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New book celebrates Master Czech Folk Artist Marj Nejdl

Marj Nejdl, master folk artist, personalizes a Christmas ornament Nov. 23 at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Marj Nejdl, master folk artist, personalizes a Christmas ornament Nov. 23 at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Marj Nejdl found her life’s work and passion almost by accident.

The Master Czech Folk Artist has spent the last 47 years promoting the art of kraslice, or egg decorating.

Nejdl learned the techniques as a child from her uncle, Martin Polehna. He and her father, Charles Kopecek, owned Polehna’s Meat Market in what is now Czech Village. At the first Festival of Czech Arts held in Cedar Rapids in 1971, Polehna was slated to demonstrate egg decorating, while Nejdl planned to present Czech-style Sokol gymnastics, which she coached for 27 years. But her uncle got sick and wasn’t able to present, so he asked Nejdl to take his place.

“I am so thankful it happened, because it’s been my life ever since. It was an accident,” Nejdl said.

Ever since that first demonstration, Nejdl, 82, has both produced her own art and taught regular classes, working to pass the techniques down to the next generation. These days her grandchildren lend a hand.

“It’s part of my heritage, and now what’s fun is that my grandchildren help me teach the classes,” she said.

Two of her eggs, from the collections of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, are at the Smithsonian. She also has painted eggs for the Archduke of Austria, Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel, President Michal Kovac of Slovakia and others. She received the title Master Czech Folk Artist in 1986, when she received a Cultural Heritage Fellowship Award from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

Now, a new book, “Decorative Czech Folk Art: The Artistry of Marjorie Nejdl,” by Pat Martin, documents her work.

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It is Martin’s seventh book; she has been writing about Czech and Slovak culture in Iowa since the 1970s. She moved to Cedar Rapids in 1964 to teach language arts at Jefferson High School and became interested in the culture shared by many of her students. The Czech Village Association, established in 1972, recruited her to help it organize and revitalize the business district, and she is a past president of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library Guild and still volunteers weekly at the museum.

The idea for the book occurred to her last year when the museum hosted an exhibit of glass art by Dale Chihuly, on loan from collector George R. Stroemple. A published catalog of the work in the collection accompanied the exhibit, and Martin thought something similar should exist for Nejdl.

“I got to thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to have a collection of her eggs?” Martin said. “We wanted to showcase Marj’s art and preserve it.”

The book, published Nov. 16 by North Liberty-based Big Fox Publishing, is available for sale at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, Next Page Books in Cedar Rapids, by mail order from Penfield Books of Iowa City or on Amazon.

For the book, Martin contacted people she and Nejdl knew owned eggs and had them photographed. The idea is to preserve her work for future generations, much the same way the work itself is preserving a long cultural tradition.

Czech egg decorating has been practiced since pre-Christian times — Martin said egg art was popular because anyone could own it, not just the wealthy. Though Nejdl usually purchases her dyes, traditionally they were made with readily available materials such as onion skins and beets. The patterns, symbols and colors on the eggs often have specific meanings and stories behind them.

“A lot of European countries use this method. Peasant people — whatever they had available to them, they used for their art forms ... They dyed eggs so they would always have a bit of artistry in their homes,” she said.

Her father was born in the Czech province of Moravia and moved to the United States as a boy. Her mother was born in the United States but raised in what now is the Czech Republic.

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Nejdl, who lives in Ely, speaks Czech and has visited the region several times, including during the period of Communist rule. What she saw then convinced her it was even more important to preserve traditional Czech and Slovak arts in America — the government actively prevented people from celebrating any culture that wasn’t state-sanctioned.

“They didn’t want people to know their heritage,” she said. “During Communist times, we had trouble finding people who did this art.”

In addition to traditional batik patterns created with wax, Nejdl paints eggs and developed her own technique to drill holes and patterns into eggshells. It’s a delicate task, as nothing is done to the shells to strengthen them before decorating. She has worked with chicken, goose, quail, ostrich, emu and other egg types. She also has created art on other mediums, including custom ornaments for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library and posters to promote Czech events in Cedar Rapids.

“I love doing it. It’s the talent that was given to me, and I appreciate and I love doing it,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

Meet the Artist

• What: Holidays with a Heart: Shop for a Cause

• When: 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday

• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids

• Details: Marj Nejdl and Pat Martin will sign copies of “Decorative Czech Folk Art” during this fundraiser for area nonprofits. The evening includes free admission to National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library galleries, discounts at the museum store, refreshments and cash bar and prize drawings for those who donate to participating organizations. Nejdl also will personalize ornaments.

• What: Ornament personalization

• When: Noon to 4 p.m. today and Dec. 15 and 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday

• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids

• Details: Marj Nejdl will be at the museum store to personalize ornaments, including a 2018 special ornament she designed. Those may be personalized for free; most others are $3.

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