Tom Podl-The Man Behind “Colors of Identity”

Autor: Eva Orlowska

Tom Podl at home with his collection

Art collector, engineer, entrepreneur, community leader and a friend -Tom Podl inspired Poles to discover their roots and redefine their Polish identity through art, film and activism.

Earlier this year, Tom Podl met me for lunch at the Ivar’s Salmon House on Lake Union in Seattle. For the next three hours, I was captivated by his knowledge and enthusiasm for the Polish artists belonging to École de Paris, nineteenth and twentieth century history of Poland and the Polish émigré communities in Chicago and Seattle. Now I could understand how this passionate man amassed the largest Polish art collection in America (over 200 works), took it on the road to 12 prestigious museums in the United States, Poland and Switzerland, motivated others to invest in Polish art, and helped to launch the Seattle Polish Film Festival that has been one of the most important events promoting Polish culture in the Pacific Northwest for the last 18 years.

A recipient of numerous awards and medals, Tom has been relentless in his support of Polish culture and interests. For years he opened his art filled home in the suburb of Seattle to Polish art enthusiasts and distinguished visitors from Poland. In the 1980s, he provided financial assistance to the Solidarity movement in Poland. During 1991-1993, he served as the president of the Polish Museum of America in Chicago. In 2002, Tom gave a memorable lecture at the University of Washington in Seattle titled:  “Colors of Identity: Discovering Polish Heritage through Art”, inaugurating a series of lectures titled “50 Years of Polish at the UW: Celebrating Polish-American Heritage”, organized to commemorate half a century long history of Polish at the University of Washington.  Later on, Tom co-chaired, and to this day is involved, in the activities of the UW Polish Studies Endowment Committee, which was funded following the success of the lecture series.

Stanisław Eleszkiewicz, Husband and Wife Quarreling, date unknown
Henryk Rauchinger, Courtship, 1898

Born Podlasińki to Polish parents in 1938, Tom grew up in South Side Chicago. His grandparents arrived from the partitioned Poland to Illinois in the early 1900’s. Grandfather Franciszek, after his service in the tsarist army, first made his way across the Pacific Ocean from Russia to America in search of work as a logger in the forests near Seattle. Three years later, he returned to Poland on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and brought the rest of the family to Chicago, this time via Hamburg and Ellis Island. Mostly “melted into” the Polish community, the families made a living in steel mills and real estate management.

Tom’s childhood was a happy one despite pervasive prejudice towards Poles. His dad changed the family’s surname from Podlasiński to Podl to improve his white-collar job prospects in downtown Chicago.  Growing up with Polish and Catholic traditions, Tom gained an appreciation for hard work, faith, education, community and homeland. He graduated with a BS in electrical engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology in 1963 and with wife Audrey and children Carrie and Tod, relocated to Minneapolis for his first job in computer engineering. In 1974, he relocated again to pursue sales management in Seattle.

It is in Seattle that Tom established Intralife (1976), a medical device company that made him financially successful and gave him the means to discover and collect the art of his ancestors.  Guided by friends and experts, he focused on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Polish-born artists who graduated from the art schools in Krakow, Warsaw, Lvov and Vilnius and immigrated to Paris to create a Polish colony of the School of Paris. In the span of 20 years, Tom amassed, documented and exhibited the most respected Polish art collection outside of Poland. This could only happen with the collaboration of many ardent supporters:  his second wife Cathy, a dedicated circle of friends in Seattle, the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York, Zbigniew Legutko-art dealer from Lippert Gallery in New York, Wojciech Fibak-legendary collector of the Polish Parisian modernism; Marek Mielniczuk-director of Gallerie Marek in Paris; Krzysztof Kamyszew-director of The Society for Arts in Chicago, Prof. Władysława Jaworska-renowned Pont-Aven art critic, Andrzej Ciechanowiecki-director of Heim Gallery in London, Artur Tanikowski-editor of “Art and Business” in Warsaw,  and many others.

“Tom, searching for his roots, evolved from an amateur with hardly any idea of what Polish art was into an enthusiast whose knowledge frequently surpassed that of the experts.” says Ryszard Kott, Microsoft software designer who provided Tom with digital expertise for a first of its kind CD and internet site before the “Colors of Identity” tour in Poland in 2001-2003. The exhibitions took place in eight cities, including the National Museum in Kraków and the Zachęta Museum in Warsaw.

Ryszard and his wife Maria Kott are now avid Polish art collectors in their own right. With nearly 40 artworks of their favorite Jan Lebenstein, among others, the couple explained: “Our relationship with Tom made it plain to us that being a serious art collector is not so difficult. Here, in this country of immigrants, such spiritual heritage is particularly helpful for subsequent generations in building relationships and being proud of Polish roots.” (reprinted from Czeslaw Czaplinski’s “Polish Art Collections in America” with Kotts’ permission).

The wonderful gatherings at the Podls’ home have ended.  Tom and Cathy in search of nature and land, as many of their Pont-Aven artists, moved out to the countryside.  The new home is now filled with grandchildren.

Many communities in the US still yearn to see Tom Podl Collection, which is currently deposited at the Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola. Dr. Sandra Olson, director of the University of Buffalo Art Gallery, said, “There is very strong local support for this exhibition in the Buffalo community but it is unclear where the artworks would go after our exhibition.” Prof. Marek Kwiatkowski, retired director of the Royal Łazienki Museum in Warsaw, said, “The logical place for Tom’s collection is the Museum of Art in Łódź. The museum, specializing in avant-garde art representative of twentieth century movements such as expressionism, cubism, abstractionism and so on, has recently received many valuable donations from American artists.”

Not only artists but also collectors have been donating their collections. In 1947 Stefan Mierzwa bequeathed his collection to the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York,  in 1977 Aleksander Mełeń-Korczyński to the Piłsudski Institute in New York and in 2005 Jan Nowak-Jeziorański to the Ossoliński National Institute in Wrocław. When asked in whose hands he intends to leave his collection, Tom Podl pulled out a photo of his newest granddaughter and replied, “That remains to be determined…”

Tom hopes that, “the Polish paintings will inspire us to honor the experiences of our ancestors who struggled to create a higher path for us.” Many of us simply find pleasure in learning that our predecessors created works on par with the Western European masters. Amid the late twentieth century political changes in Central Europe, the Polish colony in Seattle, as the Polish colony a century earlier in Paris, fostered social conditions that sprung a beautiful legacy in Tom Podl Collection.

“We are a very learned Polish community here in Seattle,” Tom said proudly with an invitation to the next UW Polish Studies Endowment Committee meeting.” Before we parted, he handed me a book saying. “I hope you’ll enjoy this”. It was a spectacular 300-page catalog titled “Colors of Identity-Polish Art from the American Collection of Tom Podl” by Anna Król and Artur Tanikowski published by National Museum in Krakow in 2001.

Tom Podl’s Awards:
2008 Angel of Polish Film Festival award from the Society For Arts
2007 Cavalier Cross of the Order of Merit from the President of the Republic of Poland
2007 Gloria Artis Gold Medal from the Polish Ambassador to the USA Janusz Reiter
2004 Haiman Award from the Polish American Historical Association

Tom Podl Collection was exhibited in the following cities:
Stalowa Wola 2009, Chicago 2006, 1993, Warszawa 2003, Rapperswil 2003, Kraków 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, Poznań 2003, 2002, Łódź 2003, Szczecin 2002, Legnica 2002, Sopot  2003, Wrocław 2001,  Seattle 1993.

“Colors of Identity” was voted the best museum exhibition in 2001 in Poland. The National Museum in Kraków and Tom Podl Collection won the coveted Sybill Award. Ms. Anna Król, the exhibition curator and the Deputy Director of the National Museum in Kraków, accepted the award in the Grand Ballroom of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, on May 18, 2002.

Polish artists in Tom Podl Collection: Bolesław Biegas (Biegalski),  Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz, Włodzimierz Błocki,  Olga Boznańska, Bolesław Buyko (Bujko), Józef Chełmoński, Jan Cybis, Józef Czapski,  Stanisław Eleszkiewicz, Julian Fałat, Jerzy Fedkowicz, Stefan Filipkiewicz, Eugeniusz Geppert, Gustaw Gwozdecki, Vlastimil (Wlastimil) Hofman (Hofmann or Hoffman), Leon Kapliński, Aleksander Kotsis, Jan Lebenstein, Józef Tadeusz (Tadé) Makowski, Jacek Malczewski, Rafał Malczewski, Józef Mehoffer, Piotr Michałowski, Józef Pankiewicz, Henryk Rauchinger, Jan Rubczak, Hanna Rudzka-Cybis (Cybisowa), Kazimierz Sichulski, Władysław Ślewiński, Jan Stanisławski, Stanisław Szukalski (psuedonym Stach z Warty), Wojciech Weiss, Witold Wojtkiewicz, Franciszek Żmurko, Aleksander Żyw

Polish artists with Jewish roots in Tom Podl Collection: Aleksander (Sasza, Szaje) Blonder (André Blondel), Eugeniusz Eibisch (Eugene Ebiche) , Henryk (Henri) Epstein , Erno Erb , Leopold Gottlieb , Alicja (Alice)Halicka , Henryk (Henri)Hayden , Rajmund Moise Kanelba (Kanelbaum) , Mojżesz (Moise)Kisling , Roman Kramsztyk , Zygmunt Landau , Zygmunt Józef Menkes , Simon Mondzain (Szamaj Mondszajn) , Mela Muter , Joachim Weingart , Eugeniusz(Eugéne) Zak

For more information about the artists, the artworks and the collector please