Written by Saskia Solomon
“They were almost completely forgotten about in Poland,” Karolina Merska said.
An artist based in London, Merska refers to pajaki, the craft often regarded as the preserve of older women in the countryside of Poland, where she is from. In an age of instant gratification, some attribute the art form’s slow demise to its time-consuming processes.
Pajaki (pronounced pah-yonk-ee), the Polish word for spider, are decorative folk mobiles comparable in shape to chandeliers, typically suspended from ceilings in striking webs of rye straw and paper. Known for their vivid colors — magenta, lime, turquoise — the mobiles were historically used to brighten up homes during the dark winter months. But while variations of these lattice designs have been featured in homes throughout Poland since the 18th century — used as tokens of health and happiness, as well as gifts and decorations for weddings and Christenings — pajaki were, by the mid-2010s, fading rapidly from cultural memory. Merska now makes and sells pajaki for about $600 each and has been running pajaki workshops from her art studio in East London for the past five years.
“Everything changes. People advanced and time moved on — they want the newest thing,” explained Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, author of “Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore.” “In the open-air folk museums, pajaki had even begun to gather dust, because nobody was interested in them.”
It was in such a museum, in Merska’s home city of Lublin, that she saw her first pajaki when she was 18. She was immediately drawn by their vibrancy and by the sense that “all this knowledge was passed for generations within families.”
The practice of making pajaki grew out of the tradition of hanging the tip of an evergreen tree upside down from the middle of the ceiling, according to Hodorowicz Knab. Along with placing “sheaves of wheat and rye in the corners of their cottages, this was supposed to symbolize that next year would be fertile. It was about honoring the earth, the land and the products of the land,” she said. Also, “people were copying chandeliers, making their own version with the materials that were available to them. It was a way of decorating their cottages.”
Merska credits pajaki with more than just her discovery of a delicate disappearing craft. She grew up in a city, the child of a doctor and a beautician, and had very little contact with traditional folk art.
“I was always jealous of other people who had knowledge of crafts,” she said. Merska attributes her interest in design to her grandmother, who moonlighted as a fashion designer and made many of the family’s clothes, for sparking her interest in design.
It is partly why, after high school, Merska went on to study art history at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków where she developed an interest in the ethnography of Polish folk art and became fascinated “in the craft of self-taught artists — the type of art you don’t often find in galleries,” she said.
Merska relocated to London in 2007, a move prompted by an interest in the city’s multicultural creative scene, and worked a series of odd jobs, from monitoring exhibition rooms at galleries to stints as a barista and bartender, but she was looking for a creative outlet.
“I always had this need to present my heritage to the London scene,” Merska said. It was here that she considered making her own pajaki. “Sometimes some objects stay in your mind.”
She set about learning to make her own. With very little information available, it took trial and error, hours of experimenting with different shapes, forms and colors. “I made them in my bedroom, which became difficult as soon as both my floor and bed were a mess of tissue paper and string,” she said.
There were no classes to take or online instructions to follow, so she studied photographs and tried to re-create them using her imagination. Visiting her parents back home, she pilfered some rye straw from a neighbor’s field, leftover from their harvest. Her first attempt was a complete failure. “When I lifted it up, it folded back into itself. I didn’t build the middle structure well enough,” she said.
Pajaki quickly became the common thread in her work, tying her longtime interest in folk art with her desire to promote her Polish heritage. She spent time traveling to different Polish villages to meet artists, some of whom had experience making pajaki, and they imparted their knowledge and tricks. Learning to make pajaki has been a journey for Merska, and with each creation, she has improved. One of the first she made still hangs in her studio — a piece that is more rudimentary in style compared to her most recent creations.
Given their symmetry, “the basic materials are important to get right,” she said. Each summer, Merska stocks up on rye straw during trips to Poland, elegant sheaves of which stand propped in the corner of her studio. “People always kept a sheaf of straw after the harvest,” Merska said. “It protected the house from demons, thunderstorms and lightning, even fires. It was also thought to bring a good crop the following year.”
The straw has always been a part of pajaki, but their colors were a later addition, as the dyes were not readily available. When colors were needed, “traditionally these would have been dyed with vegetables, such as beetroot or potato,” she said. While gloriously brash, pajaki can also be made demure, using more autumnal shades, or even spectral textures, by restricting the palette to shades of white and gray. These days, though, the rudiments of the craft are tethered to tradition and there is room in the design for thematic interpretation — seashells, beads, dried beans and peas, flowers and ribbons can be used to embellish copper tubes in lieu of the paper kalinka.
The pajaki workshop she runs is a meditative experience and not one that can be rushed. Even the simplest pajaki takes at least six hours to make (Merska offers a two-day course, three hours each day).
“People are very surprised by how long it takes,” she said. “You have to pre-cut the straw, then the paper discs for all the pom-poms. It’s not difficult, but it needs a lot of patience and a lot of time. My workshops have a very therapeutic effect on people: folding paper, cutting straw — it really gives this extra moment of calm.
But far from a concentrated silence, Merska finds her participants often want to offload. “We talk, sometimes we share quite private things. It’s reminiscent of the past when old women would meet up in someone’s house and make pajaki for Christmas or Easter.”
The growing interest has largely been generated by word of mouth and through Instagram. Some participants travel more than an hour across the city to attend the workshop, while one woman recently flew from Switzerland specifically to learn the art of pajaki.
Though the classes usually take place in Merska’s studio, they are sometimes held in Folka, the store she founded in Stoke Newington, East London, in 2019 to showcase the variety and scope of Polish folk art (“folka” is a portmanteau of “polka,” meaning “polish girl” and “folk”). The store specializes in Polish prints, ceramics, textiles, glassware, religious iconography and jewelry as well as one-of-a-kind Polish art, with Merska’s own pajaki hanging from the ceiling.
“When people visit my shop, many think it’s Mexican folk art,” she said. “It’s very interesting to me that such distinct cultures that are so far away from each other can look so similar.”
Bolstered by a desire to keep this art form alive, Merska has written a book in English on the craft “so that people can make them all around the world,” she said. Published last spring by Pavilion, “Making Mobiles” remains one of the only known books on the practice and has recently been translated into German.
“My idea was not for this to only be for Polish people living in London, but to be a kind of collaboration between cultures,” she said.
Making pajaki has also had an unintended personal effect: Merska feels more at home in a famously difficult city to “crack” as an outsider. “I’m a foreigner here, so I’m trying to find my place in London,” she said. “Having this shop, and making pajaki — I think I’ve found my place.”
(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)