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Set designer pioneered path for Polish artists in Canada

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A lifetime of toiling in the arts means the personal art collection of  Peter Kaczmarek runs to a countless number of pieces.

But the renowned set designer — who worked 26 years as the set and costume designer for the Hollow Mug Theatre Restaurant at the former International Inn near the airport — admits he first resisted the idea of putting some of it on display for what would be the first exhibition of his works.

However, with a little convincing and some hired heavy lifting, the Ogniwo Polish Museum was able to snag 50 never-before-seen pieces from Kaczmarek’s Anola, Man., home for A Lifetime of Art, now on display at the museum through June.

"I don’t need any more glory. I had my days," Kaczmarek said.

The multi-media exhibit is a highlight of Kaczmarek’s artistic prowess — stained glass sculptures, expansive acrylic paintings, photography, handcrafted jewelry. There’s even a scale model of the Santa Maria — the largest in the three-ship fleet Christopher Columbus used during his first sail across the Atlantic.

"I always like to do something different," Kaczmarek said, noting he’s also built a full-size sailboat along with his own cottage at West Hawk Lake.

It’s a philosophy Kaczmarek has applied since immigrating to Manitoba from Poland and settling into Winnipeg’s North End in 1951.

Art had been instinctual for Kaczmarek since he was a kid — "I wasn’t good in math. In order to make good grades, I bribed teachers with drawings," he laughs — and, despite no formal schooling, he landed a job as a set designer for CBC Winnipeg in 1955.

Building sets for television and game shows, Kaczmarek had to keep pace with evolving technology that allowed cameras to film in higher quality and zoom into the smallest of details.

To give sets a feeling of three dimensions, he would use Styrofoam to make bricks and wool to copy the look of a stucco wall.

"You improvise and make things that are completely different," he said.

Outside his 30-year career with the Hollow Mug and CBC, he also designed sets for the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Manitoba Opera and Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

He also kept good company with local theatre pioneers John Hirsch and Tom Hendry as he moved about the city, living in Transcona and St. Boniface before moving out to the country.

Museum president Christine Tabbernor called Kaczmarek a "grandfather" and inspiration to Polish artists across the country.

"My parents would talk about him in awe as a Polish artist that made success in Canada," recalled Tabbernor, who lives in Riverview.

The museum happily raided his home, Tabbernor joked.

"There’s something in every piece to relate to… from the folk pieces to the prairie scenes. The depth and variety is stunning," she said.

"We’re thrilled that we could do it."

A Lifetime of Art runs until June 25.

The museum, located at 1417 Main St., is open Tuesdays from 7 to 9 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. Admission is free.

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