LIW Magazine Presents: Author Jurgita Gerlikaitė
The rowan is a smooth tree. It always has an offspring by its side. It isn’t a long-lived tree, so that’s its way of surviving.
“I do not have the right hue of red thread for the berries. That material should do. I will sew each berry with a black thread, since every berry has a black dot.”
Such were the straightforward musings of Petronėlė Gerlikienė (1905–1979). She became an artist at a mature age, unexpectedly and for a short time, leaving behind a legacy of tapestries and paintings of rare authenticity.
The spontaneous creative force which broke through during the last years of her life and spilled out as a poetic world of unique visions was like a gift from fate to her and to us all. The strength of the works, and the quiet knowledge of her truth, without any interference from outside, revealed a personality who was able to let the clear and sublimated image of all of life break through everyday trivia.
The themes of Gerlikienė’s tapestries and paintings
are primordially simple. However, the contours of a very personal world show through the appearances. All that is around us and inside us, in her works makes up a uniform whole. Nothing is excluded in the bright light of her vision.
A tree or a bird looks on with a man’s eyes. Nature, like man, lives only temporarily, and a moment retreats quietly into infinity.
Her extraordinary vitality, which she had in abundance, overflows in a free, expressive and perfect form. There is no accidental or meaningless detail.
Gerlikienė’s life was difficult. She was completely illiterate: she could not even sign her name. But she did not feel inferior to educated people.
She was born in America, where her father worked, but as a little girl she came back with her family to Lithuania. Neighbours used to say for many years that, on her return, her mother hung up beautiful white curtains on windows, and at night she used to light a lamp in such a way that half the village was illuminated.
Gerlikienė lost her mother very early. Being the oldest girl in the family, she had to do all the housework and look after her younger brothers and sisters, in addition to the four little ones who were born from her father’s second marriage. There was no one even to teach her to read.
Her father and stepmother twice destroyed the tickets sent from America by her mother’s parents. If she left, there would be no one to look after the children.
At the age of 19 she worked for a rich farmer called Gerlikas. Already in his early 30s, he used to glance at Petronėlė now and again, but was in no hurry to propose, as she would not run away.
And then his older brother returned from America with a small fortune, after working in the coal mines in Illinois for 30 years. On his return, he had planned to buy land, build a house, take a young wife and live a beautiful life with his family. He stayed with his brother, and when he saw Petronėlė he asked her to marry him.
In America he had bought all kinds of luxuries for his home, of which a few survived. During the war Petronėlė kept them as family treasures: an old-fashioned gramophone and records, a mirror in a carved frame, a large frame for a photograph, Art Deco vases, a felt hat, and other things.
From servant to lady
After the wedding, they began to look for land to buy. What they got was 23 hectares of poor land, full of stones, and overgrown with trees and shrubs. Gerlikas gathered up the stones, cleared the area for ploughing, and began to build a house on a hill. This lasted ten years.
Although the money was limited, his ambitions were boundless. First, he built what was most important to a farmer: a large byre, a barn for hay, and a hen house. They themselves lived in a granary, having adapted it as temporary accommodation. The foundations for a very large two-winged house and the building materials remained untouched.
From a servant girl, Petronėlė became the mistress of the house. All the work was done by hired hands.
After a miscarriage during her first pregnancy, doctors recommended her not to work hard, and to sleep more, and she did exactly that. She slept until lunch time. They raised calves, and slaughtered them every week so that Petronėlė could have fresh calf blood every day, which would help her to conceive. Her husband would make the breakfast himself, and bring it to her in bed, because the maid considered her to be spoilt.
Petronėlė’s only duty was to take care of the poultry, which expanded from the few hens brought by Gerlikas from America. Every week, a vet would come from Kaunas to check the feeding rations, and would buy all the eggs for hatching. Petronėlė used to say that they bred the best Leghorns in Lithuania.
Ten years passed, and she had a son. In her gratitude to God, she made some cloths for the church altar. However, the war broke out, and suddenly everything began to fall apart in her life.
In freezing temperatures, the Germans took her ailing husband to fell timber. He caught a cold and fell ill with consumption, as his lungs had already been eaten away by coal dust. Soon he died. Petronėlė had a third miscarriage.
When the Russian Cossacks came, their horses ate the apple trees down to the roots, and the troops devastated the farm. On their empty farm, Petronėlė and her son became the poorest people in the village.
During the war their dollar account in a bank in Kaunas was closed. Later, everything, including the land, the buildings and the whole farm, was expropriated, and given over to a collective farm.
Petronėlė hid her American belongings in different places. She never slept at home, and whenever she saw car lights she would run together with her son into the fields, and waited there lying on the ground until the car was gone. This way, she and her son were not deported to Siberia.
A few years later, Petronėlė remarried. In order to escape from the obligatory outdoor work, she raised hundreds of chickens for the collective farm. In the winter, the hens and the chickens were kept in her kitchen by the stove. The chickens would cheep, foul the kitchen floor, and spread their fleas.
In the same kitchen, she would cook mash for pigs. The house was full of smoke, as the stove burnt damp brushwood. Her second husband was in poor health, and not a great worker.
A unique view of life
Petronėlė had her own exceptional view of life, people and phenomena. She was able in her own way to describe a person’s character and his or her emotional state on the basis of only her view and observations, disregarding everything that others were saying about that person.
She surprised everyone with her talent, her tact and intellect, and in company she was always dignified. Even in the Soviet years, neighbours addressed her as “Madam”, although they considered her strange and whimsical. She was withdrawn; if ever asked something, she tried to quickly finish the conversation.
Her overbearing and impulsive nature, and the desire to run things according to her own will, created a lot of tension between her and her son, who she often criticised for poor manners and disregarding etiquette.
Petronėlė was poor, but she had style. She decorated windows with curtains she had embroidered, and went to church beautifully dressed. Her blond braids were always pinned to the top of her crown, and her clothes were always well matched.
She was fond of taking walks around her former land, which now belonged to the collective farm, or taking a stroll in an oak wood. She constantly repeated that fate should pay for the wrongs she had experienced. Petronėlė wanted to live a cheerful, comfortable and happy life, like those 14 years with her first husband. She used to say that that was a reward for a difficult childhood.
To embroider and paint is to live
One early morning in the summer of 1970, Petronėlė, carrying a bucket full of blackcurrants, came to Vilnius to visit her grandson. She had to wander around the streets with the bucket until nightfall, before she reached her son’s flat in a suburb. At that moment Petronėlė had no idea yet that this home was soon to become hers as well, where she would feel peaceful and happy.
As her health was deteriorating, her son would not let her live in the country alone, and when she was brought to the city, she felt out of place. She settled in a small room, which she filled with sacks of uncombed wool and yarn. There was enough room for only a bed. Petronėlė would lie on it, and look into the distance with unseeing eyes.
Suddenly, as if woken from her sleep, she felt worried: the dog was hungry, the chickens not fed, and she had been sitting dishevelled like this for several days. She was in a state of despair and had no peace.
She was afraid to live alone in the country. In the city everyone was educated. There was no one to talk to personally. No, she was not going to stay here. She would go away. She would buy a house.
She began to think about decorating her room. She found a faded old carpet. She reembroidered the tulips and lilies on the edges with woollen yarn, and put it aside unfinished.
She asked her son to draw her patterns to embroider: he was a professional artist after all. But he only pointed to a stylised oak-tree on the leather cover of a book: embroider this if you like. Then Petronėlė went round exhibitions by herself, as if she had lived in the city her entire life.
“I’m going to make a better one than those at the exhibition,” she said back at home.
She told her daughter-in-law (an art critic and a painter) that she was going to embroider a tapestry, and set to work in a very simple way, alternating the colours of the yarn and the direction of the stitches.
She made huge tapestries without any trouble, often working at night and disregarding the uneven places and kinked yarn. She hurried to finish them as quickly as she could. She had a clear idea: the whole composition of the tapestry and its colour scheme were in her mind only.
The National Song and Dance Festival that she saw for the first time in her life made such a big impression on Petronėlė that during the festival she decided to embroider a tapestry on the subject. She needed a very large piece of cloth, so that she could fit the singers, musicians, guests, dancers, bands and conductor. She chose a piece of linen and dyed it a sunny bronze.
For her next work, she bought a piece of expensive woollen fabric and began to embroider the edge like a frame. This took her a long time, as it was supposed to be very rich.
Embroidery was like the most accessible way of saying what was on her mind. But it was long and tiring, and it made her back and arms ache. To Petronėlė, drawing and painting was equal to the ability to read and write, and she thought that only educated people could do it.
After she moved with her son to an artists’ house at the other end of Vilnius, where he had a studio, she took up painting. She was surprised at how quickly and easily she could do it. She painted her first picture in one sitting, and the next day she demanded a large piece of cardboard, as she wanted to paint Noah’s Ark.
She painted fast, without sketching, applying the paint to the cardboard or canvas straight from the tubes. She often asked her son how to paint something, such as the eyes, so that it seemed they looked at you. She believed that she was embroidering and painting exactly as in nature.
After discovering this form of self-expression, Petronėlė found peace, and in the kitchen she often talked with her daughter-in-law on issues of art. But when she was praised for her artistic expression or inventiveness, she used to look distrustfully. Was it not a sneer? Was it serious?
Petronėlė began embroidering tapestries and painting at 70, and in five years she created more than ten large tapestries and about 60 paintings. She took part in folk art exhibitions, held a solo exhibition, and was awarded a first prize in folk art. Her works have been included in the World Encyclopaedia of Naïve Art.