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He Loves to Medal : Designer-Artist Leon Kawecki Fashions Commemoratives for Pleasure

February 18, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN, Times Staff Writer

To mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in 1973, he designed a commemorative poster issued by a chapter of the Polish American Congress, another poster commissioned by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and a commemorative bronze-cast plaque for the Griffith Observatory.

To salute the 175th anniversary of the birth of Polish composer Frederic Chopin in 1985, he designed and personally issued a commemorative medal in silver and bronze.

To honor Pope John Paul II, he designed a commemorative medal issued by the Polish American Numismatic Assn. and painted a stunning oil portrait of the former Cardinal of Krakow that now hangs in the library at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

And to do his part for the American Bicentennial, he designed and personally issued a commemorative medal featuring George Washington flanked by his fellow "freedom founders," the Polish-born Generals Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski.

Given all that--and that is just a sampler--it would seem only a matter of time before Polish-born artist and designer Leon Kawecki of Garden Grove would get around to creating an artistic tribute to one of Poland's greatest actresses of all time: Madame Helena Modjeska, a Polish emigrant and pioneer Orange County resident who became the leading Shakespearean actress in the United States in the 1880s.

The time has come.

Commissioned last year by the California chapter of the Polish-American Historical Assn., the limited-edition commemorative medal that Kawecki has designed captures both Modjeska the woman and her century-old house on her estate in Santiago Canyon, which the actress named Arden after the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare's "As You Like It."

"In Poland, she is considered the greatest lady of the theater," said Kawecki, who retains a rich Polish accent even after 38 years in this country. "There was no one greater than Modjeska. In Poland, we say, 'Mode-ju-yev-ska."'

The Polish-American Historical Assn. plans to issue the high-relief, 2 3/4-inch-diameter medal in April. (It will cost $35 in bronze, $230 in silver. For details, call the Polish-American Historical Assn. at (213) 670-1090.)

Proceeds from the medal will help pay for the publication of an updated version of the nonprofit organization's 1977 book, "Polish-Americans in California and Who's Who." The new book will be dedicated to Modjeska.

"She is a towering figure of the Polish community of our past," said chapter president Henrietta Simons, who has seen Kawecki's charcoal drawings for the medal and deems it "gorgeous."

"It is so striking," she said. "I like Leon's work, but I love this medal. He really, to me, captured her."

The obverse side of the medal features a portrait of the actress with long, flowing hair. Using artistic license, Kawecki has her wearing a broad-brimmed, Western-style hat with an art nouveau diamond-shaped decoration on it that matches her earrings. The bottom of the medal is adorned with the coat-of-arms of Krakow, Modjeska's birthplace, which is flanked with laurel leaves. The circular legend reads: "Helena Modjeska--First Lady of the Theater."

The reverse side of the medal shows Modjeska's celebrated Orange County home surrounded by lush vegetation. In the distance are the twin peaks of Saddleback Mountain (Modjeska and Santiago), and in the center of the upper part is a stylized mask, symbol of the theater arts. The legend on top reads "Pioneer Actress of Two Continents--Born in Krakow, Poland Oct. 12, 1840. Died at Balboa, California, April 8, 1909." And on the bottom: "Arden--Modjeska's Home in Santiago Canyon."

The challenge of designing a commemorative medal, according to Kawecki, is to convey an historically important event in a condensed space. A commemorative medal, he said, is art in miniature, "so therefore certain elements have to be exaggerated to bring out the beauty of the medal."

As is the case with his nine other commemorative medals honoring Polish historical figures, Kawecki donated his time and work in designing the Modjeska medal for the Polish-American Historical Assn.

"I wanted to donate something of my own to Modjeska," said Kawecki, a longtime association member. "It gives me a specific pleasure to produce a token of my own admiration for a Polish emigre who has contributed something not only to Poland but the world at large."

To research the Polish actress and her home, Kawecki consulted with Modjeska historian Ellen K. Lee of Laguna Beach and viewed old photographs and paintings.

He did not, however, visit Modjeska's house, which is being restored by the county as part of a 14.5-acre historical park.

"No, I'm ashamed," he confessed in a mock whisper, then boomed, "I'm so occupied, my friend! Every day I have something else."

As Western region art director for Meade Packaging in Buena Park, Kawecki spends the workweek designing packages for 7-Up, Pepsi, RC Cola and various fruit juice and water companies.

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