Karol Wójciak Heródek (1892-1969), born in Lipnica Wielka at Orawa. A shepherd, sculptor and musician. He was discovered, forgotten and then rediscovered again. Although he was called ‘Nikifor from Orawa’ he never became as famous as his artistic ‘brother’ from Krynica.
Where was he from?
A boy, Karol was born in the poorest Wójciak family at Lipnica Wielka, at the foot of Babia Góra on Wednesday, 19 October 1892. Since the beginning he was different.
Apparently his state of mind is ‘poor’. Karol remains at Lipnica Wielka and close to Babia Góra for the rest of his life. Karol has a friend. His grandfather takes him everywhere he goes. They wander together, they sing folk songs, Karol looks on and listens as his grandpa plays at weddings. Grandpa passes away when Karol is seven. A relative takes care of him when he is eight, she calls him ‘a failed relative’. Karol lives in the stable. He decorates it in his own way. He goes to school, but only for a short time as hands for work are required on the farm. Apparently the failed relative had been carving since he was a child. Apparently they were figures of animals made of twigs and branches. Maybe they were toys he and made for himself. When he is a teenager, he has a traumatic experience – all his carvings burn. As most willingly he goes to church and ‘would like to play all the time’, a punishment is imposed.
Years pass. Karol visits the Przywara family very often. He is about sixteen at that time. He watches Przywara father carve. ‘Gnoty’ , logs of wood start disappearing from the piles of firewood…
Karol Wójciak, nicknamed Heródek, was regarded by the village community as a moron and a weirdo wearing several ties at the same time. He has got a place to live yet he wanders around the village. He dreams of a house – a chapel or a cave in the rock. Dressed in a thick coat with a pocket sewn on by himself and a military cap on his head he gets hired to work as a shepherd. Karol is a shepherd and will remain one forever. He serves the longest for three farmers, Jazowski, Zurek and Smreczak. He always lives in the stable, a barn or in a shed. He always decorates them. Encouraged to live in the room, he refuses. He lives in extreme poverty. Rejected, he still is attracted by people. He becomes known for his music, for tales of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. He lives with animals, hiding his sculptures in hay. Like him, also they are rejected by the surrounding community. When offered in good faith, they get to the stoves and ovens. It is a shame to have something like that at home, and fuel wood is extremely expensive. At the beginning Heródek does not paint his sculptures, he has nothing to do it with. There is a special relationship between the artist and the sculptures: he treats them as persons. He carves only the figures of the saints and believes that they have a power to transform the person who gets them for the better. They are like his tools for repairing and building a better world. He tries to improve the world himself too. At night, standing in water, he regulates the river banks, wishing to protect the nearby houses from inundation. He loves music and makes it in his own way. At first on the violin he makes himself from a board and two pieces of wire. Later on the violin he gets from a musician from Lipnica. He modifies and tunes it in his own way. He plays it with a bow he has made himself. He sings. He is known for his long walks. Karol goes to church every day. People see him in nearby villages, Kiczory, Lipnica Mała, Zubrzyca. He is said to vanish on Babia Góra mountain. He is always wherever some people are gathered. He is never absent from weddings, christenings, first communions or confirmations. He participates in all the funerals in Lipnica, carrying a cross at the beginning of the funeral procession.
Everything he owns is in his pocket: the violin, the bow, cake, broken watches, coins. He is not a beggar. He earns money playing his violin. In 1959 employees of the Tatra Mountains Museum in Zakopane discover ‘a farmer from an abandoned cottage’ by accident. It is Heródek. This discovery does not make a big impression. It will be known to a narrow circle of ethnographers and art brut connoisseurs, however, it is an important moment: persuaded by the museum employees, Heródek introduces color. The museum takes on some unofficial patronage over the artist. He gets paints from people – the leftovers from painting the school or a house. Something changes in 1966. ‘Woodblock sculptures’ by the totally unknown artist get to the folk art exhibition in the Cultural Center at Nowy Targ. This is where they are spotted by Maria Lechowska-Bujak, then the Managing Director of the Władysław Orkan Museum at Rabka. First buyers from the city appear at Lipnica Wielka. In 1967, two years before his death, Karol Wójciak becomes popular. Persuaded by Maria Lechowska-Bujak, Jan Bujak publishes his article, Herodek from Lipnica Wielka in a popular Przekrój weekly. Heródek’s shed is invaded by art collectors, curators, researchers, a psychologist, television, artists from Krakow, the whole of Poland and apparently also from abroad. To those who find him there, Heródek shows his sculptures and tells his tales originating from the New Testament or the lives of the saints. He tells them stories of Babia Góra Mountain which for him is an embodied vision of Paradise on Earth and the Earth in Paradise. He exchanges his sculptures for clothes, ties or sells them for nothing. He gives the money to the farmers for who he works. He creates primitive forms which are difficult to classify unanimously as folk art or art brut. They are unique. On August 22 Heródek is suddenly taken to hospital at Nowy Targ. He dies there after a short disease on Monday, September 1, 1969. The reality could not be undone by a short notice at Dziennik Polski daily, entitled Herodek at Hospital, reassuring that the life of one of the best known folk sculptors is not threatened any more. Karol Wójciak was buried at Lipnica Wielka. His grave is situated in the southern part of the cemetery, in the second row from the fence, near St. Luke the Evangelist parish church, his parish church. The gravestone as it is now was financed by the Smreczak family, the last farmers he worked for. The inscription on the gravestone is:
Karol Wójciak ‘HERÓDEK’
born on 19/10/1892 in Lipnica Wielka
died on 01/09/1969
‘Nikifor from Orawa’
FOLK SCULPTOR AND MUSICIAN.