Elka Nowicka's perfumed memories

By Linda Rogers, March 2011

How a Polish construction engineer transformed herself into a Victoria painter.

Slowly, during an extended conversation in her recently renovated house with a view not only of the Chinese cemetery but, on a fine day, all the way to China, Elka Nowicka reveals the title for her show at the West End Gallery. But not yet. English is not her first language and she chooses her words carefully; “I loved to read when I was a child.”

Nowicka was the daughter of hard times, and that has shaped the woman she’s become. Growing up in Wroclaw in the southwest, largely German area of Poland meant living with post-war deprivations. Her father died when she was 11 and Elka’s mother worked as a dressmaker to support Elka and her siblings. Gifted in math and physics, the girl who was also inspired by art and music and breathed in the beauty of her mother’s creations, was directed to a practical profession. She became a construction engineer. It was a matter of survival and her profession did eventually open the door to the possible.

There were many shadows in her young life, not the least of which was civil unrest as the Solidarity Party collided head on with the Soviet regime in Poland. Elka, who had married a fellow engineer, was walking her infant child in a park one day when violence, including gunfire, broke out. Elka grabbed her son from his carriage and ran. Not long afterward, when the Chernobyl disaster exacerbated their grief, she and her husband, along with a group of friends, made the decision to emigrate.

“I grew up with grief, and that was not the legacy I wanted to hand to my son,” states Nowicka.

The young couple was easily approved for landed immigrant status. After studying a map of North America, they chose Winnipeg, because it was “right in the middle.” Determined to free herself from her guaranteed but unrelentingly grey meal ticket of a career, Elka set up as a dress designer, which led to costume design for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Once she’d found her inner rainbow, there was no turning back. When her marriage ended, the resilient immigrant drove from East to West assessing the best place in Canada to raise her son and work as an artist. That was Victoria.

“I have only one regret and that is that my son didn’t have access to the cultural stimulation that I had as a child,” says Nowicka. Victoria schools lacked the enrichment she had experienced even in a country brought to its knees by war. It is remarkable that in countries like Poland and Cuba where, even though there is hardly enough food to put on the table, children are given the best possible education with access to the arts, a fundamental for creative thinking. 

Nowicka began her working life in Victoria by hand-painting silk, leather and linens for Hughes Wearable Art and taking on increasing responsibility at Chintz and Company, a temple of domestic beauty. 

While becoming acquainted with Victoria’s cultural workers, she met Jimmy Wright, the artist entrepreneur who gave back to our young people by funding the school strings program when it was cut. “He taught me to work with my strengths,” she says. 

Now, art for art’s sake is her only foreground, yet it also works in terms of the bottom line, as Nowicka has pieced together the life that she could only have dreamed of in Poland. 

The fruition of her studies and talents is visible in her new house, which she shares with her partner Paul. Beautifully designed and constructed to maximize the interaction of light in its living spaces, light is also used to illuminate its details. Jewel-like paintings hang from walls bathed in natural light. Describing herself as a “broad-stroke workaholic,” her work—both in paintings and in her house—can only be described as passionate. Intense colour and rich impasto speak of feelings that reach down to the centre of her being. 

“I work best in the morning to earlier afternoon, when the sun is not too bright and I still have fresh in my head all the ideas that came overnight. I often start right with my coffee in my hand and in my bathrobe, since I’m anxious to do what’s on my mind. If the work develops well, I crank up the music [opera, Lady Gaga]—it makes me ‘high’ and energetic.” She snacks and paints till Paul comes home for wine and dinner.

It is as if Nowicka, who works her canvases in acrylic, is squeezing the tubes with every bit of the maternal energy that fed her desire to make a better life for her child. There is no visible evidence of darkness or bitterness in her paintings of lilies, women in red dresses, yellow parrots or brilliant prairie landscapes. Beauty suffuses everything from her dress to her rooms to her canvases, as she holds back the subtext with determined mother’s hands.

Towards the end of our long conversation, Nowicka finally tells me the name of her show: “Perfumed Memories.” She hardly needs to explain that the gestalt of pain needs to be suppressed in order to move forward into the light. Like the unwashed courtiers at Versailles who used perfume, “the French bath,” to cover the stench of corruption, her subjects smell of happiness. It is not surprising that the strongly feminine casa blanca lily is her favourite. 

Many of Nowicka’s still life paintings have calligraphy incorporated in the colourful surfaces. It is as if the real poetry of her ancient culture is surfacing through layers of impediment and asserting itself as the exuberant Polish temperament. 

A large unfinished canvas stands on the easel in her studio. Words emerge from the under-painting of the still life with roses. The unpainted blooms are plaster and acrylic relief and they are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s unfinished prophets struggling to emerge from stone. Stone roses. That could be the painter, struggling to endure. This is the moment of revelation. “Leave it,” a voice from nowhere implores. “I might,” she answers.


Perfumed Memories runs from March 19-31 at the West End Gallery, with an opening reception with the artist March 19, 1-4pm. 1203 Broad Street, www.westendgalleryltd.com, 250-388-0009.

Linda Rogers, Victoria’s Poet Laureate, is collecting wedding poems and paintings from Victoria schoolchildren to send to the Royal Couple.