ArtsWatch Guest Post: Return to roots — a Polish Oregonian cellist in Europe

Dispatch number one from cellist Ashia Grzesik on the road in Europe

Portland cellist Ashia Grzesik

Portland cellist Ashia Grzesik


Editor’s note: Ashia Grzesik is a Polish-born, Pacific Northwest-raised cellist, singer, and composer who has been living in Portland for the last four years. Apart from her pop-folk, indie-classical solo project, Ashia & the Bison Rouge, she has performed with Cirque du Soleil, Vagabond Opera, and the Portland Cello Project. She is currently performing with the acrobatic show “Dummy” in Germany. She’ll be sending ArtsWatch occasional dispatches from her European sojourn.

Friday, January 26th, was my third time performing in Ostrava, CZ. It’s a city located in the northeastern part of Czech Republic near the Polish border and an area that is known for its intense industrial history of coal and steel mining and processing.

The first was on the day that you burn witches in Czech Republic, and happens to be my birthday, April 30th (2012). I had no idea what to expect. It was a stop on my tour that a friend from Prague helped me organize.

It was a hot, gorgeous day and my concert was indoors so not very many people came, but it didn’t matter. I set out to connect to my Czech brethren and sisters…. and to burn a witch! (I’ll tell you more about that tradition in a later post.) The organizers of the venue, Cooltour, loved the show and decided that evening that I needed to be a part of their Shakespeare Summer Festival premier of  “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” They not only wanted me to perform in it, but to perform my own songs. This would have meant returning to this strange space of shuttered coal mines, closed store fronts, steel factories, 19th century mixed in with modernist Communist architecture, shiny shopping malls, and really good beer in June. That was so soon, but so interesting, but I’d be missing the Portland summer. Hmmm… both places offer good beer… I think I’ll survive!

Once back in Czech Republic for the second time, I realized I was really close to what was home — and yet horribly far. Portland had grown to be where I return to and call “home” for the last four years. I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, as a child of Polish immigrants, and the forests are a deep part of my life, as well as the clean air.

Ostrava’s air had a sharp, strange industrial scent, especially on weekend nights. They say that some of the more toxic air gets released when no one can see it, most likely from the steel plant, among other factories. Portland, in contrast, has been cutting down on industrial jobs. Regardless of the harsh air, I felt oddly so close to home, and I wasn’t even in Poland.

Slavic Soul

My Slavic roots were drawing me in. Odra River, which begins outside the city in the mountains, flows first through Ostrava, winds its way to the Polish border and then splits as it enters Wroclaw, the city I was born in. The people and actors of the play and festival were so welcoming, open, and many of us connected deeply even though we couldn’t always understand each other. One of my friends told me “We are of the same blood…. I see you as a Slavic Soul, that just happens to speak English perfectly.” I was experiencing intense emotions and the beer wasn’t helping.

While completely sinking into these lands as the coal sediments in the Odra, I was becoming homesick for fresh Pacific Northwest air and trees. About two to three weeks into the rehearsal and just before the premier of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” I thought I was going to go nuts. The production manager took pity on me and drove me to the forest just a half an hour away for a hike. This was a dream! There was even moss and a few chanterelles and if I had any of the local beer I would have felt as though I was back in the Tillamook Forest. I wanted to bathe myself in fir branches!

During the rehearsal period, the organizing director mentioned that they could make a music video out of one of my songs. The actors’ favorite song in the play was “Country Will Do Her Well,” my solo show opener about the kale and pumpkin babies a Willamette Valley Farmer and his/hisher/her poly-amorous Portland city hipster, bicycle riding, vegetarian, fire spinning, cabaret, belly-dancing, lover would make. Oh no, we don’t have front lawns in Portland; we have vegetable gardens. Yes, here I was sowing the seeds of home grown agriculture to people who kept small gardens on the outskirts of cities to supply extra vegetables to their families during the difficult decades. Social Communism packed its people into block-style Stalin houses, so people had their gardens in other parts of town. Same concept, but born from different systems, priorities, and needs.

So, my existence was such in this industrial city, with all these ideas of a green West Coast Portland life that I wanted to make alive in to the minds of audiences. The videographer/director and I decided it would be perfect to create and combine a collaboration between the Shakespeare Festival Ostrava actors, the song, myself, and concepts of the environment, and dirt. The actors were so patient in their work, and I feel incredibly grateful to work with such Czech talent. And I even turned my cello into a garden, safely.

My heart and roots rest here in these Slavic lands… but perhaps my branches will keep extending longer and taller in Portland? That I’m not absolutely sure of yet, but I know that I’ll be singing, performing, and cultivating these ideas, songs, and dreams of forests, and a greener life, such as with this music video.