Text: Elisabeth Anderson
Images: Invaluable Auction and Galleries, Mary Beaven, SLSA
Polish-born Joseph Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski, who lived much of his adult life in Stirling, was an award-winning artist recognised in Australia and overseas for his pioneering work in laser sound and image technology and he was best known for his ground-breaking work in chromasonics, laser kinetics and sound and image productions. This art work took many forms and earnt him a number of awards, including an Order of Cultural Merit from Poland and the Order of Australia.
Some of his earlier artistic endeavours included painting, photography, film making, stained glass, sculpture, murals and vitreous enamels and examples of this can be found in both St Matthew’s Catholic Church in Bridgewater and St Maximilian Kolbe Church in the Adelaide suburb of Ottoway; and at the Dom Polski Centre in Angas Street stands his Katyn Memorial which commemorates Polish military personnel killed in action in World War II and the 4000 victims of a massacre in Katyn Forest in 1940.
Stan’s life story begins in Golub, Poland, where he was born on 28th December 1922. He was the son of a bank manager who was placed in a forced labour camp during the Nazi occupation in World War II and during those years he worked at several jobs to support his mother and younger sister.
Having demonstrated artistic talent from an early age, he was also studying painting and drawing under Olgierd Vetesco in Przasnysz but in early 1945 was sent into forced labour in Warendorf, West Germany. At the end of the War Stan was relocated to a displaced persons camp in Düsseldorf and after winning a scholarship he completed his studies there at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1949 and then immigrated to Australia.
His first job was cutting sandwiches at an army camp in Victoria but during that time he also attended the National Gallery School. He came to South Australia in 1954 and lived and worked in Stirling from 1955 onwards. His home and studio were on Arbroath, the estate of Edward Stirling Booth and Freya Booth who was a daughter of the artist Sir Hans Heysen. Stan lived under the patronage of the Booth family for over 40 years.
It was when working in the outback at the Leigh Creek coalfields in 1954-55 that light and colour inspired his artistic direction and capturing their intensity became the focus of his artistic creativity. At Stanford University, California, on a Churchill Fellowship in 1967, he came across the newly discovered laser and by the following year he had developed this beam to stage a Sound and Image production at the Adelaide Festival of Arts.
Stan’s baptismal font in St Matthew’s Church Bridgewater is on a stand of wrought iron and vertically patterned St Gobain French glass, able to be illuminated to highlight its colours. Stan drew on Polish tradition by using two plough shares for the font, symbolising the link between the function of the plough and the human nature of man and his ultimate return to dust. The church, which was officially opened in 1966, also has Stan’s windows which are vertically patterned in varying densities of amber.
The art in St Maxmillian Kolbe Church is his only known mosaic of traditional stone work and is of great significance. Stan identified strongly with his Polish heritage and links to the Polish community were important to him. He attended Polish services at St Joseph the Worker and was a friend of Father Marian Szablewski. After this church was burnt down Stan offered to contribute to the new building by designing a mosaic. When he discovered that the new church was to be dedicated to a martyr from Auschwitz he felt an even closer connection to the project as he himself had escaped from the Nazi transport to one of their concentration camps in Germany. His design for the mosaic symbolised the bringing together of people from all around the world and the common burdens they all shared.
This church was also the place of Stan’s funeral following his death from heart failure on 2nd April 1994. He was described as a man who was “a Pole to the marrow of his bones” and among the mourners was Australia’s Polish Ambassador from Sydney. The many tributes included a message from his mother, then aged 91 and living in a small village in Poland.
Stan’s archives, held in Adelaide and Melbourne, were inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Australian Memory of the World program in 2008.
His life, artistic achievement and awards may be read in more detail in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Wikipedia and the website of the SA History Hub.
The State Library of SA hold a rich collection of pioneering digital arts materials relating to the work of Joseph Stanislaus (Stan) Ostoja-Kotkowski. This collection includes nearly eight hundred 3½ inch floppy disks.
Do you have stories or memories of Stan and his time in the Adelaide Hills?
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop into the History Centre at the Coventry Library, 63 Mount Barker Road, Stirling.