture symbolizes a new, spontaneous generation striving for freedom and fullness of life.
Justyna strongly supported the emancipation of women and gender equality. Still at school, she created the project Breakhrough which she dedicated to her model, Tori Amos. Amos was a singer and the first spokesperson of the organization Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), established in 1994.
There are many designers in the world but, in a unique way, Justyna combined the skills of a graphic designer with artistry. She believed that even if a design does not change the way people think, it can make them ponder and ask questions. Justyna learned a lot from the masters but also tried to emulate them. My book She Simply Disappeared depicts Justyna’s artistic development, among other things.
The book has been published in three languages, English, Polish, and German. Why?
Justyna was fortunate enough to have lived in three different cultures. She was born in Poland, in Kraków, grew up in Dortmund, Germany, where she graduated from high school. Then she completed her post-secondary education in the USA, again, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Also in Chicago, she started her first job, at Ogilvy & Mather. The three language-versions of the book, Polish, German, and English, emphasize Justyna’s multiculturalism.
The first part of She Simply Disappeared, “The Tragic Accident,” tackles my memories and feelings towards Justyna, in a “stream-of-consciousness” style. The next part, “Carefree, Happy, And Creative Life” presents Justyna’s biography. The last part, “Our Memory Is Still Alive – Traces of Love,” talks about the first few years after Justyna’s demise. The narrative often takes the form of a conversation between my daughter and me.
How did you come up with the book’s title?
“She simply disappeared” is a quote from Justyna’s booklet Roundup. The booklet evokes the story of her great-grandmother Katarzyna (Catherine), who was kidnapped from one of the streets in Kraków during a Nazi roundup, during the Second World War. Justyna, too, “disappeared” from a street in Chicago, fatally hit by a bus driven by a drunk driver.
Any comments about the photo on the book’s cover?
The picture comes from Justyna’s collection of photos. It was taken shortly before her accident. She was preparing her website; creating her unique virtual personality. Justyna’s photographs are ingenious, sometimes humorous – for example, imitating prison files or showing Justyna wearing a fake mustache. She had a great sense of humor, even towards herself.
How did She Simply Disappeared emerge as a book?
After Justyna’s tragic death I viewed her belongings. It was a very painful experience. Whatever I touched, tears ran down my face. But I also became aware of the magnitude of information, ideas, and completed projects my daughter left behind. Her essays were deep and insightful; all chronologically arranged in folders. I read Justyna’s thoughts with great interest and decided to share them with the world. I believed they could help other people in their quest for their unique way of life. I wanted to save from oblivion Justyna’s projects – those created in school and those prepared for family and friends. I believe I have succeeded. According to Joanna Grodzka She Simply Disappeared is “an invitation to a meeting with a beautiful human being.” Overall, the book is a collection of memories—mine, the family’s, and Justyna’s many friends. The volume’s layout is beautiful. We wanted to do everything as perfectly, as Justyna would have done it – in order to honor her. Many people helped in preparing the book, and I am extremely grateful to all of them. Maria Zakrzewska, the book’s editor, helped to create the fabulous text. She beautifully described Justyna’s projects prepared for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Joanna Grodzka, who had read the book prior to its publication, provided invaluable linguistic revisions and offered expert comments about the form. Dr. Ewa Basiura translated the book into English and brought a number of corrections as well. Gail Patajunas and Lydia Pudzianowski proofread the English version. Together with Karen Smith, they also revised the descriptions of Justyna’s professional achievements. Maria Glaslaub translated the book into German, whereas Fabian Hörsken proofread the German edition. Juliane Galla designed the volume’s impressive graphics. I cannot omit the German advertising agency Drei Elemente, which helped me to plan and organize properly my work on the book. I also wish to thank all the friends and family, whose statements we used in the narrative. Finally, I would like to emphasize the beauty of the poetry by the Polish-American poets Lidia Rozmus, Joanna Radwanska-Williams, and Joanna Kurowska. Their poems introduce individual chapters.
It is known that all the sales from the book go to the Justyna Palka Memorial Scholarship Fundat the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How did this grant emerge? What is its purpose?
Justyna Palka Memorial Scholarship was founded posthumously by the firm Ogilvy & Mather, as a tribute to Justyna’s talent and commitment. The profits from the sales of the book, as well as the income from the products modeled on Justyna’s projects, supply the scholarship. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago conducts the administration of the foundation. Its purpose is to award annually the best student in the Department of Visual Communication. The winner is selected from a group of nominees. He or she must be an outstanding designer and know how to manage time properly and communicate with people. The scholarship provides new opportunities and challenges; it helps the winner to launch a good career. It is a great distinction.
You have prepared several exhibitions and events about Justyna. Please talk about them.
Yes, I organized a few exhibitions to honor my daughter. I wanted to let the world know who Justyna was and what kind of impact she had on the people around her; also to show her accomplishments and make them remembered.
I prepared an artistic program, in which Irada Zeinalowa danced Justyna’s life, with Raul Di Blasio’s “Corazón de Niño” (Heart of a Child) as the musical background. Justyna’s brother, Thomas, wrote and recited his poem “Deadline,” which was inspired by Justyna’s last school project.
Two exhibitions were held in 2015 – the first on February 15, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago – Justyna’s Alma Mater, hence the place with which she was particularly connected. The next exhibition took place on September 9, in Westfalen Hall, in Dortmund, Germany, where Justyna grew up. On June 16, 2016, we had an exhibition in Wrocław – last year’s Cultural Centre of Europe – in Poland. That event took place in the stylish Barbara Gallery, at the Świdnica Crossing. The last exhibition was held on September 7 in Nowa Huta Cultural Centre in Kraków – Justyna’s city of birth.
During those exhibitions I presented my book and Justyna’s projects which we had developed and designated for sale. The events attracted wide interest. After hearing excerpts from the book many guests talked to me and shared their impressions. They were amazed to witness such a way of honoring the memory of a daughter-artist – a wonderful young woman, who even after her death continues to inspire people. They were deeply moved by Justyna’s thoughts and words, and by my love for her, which I try to express in beautiful words and actions.
Which of those events were most memorable—and why?
All those events, without exception, made a great impression on the visitors. For me they provided opportunities to meet with many wonderful people. Professor Krivanek of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago recounted, tears in his eyes, Justyna’s successes at school. Susan Hanes, the President of Chicago Caxton Club, together with the entire Council of the world’s oldest book club, inspired by Justyna’s talent, unanimously founded a special grant for a student of Visual Communications at SAIC.
Jack Rooney, the CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, told me that the company is proud to continue the tradition of rewarding outstanding students at SAIC with a scholarship in Justyna’s name. Jessica Łodziński, who has completed her degree in journalism at the University of Loyola in Chicago, chose for the topic of her thesis my immigration to the United States, and Justyna’s story. Very special was for me the program Masters of Life – About the Fullness of Life And the Art of Accompanying, prepared and conducted by Dr. Agnieszka Janiak, expert in Communication and Thanatology at the University of Lower Silesia in Wrocław.
In spite of the pain of loss I learned to appreciate how much good my daughter left behind. I felt that I must turn the tragedy into something that would bring good to other people. I miss Justyna very much but I am very proud of her.
As the title of your book emphasizes, Justyna is gone—but there are the many wonderful energies, thoughts, and projects she has left for us. All that keeps her somewhat present among those, who remained. Would you like to add anything else about this legacy?
Ironically, the book’s title contradicts its content. SHE lives not only in our memory but also as an inspiration for a brave and creative life. Justyna is still with us – in our thoughts, words, and activities. We try to continue her choices and remember things about which she was passionate. Many friends sent me letters describing the impact Justyna had on their lives. I received numerous gifts modeled on Justyna’s projects. Those experiences move me very deeply and motivate for further action.
What are your plans regarding Justyna’s art—and memory?
We, Justyna’s family, would like to create more products modeled on her projects. We look for new ideas and solutions that would best correspond to the time and situation. Among other things, Justyna designed a well-thought project titled Deadline, focusing on the dynamics of time pressure. According to Professor Krivanek, in this project Justyna “considered the relationship of various primal factors – psychological, physical, societal, internal, external, positive, negative – and, at some point, had mapped them into a traffic system as a metaphor, to suggest the experience of deadline pressure as a form of navigation where the symbolic driver has many choices and experiences en route to a destination, which can be re-experienced in cycles.” Another idea of Justyna’s tackles the urgent topic, Bullying. The essence of the crime is a perpetrator taking the advantage of someone who cannot fight back. We meet with aggression every day, especially towards children. In her project, Justyna tries to give the victims courage, teach them how to defend themselves.
Our goal is to increase the pool of Justyna Palka Memorial Scholarship Fund, in order to keep supporting talented young people; to help them achieve their academic and professional dreams.
Any final comments? Perhaps a message to the readers of She Simply Disappeared?
My job was first to celebrate my daughter as a person and artist. To me working on the book was also a form of self-therapy. It helped me to survive this terrible tragedy. Writing, I talked daily with Justyna; sought her advice on various issues; answered my own questions. I am proud of the effect. The many positive comments and reviews the book has received give me a great joy.
Some have read the book more than once. They were so moved that they needed more time to sort out all the thoughts and feelings. The readers may want to reflect on such things as beauty, goodness, youth, joy, and empathy; and consider how difficult it is to meet a person, who would enrich other people’s lives. I hope the book will help the readers to think more deeply about what really matters in life. I recommend it to teenagers, grown-ups, loners, and family members – everyone can find something appealing in this book.
As a mother I want to save my daughter’s heart from oblivion, as in the poem by Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, in Marek Grechuta’s beautiful rendition as a song:
Oczy twe jak piękne świece,
a w sercu źródło promienia,
więc ja chciałbym twoje serce
ocalić od zapomnienia.*
Where can the readers find more information about your book and initiatives?
Please, visit the following websites:
*The rough translation of this excerpt runs as follows: Your eyes are like beautiful candles / the source of their light in the heart; / so I would like to save your heart / from oblivion.
January 22, 2017
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