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ArtPrize Artist Profile: Irena Czumaj

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“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…” rings through classrooms across the country on the first bell of each school day. Most youngsters recite these words without a thought, eyes glazed over, waiting for the day's lesson to begin. Others sing every word strong and true, gazing proudly at the red white and blue. At baseball games, entire stadiums of fans rise to their feet and remove their caps as the anthem bellows through the bleachers. And at the end of a tour, as a fallen soldier is laid to rest, the flag for which he or she fought is folded over the casket. For each and every onlooker the American flag symbolizes something different, a personal interpretation, and ArtPrize contestant Irena Czumaj ( captures twelve of the hundreds of thousands of different interpretations with her art, “Flag Series.”

Irena Czumaj first saw the widely recognized flag on its original soil in 1954, when she was just three years old. Czumaj emigrated with her family from Belgium. “My parents wanted to be someplace they thought they had some choice.”  However the move was not an easy one to make. “My father was in a concentration camp at the time of World War II and my mother...was living close to where he was. He was in Germany.” Her father was a Polish soldier caught by the Germans, who placed him in a work camp. “They never really talked about it, all I know is that it affected them deeply.” And so America became their refuge and their home. “When they came, they were very excited that they could have a whole new life." The Czumaj’s first year in this country, however, was spent working on a farm for a family in Long Island who had payed for their airfare across the Atlantic. Their own American Dream was still in the works.

Her parents, working hard and hoping for acceptance in this new land, strongly encouraged their children to learn English. “By the time I was eight years old, I was no longer allowed to speak polish in the house. My father learned the language to make himself more employable.” Czumaj progressed through grade school speaking English and only English. A drastic change at such a young age, Irena now reflects on the way immigrants are pressured to modify their culture to satisfy America’s. “I don’t think they should give up their culture, but I think they have to learn to be part of ours - the American culture.”

With the American culture comes the American flag. Far and wide, the stars and stripes have been revered as a symbol of freedom and opportunity. For most, that is. Irena Czumaj has explored the changing interpretation of the flag. “When I was younger, it just seemed that there was so much more reverence held in the flag, it had more meaning to it. Now days, I find it more a marketing tool than anything else.” With the flag being printed on paper plates, napkins, t-shirts, bandanas, and iced onto cakes, the once illustrious star spangled banner now spends more time in the garbage than waving from flag poles. “It’s getting to the point where the flag could almost be invisible.”

What does the American flag mean today? What does it mean to be an American, chasing the American dream? “As long as you remember that in the end, we are responsible for our own dreams of that better life, and by obtaining our dreams we are not creating a negative impact on someone else,” says Irena.

When asked about when she became interested in art, Irena responds with a grin. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t.” The aspiring artist began college in 1969; however she dropped out to marry in 1972. In the years that followed, Irena gave birth to two lovely children, whom she helped support, and kept herself available to them by working jobs varying from subway manager to personal trainer to being a buyer for a fabric store. Finally, in 1989, Irena found time to complete her degree in Communication Design from the University of Illinois. However, after working for several firms as a graphic designer, she found the job not to her liking, “I wasn’t really that happy about it, because you can’t do your own work.” And for an artist, staying true to yourself is key.

Currently, Irena stays focused on her art. She lives with her husband in the Chicago area. Her mediums vary from acrylics  to house paints to metal to markers to rice. “Whatever I think is going to work,” says Irena of her art techniques.

She began work on her “Flag Series” in 2006. “I never meant it to be just happened. I wanted people to start questioning. Rethink our values, what we want [the flag] to say to other people, our children, other countries. How we want to be thought of.” The series includes 12 displays of the stars and stripes in various forms, meant to represent 12 different interpretations of the American flag. One is personal. Irena took a picture of herself, crouching, and painted a flag behind herself, an idea which was not preconceived. “You don’t know until you start creating as to where you’re going to go with it.” The series, however, is not actually displayed in its entirety.  Two pieces were left home, one due to its size, and another due to its content (a coffin, dripping with blood, meant to expose an ounce of the trauma Army families feel, “when their members die, their life dies.”)

Irena hopes to display the complete series in other public forums, where she also plans on adding on another piece she has yet to create. But so far, “I’m just trying to figure out how to do it,” she says with a smile.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”- to the thousands of soldiers who have given their lives these last seven years. To every neighbor who lends a hand to another. To the children who will one day grow to lead this nation, and therefore offer new meaning to the American flag. What does Irena hope to convey with her expressive and unique “Flag Series"?  “I’m hoping…to have them think of what is important to them…How they act toward each other, how they act toward their neighbor, because that all affects the reputation of the flag.” It is not merely the government, or the DOW or wars that we win that make up America. It is the people. “I want us to be considered good people, compassionate people, willing to work for the betterment of everyone. I don’t see why we can’t just all get along.”

Irena Czumaj’s “Flag Series” is on display at The Tavern on the Square on Ionia Ave.

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