January 3, 2012 |

Local artist brings Christmas to China with Polish tradition

An ancient holiday folk art tradition from Poland is becoming one of Pittsburgh's newest exports, thanks to the work of area artist David Motak, one of the world's leading experts on the "szopka" or Cracow Christmas creche.

Originally used as Christmas puppet theaters in the Polish city of Cracow (in Polish: Krakyw), the whimsically ornate structures are making big headlines in China at one of Hong Kong's major retail developments, attracting large crowds from within the former British colony as well as curious visitors from China's mainland.

Using the traditional Polish art as a new Christmas symbol was the brainchild of Betake Marketing (HK) Limited, one of Hong Kong's leading special event marketing firms. When Sun Hung Kai Properties, a major Hong Kong retail developer, was looking for a strategy to promote its 2011 Christmas shopping season at their upscale Landmark North shopping mall, they turned to Betake owners Alex and Bonnie Lam, asking the marketing duo to create a dynamic new symbol of Christmas, the second most popular official holiday in Hong Kong.

The Lams and their staff were tasked to develop a campaign unlike any other in the city. The objective - to create a distinctive and unique Christmas experience that would set Landmark North apart from its retail competitors – would require Betake to call upon the services of Polish American artist and graphic designer, David Motak.

A leading authority and practitioner of the szopka art from, a Polish Christmas tradition that Mr. Motak is promoting world-wide, the Pittsburgh based artist has produced student workshops around the country and commission pieces for several clients nationwide.

"The Hong Kong proposal was an opportunity to take this project global and this is the first time that the szopka art form as been shown in Asia," notes the artist who was the first foreigner and first American to enter the annual Szopka Competition in Cracow, Poland in 2010, receiving a coveted Special Award for Artistic Merit.

The szopka art form, which are glittering, meticulously hand-crafted structures varying in size from several inches to several feet, incorporate lightweight materials, such as wood, cardboard and foil paper as they were originally carried along Cracow streets by carolers.

"The Chinese see the szopka as something less religious than as a symbol of joy and happiness, a symbol of a festive season," the artist observes.

A third generation Polish American, Mr. Motak is reviving the art form in the United States where it was imported to such industrial centers in the late 1800s by Polish immigrants such as his grandparents.

Mr. Motak is the first person to develop a teaching methodology for the Polish folk art which is not formally taught in Poland. He is the world's leading szopka expert having researched the tradition and apprenticed in Cracow where he lived and attended university.

In 2003, Mr. Motak and partner John Samuels established the Cracow Crèche Workshop, an educational endeavor to promote the szopka. Since that time, more than 800 students have studied szopka building under his tutelage, including workshops for inner city school children sponsored by the Polish Embassy in Washington, D. C. as well as workshops in numerous other locations throughout the United States.

The Pittsburgh artist has also exhibited his work at various major art galleries, such as New York's prestigious Gagosian Gallery; his work is also in private collections. In addition to his work as an artist and designer, Mr. Motak also serves as director of communications for the Polish Falcons of America, a large benefit fraternal organization headquartered in Pittsburgh.

Prior to his departure for Hong Kong, Mr. Motak was honored for his cultural contributions to Western Pennsylvania with a special proclamation by the Pittsburgh City Council on Thursday, Nov. 10, which was proclaimed "David Motak Day" in the City of Pittsburgh.

"This designation greatly impressed the folks in Hong Kong," notes Mr. Motak, who adds that the photo of the City Council presentation was prominently included in the Hong Kong exhibition. "The Chinese are fascinated by the szopka art form and particularly by the fact that it is being promoted by an American."

Mr. Motak notes his contacts at Betake Marketing have informed him that the exhibition is drawing large crowds. The exhibition, which has been extensively covered in the Chinese media, will continue until January 5.

In Hong Kong, as in many parts of the world, Christmas has become the primary shopping season of the year and the trappings of the season – from glitter and garland to Santas and Christmas trees - have become staple decorative elements in an attempt to entice holiday shoppers. This is particularly true in Hong Kong, a city where shopping malls are some of the biggest and most impressive in the world and the retail landscape has become intensely competitive due to the influx of eager shoppers from mainland China.

Lured by quality assurance, lower, tax-free prices, better service and a wider and more exclusive range of products than they can find at home, upscale Hong Kong shopping malls are proving irresistible beacons for its own population of 7 million consumers as well as for mainland Chinese consumers who are more than willing to empty their bulging wallets for luxury goods.

In recent years, these eager visitors have become the main driver of the city's multi-billion dollar retail industry. And Christmas, a time when Hong Kong retail developers offer elaborate displays, enticing special events, and celebrity appearances, is a popular shopping holiday.

In developing their strategy for Hong Kong's Landmark North shopping gallery, Betake Marketing was forced to think "out of the box."

"After Chinese New Year, Christmas is the second most popular holiday in Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong consumer is very sophisticated," notes Betake Marketing's Senior Account Manager Patrick Tam. "After reaching Christmas traditions from around the world, we realized that the szopka is a Christmas tradition relatively unknown outside of Poland and certainly new to Hong Kong."

The Lams and their staff concluded a display of szopki would provide a perfect complement for their client's image of being an exclusive and unique upscale shopping experience. They then presented a proposal to Landmark North's owners at Sun Hung Kai Properties to bring the Polish American artist and his works to Hong Kong.

"Mr. Motak has proven to be the only szopka artist who could assist us with this major undertaking," Tam adds. "Most szopka artists in Cracow create only one piece per year and do not maintain significant inventories of their work. In addition to being a producing artist, as an educator, Mr. Motak is also sensitive to promoting the art form to a diverse audience which has been a tremendous asset in bringing the tradition to China."

Because of Hong Kong's density, shopping complexes serve the dual role of functioning both as retail centers as well as cultural and social centers.

"It is not unusual for Hong Kong shopping malls to feature exhibits of prominent artists and performances by leading talent," notes Alex Lam. "Last year, at Landmark North we featured the works of Andy Warhol and his nephew James Warhola, a well-known illustrator. Hong Kong residents are among the most sophisticated in the world. They are discerning and appreciate fine art. An exhibition of szopka art is a perfect opportunity to attract a wide audience."

Consequently, Sun Hung Kai Properties employs the strategy of three "e"s. According to Sun Hung's Senior Promotions Manager Eric Lau, this translates as "education, enlightenment and entertainment," a novel philosophy in any retail environment and one which stimulates the developer to import the best artistic and cultural talent to their facilities.

Located in the extreme north of the city, the Landmark North shopping complex is in close proximity to the main crossing point from Mainland China and one of the first shopping stops for Mainland visitors. As one of Hong Kong's trendiest, swankiest shopping malls, Landmark North offers the largest number of chic, international boutiques in the region. In a city known for its excellent retail centers it has become an irresistible lure to mainland shoppers whose consumer appetite – thanks to China's robust economy - has grown heartily in recent years.

As part of the exhibition, the artist was asked to create a special szopka integrating Hong Kong design elements. Since szopka pieces incorporate architectural features from various Cracow buildings,@Mr. Motak fashioned a piece that includes a replica of Hong Kong's famous clock tower, one of the city's most distinctive landmarks.

The szopka also features mechanical figures, including a Chinese festival dragon. The electrified and lighted work of art is one of three motorized pieces in the exhibition.

Prior to shipment to Hong Kong, the specially commissioned piece was officially unveiled at the special ceremony at the City of Pittsburgh City Council Chambers on November 10, when the artist was honored with a special proclamation recognizing his cultural contributions to the city and in serving as one of the city's cultural ambassadors.

For the Landmark North exhibition, the Betake's designers created a special installation of nine display cases to exhibit 17 works by Mr. Motak. The exhibition also includes a szopka built by his students, Ron and Ernestine Jeroski of North Huntingdon as well as two representative pieces by Polish szopka artists.

As a centerpiece for the installation, the Betake design team constructed a 20 foot version of a szopka complete with stage that serves as the backdrop for performances and special holiday events which Betake Marketing is developing for the retail center.

Included among the kick-off events on November 23 was the appearance of Taiwanese celebrity actress, film star and fashion model Sonia Sui, who was educated in Poland. The opening ceremony and ribbon cutting was also attended by the Honorable Mariusz Boguszewski, deputy consul general for the Republic of Poland in Hong Kong.

For more information on the Cracow Crèche Workshop and a slide show featuring the Hong Kong szopka exhibit, visit www.cracow crafts.com.

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