Interview by Małgorzata Czyńska
Magdalena Sawicka. Born in 1990 in Lublin. Graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Her main interests include drawing, illustration, as well as painting and graphics. She creates tattoos using the pseudonym Sick Rose.
Are you obsessed with pubic hair?
Hair is my fetish. Not all of it, actually, as I tend to remove it very scrupulously from my legs with tweezers. So this is an anti-fetish. But pubic hair and hair on the head - I could keep drawing it forever. There is some fascination in it, a bit of disgust and my way to meditate. Some people make sand mandalas and I draw hair. I reset myself completely in the process, letting my pencil run almost unknowingly, line after line, along the piece of paper. I have always dreamed of having ankle-length hair, like those woman in Victorian paintings.
When we met for the first time three years ago, you had long hair dressed in the fashion that reminded me of Dagny Juel Przybyszewska.
This way I made my dream come true. As a child, I envied other girls at the kindergarten - all of them had fancy hairdos, curls, tresses and all kinds of miracles on their heads. And I was taken by my mom and grandma to the local hairdresser, who always gave me the same bowl haircut. They argued that if I cut my hair, it would become strong and beautiful when I grew up. I felt terribly wronged; I thought the boyish haircut marred my appearance. And there was also the fashion of the 1990s, the leggings, baggy sweatshirts, making me look exactly like my one year older brother. Shortly before graduating from elementary school, I finally managed to grow my hair a little. I could say, in fact, that the story of my hair shows that the situation in my family has translated to what I am like, what I want and what I draw. Drawing is my addiction, it's a life necessity. Yet in my family there have been no artists, no musicians, no writers or visual artists. Moreover, my mom instilled in me a role model of a strong, independent woman having a profession. Preferably, a lawyer or an economist. She always said a woman had to be strong and have her own bank account. My mom works at the provincial administration office and has a personal bank account of her own. I still feel the burden of this feminist lesson. My brother, Tomek, always met the expectations, he played along with the rules. He always satisfied our parents’ wishes. He behaved well, didn't go to parties, didn’t drink alcohol, always got good grades and chose the right kind of studies. And I was different, I raised my head, I was a rebel.
Was drawing a form of rebellion?
It was outside the standard and it was nothing to be proud of in the eyes of my family. Early in grammar school, I went to an art club with my friend. It was for fourth-graders and older children, and we were younger. The form master noticed my friend’s gift and told her to join the club. My friend didn't want to go alone, so I accompanied her. And so I got my chance to shine. The tutor noticed my talent. Whenever she sent my works to a contest, I got the prize. But this could not convince my mom. After I graduated from elementary school, there was a dilemma: an art grammar school or a general education school. I wanted the art school, because I already felt that nothing could give me as much satisfaction as drawing. My dad was more supportive, but my mom could not be persuaded - she wanted me to get some sound education. I got enrolled in the art school with a minimum score. My mom decided it was a sign I should get into something else, because perhaps I had no talent after all. And those words got into me for many years - even today I’m still trying to prove it to my parents that I have made the right choice. The best grades at the academy, the exhibitions meant little. As a teenager, I suffered for a long time from depression, which led to anorexia, and then bulimia. It started to get serious, when I was 17. I stopped eating anything; in a way, it was a sophisticated way to commit suicide. I wanted to starve myself to death.
The body is the focus of your drawings. Corporeality is often depicted as disturbing, sick.
I have got to know all aspects of my body, the good, the worse and the worst. I observed my body change during anorexia, I watched it fail me, I saw veins becoming visible on my hands. I couldn’t sleep at night, because my bones ached so much, I got bruises from simply lying down, my bones were sticking into the mattress. For several years I hardly left the house as I had no strength to get up. In a large notebook, I drew food items, which I didn't eat, I meticulously copied letters from packages and jars. I had an entire catalog of food items, like a newsletter of a food chain. When I got stronger, I made a show of cooking. I like to cook, I eat now, but then I wouldn't eat a mouthful. I served my family a dinner of two dishes with a dessert, I poured beverages into glasses, I sat down at the table and watched them eat. When a child is ill, the entire family becomes ill.
Did your relatives notice it quickly that you were ill?
They noticed it quickly and they reacted, it didn't take them years. The issue was completely new to my parents, but they turned to various specialists for help - from private physicians to public health care service. We could not talk about the illness itself, every attempt failed. We kept getting lost in what we should do, how we should cooperate to win with it. My parents read a lot about it, but, like anyone facing a problem like this for the first time, at least partially they groped in the dark. I visited many doctors, and I met many different “specialists”, who proposed various methods - some of these made me suffer from anxiety for many years, others - for my entire life. For many years, I was unable to eat in the presence of other people, because one of the doctors told my family to watch my every move as I meet and make sure I am eating the whole portion. I had to be supervised during every meal, and at the end the person watching over me signed a form. My parents and my brother had to manage their schedules to make sure someone would be with me during my fixed meal hours. Until today I am in deadly fear of the bathroom scales, since one of the doctors ordered that I would weigh myself everyday before the first meal in my underwear, in the presence of my family. It took years to find a good therapist. I went to various therapies, but without the support and sacrifice of my closest family I would not have been able to combat my illness so fast. This experience surely brought us closer together and taught us to talk to each other.
A horrible time for a young girl.
I lost my friends, my colleagues. I felt I had to do something about myself. I managed to finish school, although I missed classes, I got my high-school diploma. I was very lonely. I wanted to get out to people, gain confidence. Luckily I got into the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. I had a feeling I would die if I stayed in Lublin.
At the Academy in Krakow, you immediately gained a strong position of a highly talented student.
I followed an individual program of study, because I need silence and peace to draw, and I had great teachers - Dariusz Vasina, Kuba Woynarowski and Joanna Kaiser. Once in every semester I brought drawings to get my grades, everyone clapped and I could go back to my rented room. To calm down, I needed to be alone with a piece of paper, this was always the most important thing. I kept drawing all the time, it was like an addiction. I relieved my anxiety by drawing, drawing until I was totally exhausted, physically and emotionally. It was like an illness, an escape.
You drew hearts and other human organs.
And myself, always. In fact, i always only drew myself.
And I thought then that you were a really brave girl, because your drawings were full of bold erotic scenes, sometimes reminding me even of soft pornography. Desire, sensual pleasure, semen, a penis, a used condom, a stain on a girl’s pants, a rough scene with swingers.
I grew up to accept myself, although I still deal with anxiety, my fears of physicality, carnality and intimacy in my drawings. I take many of my themes from the Internet. On the Internet, people are more open than in face-to-face encounters. The Internet welcomes openness, but it also welcomes creation, which is very interesting as it reveals our yearnings, ambitions and dreams. I like to peep at people on the Internet, but I prefer to talk face to face - sensing smell, seeing gestures, the eye color, hearing the voice. I have distanced myself from my illness. I can talk about it. But I always prefer to listen. My friends often confide in me, I attract people who need to talk. This, of course, translates to my drawings. I know a lot about people, their problems and dreams. There is no such thing as a collective sensitivity: every individual has different experiences, reflections, feelings. I show intimacy and sex not because I’m thirsty for sensation. It is not pornography, but curiosity and reflection of the carnal world as a closed space, on human relationships.
You could quote Houllebecq: “I am a realist. All great French Romantic poets, on whose works I was weaned, were Romantics and pornographers at the same time. The tone of my books is simply the same as my cultural universe”.
That’s right, but even when I am inspired by the global Internet community, I tend to interpret on my own the interpretations that I have found. And I like to talk about myself, which is probably the domain of women. Men don't like to talk about things that bother them or make them happy. My husband prefers to comment on reality instead of talking about himself. I must add here that the best thing in my life happened in Kraków - I met Damian.
The two of you moved together before your diploma. You were drawing Bourgeois doilies.
The apartment was horrible. We rented it from a relative, who inherited it after death of another relative. It needed urgent renovation, it was full of old furniture, some gadgets, all kinds of rubbish, and, that's right, doilies. It smelled of illness and old age. We cleaned the bed with a steam cleaner. Our financial situation was really bad, we couldn't afford anything better. And we were both feeling down, because we had no idea what to do, we already knew all clubs in Kraków and every party was just like the previous one and the next one. We felt like old age pensioners, having no expectations. I don’t know what would have happened had Damian not got a job offer in Warsaw.
After you moved to Warsaw, you worked at a boutique with elegant bags in a large shopping center. I remember being a bit shocked by the news.
I got a little lost after my studies. Damian got a job at an advertising agency. Everyone kept telling me I would end up being my husband's wife. Their remarks, such as “You were such a promising person, and you will end up asking him to give you money for a bread roll or a pack of sanitary towels”, reminded me of my mom’s lesson of many years ago. I had no idea what to do. Of course, I wanted to draw and create, but this is not a job that can give you a stable income. I drew at home, I never wanted a separate workshop, but at the same time I felt obliged to cook dinner, clean up the apartment, walk out the dog. All of a sudden I had little time for drawing.
How long did you manage to stay at the bag shop?
Four months, and don't think it was a trauma. It’s true that I worked really hard for one thousand zlotys per month. But I opened up to people, and at the same time, I got the motivation to convince myself I wanted to do something else. I used to treat people like a waste of time, now I need their presence. After the bag shop, I went to an advertising agency. I managed to stay for a month and a half and then I escaped. Selling bags was better, after all.
And that's when you decided to become a tattoo artist?
When we still lived in Kraków, I bought a tattoo machine over the Internet, which turned out to be completely useless. I tried to practice on synthetic skin, but the results were poor: I couldn’t even make the simplest heart. Finally I decided I probably had no talent for that, and I put tattooing aside for two years. After the episode with the advertising agency, I got back to the idea. I picked a random tattooing studio and started a training there. For six months, I watched tattoo artists at work. I started making my own drawings, and soon I got a job offer from a fine studio. I have been making tattoos for a year now, and I have created more than two hundred original works. Human body is unpredictable, every skin reacts differently. Working with the same pattern will take you one hour with one person and half a day with another. I love tattooing. Sometimes my hand gets stiff from it and I don't even notice that, working like in a trance. What I do with human bodies is still my art. It is not immortal, as tattoos live only as long as their owners. And this aspect is also beautiful and interesting. I can tell you now that I am happy. I have found fulfillment, professionally, artistically and privately. And now I draw more universal themes, there is less of my autobiography in them. Perhaps this is why more people respond to my art.
How many tattoos do you have?
For a tattoo artist, not many, and they are rather small. For the time being, I’ve got seven, but I know there will be more. I get tattoos not because I like something, but rather because sometimes I just feel like it, I feel this great urge, which can be satisfied only by a tattoo. As for the theme, I don't pay that much attention to it, I rather look for tattoos, which I will like and which will match the rest, but ultimately, I am not really planning to tattoo most of my body and cover my entire hands, back or legs. I prefer each tattoo to be read separately, against the background of clean skin.
You keep getting back to the theme of your need to be accepted by your loved ones. Don't your parents scowl at your tattoos?
They do, of course, and they’d rather see me have as little as possible, preferably none, but they slowly get used to it as the number is increasing. They have got used to the fact that I do this kind of art, but they said once it would be better if I disfigured bodies of others and not my own.
You had three exhibitions lately and you didn't come to any of the previews.
My husband sometimes jokes that Magdalena Sawicka is an imaginary character. I don't like to be in the focus of attention. Then, of course, I like it when my drawings are in the focus of attention.
For many years, people in your drawings had no faces, there were just empty patches, empty space.
This has changed recently. Even my self-portrait now has a face.