CEDAR RAPIDS — In the Smith gallery at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library last month, people pressed their ears to the door to hear Marie Svirgova, 83, singing as she worked on a custom painting for the museum.
Svirgova, a celebrated folk artist from the southeastern Czech Republic, traveled to Cedar Rapids to help create the museum’s newest exhibit, “Heritage Caretakers of Moravia.” It is on display at the museum, at 1400 Inspiration Place SW, through June 14.
Featuring folk motifs painted by Svirgova and traditional Moravian folk clothing, the exhibit celebrates women like Svirgova who are striving to keep these traditions alive.
In Moravia, they’re known as the Vichernice, a collective of mostly older women who seeks to save and pass down folk traditions, with the slogan, “Folklore is not dead.”
“A Vichernice woman is a woman who has rural or peasant pride,” said artist Sonya Darrow. “Pride from where they’re from but also for the folk dress they wear.”
Darrow splits her time between her hometown of Cedar Rapids and the Czech Republic, where she is studying cultural sociology in the city of Brno. She connected with Svirgova through one of the founding Vichernice members, Monika Vintrlikova, and has worked with them to document their efforts and to create the exhibit. Svirgova traveled to Cedar Rapids with another folk artist, Dagmar Benesova, founder of the Folk Art Academy of Breclav.
Svirgova was born in 1936 in the Moravian village of Lanzhot, where she still lives. She said she hand sews all her traditional clothing herself. The items in the exhibit displayed on mannequins all come from her closet and are pieces she regularly wears.
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She spoke about her life, with Darrow translating, explaining how she learned to make these clothes from her mother and grandmother. She explained that today she makes them not just for herself but for others in her life, as an act of love. She said handmade clothing takes time, and she hopes people visiting the exhibit find appreciation in that.
“It’s a slow practice. It takes time to make things. It will hopefully slow down their life a bit to appreciate a part of the world they might not have witnessed or appreciated,” she said.
Cedar Rapids residents may be familiar with the elaborate, highly decorative Czech folk dress, known as kroj, which was worn at weddings and special events — the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library has many such pieces in its collections — but kroj can also refer to more everyday traditional clothes. Those are the ones the women are especially afraid are being lost.
Visitors to the exhibit can touch and try on such folk clothing from Moravia, all of it rescued “from the trash” by Vichernice member Zlata Madericova. She saw people getting rid of everyday folk clothing and launched a campaign to save those pieces.
“It’s a form of activism to say this is important and that this matters and this should exist,” Darrow said. “In Moravia, it has really become a movement. People find something in this folk dress; people are really connecting to this ... It’s really kind of poetic how they’re approaching this folk dress.”
Each Czech region has a distinctive kroj style, with unique stitches and pleat patterns.
“Clothes have this way of just binding us. They’re tangible, they’re tactile,” Darrow said. “Clothes can help us tell our story and connect with one another.”
The exhibit also includes photographs of the Vichernice women with their folk clothing as well as Moravian folk motif paintings, including two designed and painted by Svirgova. One is from her village, the other is one she designed as a custom motif for the museum. Painted on a removable section of wall, the museum will be able to keep it long after the exhibit is over.
“When I started painting, I learned from my neighbor, I was only 11 years old. And my neighbor told me, ‘I can see you enjoy it. Learn it. In life you will need many things, learn it.’ She did not have to tell me twice, I came home that day and started painting. I painted all the time, even during school while hiding it under my desk. And I fell in love with painting,” Svirgova said. “I have trained other young woman the art of painting, so somebody else can paint from now on — to pass my folk art practice on to others similar to the way I first learned about it.”
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Darrow is one of those young women, and she is passing the skills on in turn; she led two workshops at the museum last month, where attendees worked together to paint a border around the exhibit gallery. It matched a motif painted inside Svirgova’s home. The idea, Darrow said, was to build a bridge from Cedar Rapids to Lanzhot, via paint and stories and cloth.
“I hope when people come to this exhibit, they can be inspired by these women. I hope it inspires them to want to explore being a heritage caretaker,” Darrow said. “It’s important to share who we are with each other.”
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