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Local artist’s skill lives on through exhibition

Date: 8/21/2014

HOLYOKE – His sister said the exhibition of his artwork at the Holyoke Senior Center would have made the late Edward Kwiatkowski proud.

“He would have been so happy,” Emily Douglas of Holyoke said. “He spent his whole life painting.”

What made Kwiatkowski’s work so impressive was not just has vivid colors and bold brush strokes but his technique. He had cerebral palsy from his birth in 1936 and had very limited use of his arms, so he painted with his right foot.

Kwiatkowski, a life-long resident of Holyoke, died on Jan. 7. The opening reception for the exhibition was conducted on his birthday of Aug. 8. The exhibit, “The Life and Art of a Holyoke Treasure” will be on view at the senior center through Sept. 28.

Kathy Bowler, executive director of the senior center, said Kwiatkowski’s family had generously donated one of his paintings to the center.

Douglas said her brother would attend classes at the United Cerebral Palsy Association in Springfield and teacher Margaret Holt encouraged his artistic abilities.

In one of the scrapbooks assembled reflecting his life and career, Kwiatkowski wrote his own account on the start of his artistic life: “One day in 1955, I went to the cerebral palsy party in Springfield. I met a lot of people. One guy said to me ‘Why don’t you come to some of our recreations classes?’ I said, ‘Fine. I’ll bring some of my drawings.’ And that’s how I met Mrs. Holt. She was teaching the young adults arts and crafts class. Margaret didn’t give up. I almost gave up myself, but Margaret kept telephoning me at home: ‘Eddie I think you’re work is terrific. Keep it up.’”

Douglas said that Holt was responsible for Kwiatkowski attending the Cleveland Institute of Art from 1968 to 1970 where he studied watercolor, design and life drawing. He returned from the school as Douglas said their mother was “nervous” with Kwiatkowski living in Ohio, but he continued with his work and spend two to three hours a day sketching and painting.

Originally, he would work in oil paints in the basement of the family home, Douglas recalled, but when he was dependent upon a wheelchair and couldn’t go down the stairs he switched to the less odorous medium of pencil.

A look of the exhibition shows the wide range of his subject: landscapes, still lives and self-portrait. His work seems to reflect that of Vincent Van Gogh and Douglas confirmed that was one of her brother’s favorite artists.   

“He loved to look in the art books,” she said. “He loved Van Gogh.”

Douglas added, “He liked to do everything. He did pictures of our streets and pictures of all of the houses. If he saw something he liked, he’d do it.”

During his life, Kwiatkowski was the subject of numerous newspaper articles and his work was exhibited locally as well as Museum 5020 in London, United Kingdom, the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Massachusetts governor’s mansion, among others.

Lois Brown, who works for Stavros Center for Independent Living, recalled how in 2008 the program that assists disabled individuals built a wheelchair ramp so Kwiatkowski could increase his mobility. He donated copies of some of his work to help raise money to build ramps for other people who use wheelchairs.

Brown said, “When you saw Ed’s work, you knew right away he some something special.”

Ani Rivera of Valley Frame Works in Amherst is responsible for framing Kwiatkowski’s works and installing the exhibition.  Rivera, who managed the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, N.Y., said, “I recognized his work as museum quality.”

For the past five years, Rivera has been working to frame and preserve the art, something he said was daunting at times as Kwiatkowski had paintings and drawings “under his bed and duct-taped to the walls.”

He believes that because of his cerebral palsy and his family’s lack of understanding of the art world, Kwiatkowski could have “easily fallen through the cracks.”’

Rivera said he was impressed even more by the work because by necessity Kwiatkowski was about five feet away from his canvas or paper – much further away than conventional artists.

Rivera said of Kwiatkowski’s work, “It just blew me away.”