When National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library curator Stefanie Kohn first saw Slovak photographer Monika Kluciarova’s photos of babies wearing kroje — traditional Slovak folk dress — she was charmed. Museum guild member Andrea Siebenmann had met Kluciarova on a trip to Slovakia and brought samples of her work back to Cedar Rapids, and soon the idea for an exhibition of the work was born.
That exhibition, “Lullaby: Babies in Slovak Folk Dress,” opens with a reception Friday night and will remain on display in the museum’s Smith Gallery through Oct. 9.
“The folk dress is really pretty, and the babies are awfully cute,” Kohn said. “I think people should appreciate the beauty of the Slovak folk dress, from all over Slovakia.”
Kluciarova, a professional family photographer, photographed newborn babies in tailor-made kroje, embroidered using traditional techniques. Her work has an Anne Geddes quality, but instead of flowers, the babies are adorned in the unique skirts, vests and headdresses of almost a dozen Slovak regions.
The exhibition also includes kroje from the Baine/Cincebeaux Collection of Czech & Slovak Folk Dress and Folk Art, which will be displayed next to the photographs.
Both Kluciarova and Helene Cincebeaux, who lives in Florida, will attend an opening reception for the exhibition Friday. Kluciarova will perform a lullaby on the fujara, a large, upright Slovakian contrabass flute, and Cincebeaux will give a talk on kroje followed by a book signing; she is the author of “A Treasury of Slovak Folk Dress” and “Slovakia! Traditions Old & New.”
Because they were abroad — Kluciarova in Slovakia and Cincebeaux traveling in Morocco — they answered questions via email. Siebenmann translated Kluciarova’s answers into English. The answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Where did the inspiration for these photos come from?
A: The inspiration for taking photos of newborn babies dressed in the Slovak folk dress or “kroj“ (pronounced as croy; plural: kroje/cro-yeh) came from a doll dressed in a kroj, which I received when I celebrated my 31st birthday. I already had some experience taking photos of newborns, so I thought maybe I could undress the doll and try to use her kroj on a live baby and take pictures of it.
After the first shots, I knew I had stumbled on something quite unique. Of course, I didn’t realize the simple desire to make my work more artistic would evolve into a project of this size.
Coming from a family of tailors, I have acquired huge respect for handmade creations and can appreciate every “prick of a finger” (with a tailor’s needle). Sewing garments, and especially embroidering them, is hard work that I have admired since I was a little child. Today, I see kroje not only as the outcome of wonderful sewing and embroidering skills, but primarily as subjects for photography, offering an incredible array of colors, patterns and combinations. They form the basis of my photography. I am proud to be born in a country where such priceless gems of folklore have been and still are created. That’s why ... I chose to show the richness of our culture, and in a non-traditional way elevate the beauty of our traditions along with the beauty of infants’ innocence.
Q: How did you get started in photography, and what made you want to branch out into artistic photography?
A: My grandfather was a tailor and a photographer. I used to admire his work in the dark room where he developed his film. Then I became fascinated by the work of wedding photographers ... I was convinced it would be an honor for me to do this type of work ...
When I was about 15 years old, I began to study photography on my own, although my grandpa taught me a few tricks of the trade. My initial interest was in taking photos of nature, followed by animals. In the end, I transitioned to making people’s portraits, which led me to a fascination with newborn photography. After two years of taking pictures of little babies, I felt the desire to transform those images into unique and artistic expressions.
Q: What do you hope Americans seeing your photos in this exhibition learn about kroje and Slovak culture?
A: This would be my greatest wish — that visitors who look at the portraits feel joy. I do everything I can to make the pictures speak not only of the skills that went into creating the tiny folk dresses, but also of certain folk customs and traditions in our country, or characteristic features of our culture that goes back several centuries. It is my hope all of these attributes would resonate with everyone who comes to see the exhibit — the joy, the wonder over the beauty and innocence of life at its very beginning, and also the glimpse of culture of the little country in the heart of Europe, my native Slovakia.
Q: What inspired you to collect kroje?
A: I have been collecting Czech and Slovak folk dress for the past 50 years, since I made my first trip to my ancestral village and they dressed me as a bride in village folk dress.
My mother Helen Zemek Baine and I traveled to some 2,000 villages in the Czech and Slovak Republic in 1969 and then in 1972, 1975 and every year after. We started out with glorious embroidered aprons from my grandfather’s village and then a sample of embroidery from others ... When we arrived in a village, women would gather around us and we would ask questions about their weddings. One would run home to get a photo, then another a cepiec (a headdress), then another an apron to show us.
Q: What should people know about this folk dress?
A: I eventually wrote five books, one sharing the traditions we learned in village kitchens, another on our folk dress collection. We found folk dress in dusty attics, or storage rooms where we had to shoo the chickens off the dower chest ... The folk dress is incredibly varied from village to village and features spectacular embroidery, beautiful beading, rare colored bobbin lace trim or motifs in gold and silver thread.
In the old days your folk dress told if you were young or old, married or single, rich or poor, a newlywed or nursing mother, a young man soon to enter military service, a widow or widower ... Most beloved are the “mini me” pieces made for children. We became fascinated by the motifs used in the embroidery and the symbolism — often the goddess appears along with symbols for fertility and eternity. Sometimes the makers didn’t even know why they used the symbols they did, just “we always did it that way!”
Q: What do you do when you’re not researching folk dress?
A: I am 81 now and want to share my knowledge. Morocco is my 82nd country and I’m aiming for 100 ... San Marino is my next exotic new country ... For 30 years I have been taking people to remote villages to meet their long lost families in the Czech and Slovak republics, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine. We have a 95 percent success rate at finding living family ... I am always struck with the striking resemblances and the fact they often have the same jobs or occupations. My 100th tour (our-slovakia.com) is coming up this summer.
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If You Go
• What: Lullaby: Babies in Slovak Folk Dress exhibition opening; on display through Oct. 2
• When: Friday — reception 6 p.m., ribbon cutting 6:30 p.m., kroje talk and book signing by Helene Cincebeaux 7 p.m.
• Cost: Free; only the “Lullaby” exhibit gallery will be open
• What: Family Folk Day
• When: April 13 — drop-in activities from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; guided tour of exhibit with Helene Cincebeaux 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. book signing
• Cost: Drop-in activities free, tour and galleries regular admission (free to $10)
• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Pl. SW, Cedar Rapids
• Details: (319) 362-8500, ncsml.org