A Vanishing Craft Reappears

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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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,” Ms. 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 (Ms. 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, Ms. 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.”

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