After a half-century of weaving wool tapestries, Lika Meers Skarzynska has retired from the art form, having sold her loom and given away the wool she spun and dyed over the years.
She made the decision after the death of her husband, beloved judo instructor Joe Meers, died a couple of years ago (profiled in 2008 upon his retirement from the Creston Judo Club). Knowing she could not keep up the Lister acreage that she and Joe had called their dream home, Skarzynska made the decision to make one final tapestry, a do-over of an earlier attempt to depict the impending end of the world. Then she could sell the property.
She describes tapestry weaving as her “most impulsive means of self-expression.” Her fascination with the art form began when she still lived in Poland. An education in theatrical art and art history led to a professional career in theatre, where she adapted stories and directed them for children’s productions. She started working with wool and hemp to make costumes and puppets for her children’s show. Other art forms soon evolved.
While her tapestries can be found the world over, Skarzynska’s most famous piece remains in Creston’s Holy Cross Catholic Church, exactly where she intended. Her strength of character was put to the test when she visited the Vatican, where she was invited to take Madonna (formally titled Miraculous Image of Our Lady at Jazna Gora) to have it blessed by Pope John Paul II. Upon seeing it, a cardinal said it should remain at the Vatican. Skarzynska insisted it would return to Canada with her because it is a Canadian Madonna, replete with maple leaves on her cloak, gold and silver threads and real freshwater pearls woven into her headdress.
Her motivations for weaving weren’t always religious or apocalyptic. She also undertook projects for the sheer enjoyment of creating.
“The feeling of fibre in my fingers, touching it and working with beautiful and colourful wool gives me a lot of pleasure,” she told former Advance editor Betsy Brierley in an interview many years ago.
Some pieces, like a cityscape of Calgary with a huge tree in the foreground, are surprisingly whimsical.
But her final piece, Peril: The Destruction of the World, isn’t the only time she has depicted destruction. In 1996, Skarzynska told Advance reporter Chris Laursen, who was looking at a tapestry of an ancient Greek vase that was falling apart, “Everything that is powerful, everything that is beautiful, with time will fall apart.”
It is an apt metaphor for Peril. In it, a pair of devils are rising toward the Earth, which they are bent on destroying. Hands, symbolizing mankind, are reaching toward the heavens in an effort to escape.
It is Skarzynska’s second piece on the same theme. The earlier attempt, one she wasn’t particular happy with, is now in the home of a friend “who understands”, she said.
When she began the project last year, with the sale of her and Joe’s home pending, she was clear that Peril would be her last tapestry. She was moving to a condo in town and would have neither the space nor inclination to weave more tapestries. A memoir, to be written in her native Polish, was already taking shape in her mind.
Tackling the project was not without its challenges.
“When I started to weave the images of the devils (she places a sketch behind the warp threads on the loom as a guide) the house just filled with flies,” she said. “They were everywhere all of a sudden.”
It was a plague that wouldn’t allow her to continue, so she did was she has so often done in times of distress. Skarzynska took to her knees in prayer, pleading with God to let her carry on. The flies disappeared as quickly as they came, and soon she was back at work. She also listened to her favourite classical music pieces to find calm and inspiration.
For the next few months, Peril, along with three other Skarzynska tapestries, is on display at the Creston Valley Chamber of Commerce. The other three pieces, two with flowers and a third showing a girl on a butterfly-filled path, reflect the softer, more peaceful side of a woman whose faith allows her to see the world that can be as horrific as it is beautiful.