Art as Activism: Basia Jaworska Paints Modern-Day Heroes

Basia Jaworska in her studio. —Tova Katzman
Capturing ordinary people who do extraordinary things.

There’s nothing subtle about the work of artist Basia Jaworska. She creates poster-size paintings — larger-than-life portraits in vibrant colors, paired with words or other bold images demanding a viewer’s attention — statement art that’s also visually appealing. Ms. Jaworska clearly has something to say about the people who populate her artistic world.

“I want to spotlight people who are doing something important,” she said in an interview at her Vineyard Haven home and studio. “These are all heroes to me.”

And worthy heroes they are. Looking among the collection of portraits propped up in various states of completion around Ms. Jaworska’s studio, one is met variously by the confident gaze of environmental activist Erin Brockovich, the thoughtful and intelligent mien of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the challenging glare of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, and the almost saintly quality of Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Prizewinning Pakistani children and women’s rights activist.

acrylic on canvas 29.5 x 41.5 inches

acrylic on canvas 29.5 x 41.5 inches

Some of the subjects are well-known, others less so. The remaining portraits in the series include those of Liberian women’s peace movement leader Leymah Gbowee, members of the Russian feminist punk-rock protest group Pussy Riot, and John Trudell, author, poet, and musician and Native American spokesman.
It’s powerful to be confronted by these modern-day heroes. And the bold look that Ms. Jaworska favors contributes to the impact.

Her style could best be described as outsider art, although the French term “art brut,” or raw art, is perhaps more appropriately descriptive. Ms. Jaworska’s subjects are depicted in varying degrees of complexity, posed against striking, almost abstract and sometimes allegorical painted backdrops.

Although there’s a primitive quality to her work — the artist paints the backgrounds and peripheral elements in an intentionally unsophisticated style — the composition and color combinations are clearly the work of a skilled artist. In each portrait, the face, the essence of the work, is rendered with loving care: multiple layers of color building up realistic skin tones, shading and features expertly yet simply rendered.

And those gazes — whether compassionate, confrontational, proud, sly, or otherwise — in each case, the personality of her subject shines through. It’s clear that Ms. Jaworska has connected with her subjects on a visceral level. “I choose to paint what moves me,” she writes in the artist’s statement on her website. “The choice to capture my subject’s elusive spirit begins at the painting’s conception. As I work, music sets the tone and rhythm of the encounter. We wrestle, play, and move together, making an indelible connection. Evidence of our soul dance is the painting, be it on canvas, paper, fabric, or wood.” Although these words were written specifically in reference to a series of blues, jazz, and roots musicians that kicked off her career as an artist, the sentiment holds true for her more recent work.

Examining the collection of fully and partially finished portraits in her small studio, Ms. Jaworska speaks of them with a combination of awe and intimacy: “I have to fall in love with each one to do it. I love each one as I’m working on it.” Each work evolves from a basic general idea as the artist works from the first basic steps to the final details.

“I first start with placing the faces,” she says. “I want to capture them — their look. I have to get a look first. What look represents the part of the subject that I want to highlight?

“I use charcoal to very lightly lay down the composition. It starts out just all form and the basic features. Then I work it. I try to decide on the context and how to evoke a message.”

Sometimes the message comes across through choice of color or technique, as in the portrait of Yousafzai, whose calm, ethereal demeanor contrasts sharply with the turbulent swirls of primary colors.

In other cases, Ms. Jaworska has included visual clues to help tell the story — an American flag with eyes in place of stars draped behind Snowden’s image represents the government surveillance programs which he helped expose by leaking classified information. Ai Weiwei is posed in front of the Chinese flag, middle finger raised in defiance of the government that he has spent a lifetime challenging.

Ms. Jaworska plans to complete at least 10 images in the series. She would like to get some public exposure by showing her work through Amnesty International or a similar organization. “I’m using my art as my sort of activism, raising awareness, my contribution to the cause of human rights. I’ve always had a sense of righting wrong. I’ve always stood up for the underdog. I don’t like to see vulnerable people being pushed around.”

This ethos is firmly implanted in Ms. Jaworska’s DNA. Both of her Polish immigrant parents were freedom fighters
during WW II. Her mother was a resistance fighter in the home army that created the Warsaw uprising. Her father got involved with the resistance as a young boy growing up northeastern Poland. His father was eventually arrested and executed by the Soviets, while the rest of the family — Mr. Jaworski (her father’s name ends in “i” because Polish surnames are gender-sensitive), his mother, and two sisters — were deported to Siberia. He left his family behind to serve in the second Polish corps, fighting the Nazis along with the British army in Italy. The rest of the family remained in Siberia for another decade before escaping and relocating.

Ms. Jaworska’s parents met in England, where they were both political refugees. They eventually emigrated to the U.S. and raised four children.

It’s a story of survival and determination. Ms. Jaworska is currently collaborating with a friend on a screenplay based on the stories of her parents and, as she puts it, “other under-told stories during wartime.”
Ms. Jaworska grew up in a Polish-American community in New Jersey. She has remained close to both of her parents, bringing them out to Northern California at one point to live and work on her tree farm, and then eventually moving them to the Vineyard. She helped her father record his memories from the war, and also urged him to start painting as a way to further tell his story.

“My father always said there’s nothing so bad that good can’t come out of it,” says Ms. Jaworska. “That’s been sort of a theme to my work. I try to reflect that in my choices of subjects. What inspires ordinary people to do extraordinary things?”

acrylic on canvas 38 x 32 inches

acrylic on canvas 38 x 32 inches

Ms. Jaworska originally began creating art as a way to document her travels around the globe. Starting at age 19, she set out to see the world. She has since visited every continent except Antarctica. While in the Middle East, Ms. Jaworska connected with an artist couple with whom she subsequently traveled extensively. Although she has taken a few art classes, Ms. Jaworska considers her true training to have come from these two mentors and other artists.
Upon moving to the Vineyard in 1994, Ms. Jaworska continued to sketch and paint. Her interest in creating art is what brought her together with her husband, blues musician Maynard Silva. She surreptitiously sketched him while he was playing at the Harborfest in Oak Bluffs. “I used to call what I would do ‘sniper art.’ I snipered him.”
Although they had noticed each other around the Island for some time, the sketch gave Ms. Jaworska the opportunity for an introduction. She ran into Mr. Silva at the Post Office and offered him the drawing. He enthusiastically accepted both the drawing and the opportunity to connect with the artist. Seven years later, shortly before Mr. Silva died of cancer, the two married at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse.

It was around this time that Ms. Jaworska began her series of musician portraits. “I’ve always been drawn to blues music and blues musicians. I just love the whole gestalt of it. The look, the feel, the sound. When Maynard was bedridden, I got a studio in West Tisbury. I used to go there and paint blues musicians and bring them back home to entertain him. I would choose the people he had played with or whose music he played. His heroes.”
The musician series has been shown at various places around the the Island, including Lola’s, where a number of the portraits can still be found, as well as at the Newport Jazz Festival, a gallery in New Orleans, and other venues around the country.

This time around, Ms. Jaworska has turned to a theme close to her heart. “Look at these people,” she says gesturing to the portraits around her studio. “They put their lives on the line so we could have freedom — freedom of expression, of education. A clean environment.

“We take these things for granted. That’s how close to the edge we are. We feel that these are our rights. It could all be taken away from us so fast. It happened to my parents. They were the first generation for 30 years to have a free country. It was a very small window. They fought like bastards to keep it free.”

Basia Jaworska will have a show of her paintings at the Workshop Gallery August 12 through 14. She will also be the featured artist at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse lobby gallery from Sept. 9 through 29. Her website is at

Gwyn McAllister is a writer and copywriter who splits her time between the Vineyard and New York City. Her work has appeared in many publications, including Mens’ Health, PBS Parents, A&E’s Asterisk and Highlights for Children.

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