Kevin Riordan: A Latvian whose life 'really is an American story'

Peter Dajevskis, son of Latvian artist Evald Dajevskis, shows "Displaced Person Camp, Augsburg, Germany," a 1947 painting, to Maija Mednis.
Peter Dajevskis, son of Latvian artist Evald Dajevskis, shows "Displaced Person Camp, Augsburg, Germany," a 1947 painting, to Maija Mednis. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2013

The late artist Evalds Dajevskis wasn't famous, and his paintings didn't fetch millions. But they're priceless to Latvian Americans such as Maija Mednis.

"I love them. . . . I love his colors," says Mednis, who emigrated from the Baltic nation in 1949 and drove a Gloucester Township school bus for two decades.

For many Latvian Americans, appreciation for Dajevskis transcends the aesthetic. The artist grew up in an uneasy Eastern Europe, became a displaced person during World War II, endured refugee camps in Germany, and, eventually, made his life in America. His journey was shared by many Latvians.

This week, a wider public has a chance to see the work of the painter and theatrical set designer whose life "really is an American story," says Peter Dajevskis, Evalds' son.

"My father's experience ties not only to the experience of the Latvian people, but to many other immigrant groups that came to America," says Dajevskis, 64, of West Chester.

The exhibit, "Place, Art and Identity," continues through Saturday at the Latvian Society in Philadelphia. Dajevskis curated the show and, with Blackwood resident Vidvus Mednis - Maija's son - developed a smartphone app to guide visitors through it.

Latvia was occupied by the Nazis, and later the Russians, during World War II. Evalds Dajevskis and Maija Mednis were among 100,000 Latvians who landed in refugee camps, then immigrated to the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

About 3,000 people of Latvian descent live in the Philadelphia-South Jersey area, and for many, the Latvian club near Spring Garden Street is a place to reconnect.

The exhibit offers a last chance to see a large collection of Dajevskis' eclectic and evocative work. The show had a successful run at the Latvian embassy in Washington, and will travel from Philadelphia to Michigan before becoming part of the permanent collection at a museum in Latvia.

Though several of Dajevskis' canvases feature fanciful or surreal images, most are realistic rural and urban landscapes. There are scenes of prewar Latvia, postwar Germany, and New York, where the artist settled with his family in 1951. The colors range from somber to lively, the emotions from mournful to lighthearted.

Dajevskis' art also found its way to the screen: He designed the sets for an "electronic puppet"  version of Hansel and Gretel that was released in 1954 and featured an operatic score. It's strange, but also haunting and beautiful.

At the Philadelphia show, the 35 works also include set designs and posters for a traveling theater troupe with which Dajevskis worked. The company entertained refugees who lived in British-run camps in postwar Germany. Few had money, so admission was on the barter system: Nails, useful for building the shows' sets, were acceptable currency.

"Oh, golly, there was such excitement in the camp," says Maija Mednis, also of Blackwood, gazing at a placard for a Latvian-language performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night she attended in 1947.

"I like the persistence of the Latvian culture . . . even in a displaced-persons camp," says Vidvus Mednis, 53.

Dajevskis believes the show would please his father. He loved the United States, and was in many ways a citizen of the world. But his soul was Latvian.

"A sense of place was woven into his artistic fabric," Dajevskis says. "I'm trying to put him and his work into a larger context."

Latvians like his father grew up "wondering where they fit in the world. They perceived themselves as living in exile, because it was not a voluntary immigration. . . .

"While they were happy to be given refuge, they looked back at the homeland as a . . . world they felt was lost. The sense of loss was always there. I think that's where my father's art connected with people."


The Latvian Society, 531 N. Seventh St., will be open from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday, and 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. Information: 610-659-6877.

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|