Helena Kołodziej was born on 8 May 1936 in the village of Wielkie near Abramów into a farmer’s family. She now lives in nearby Wielkolas. She completed 6 grades of primary school before being permanently expelled in seventh grade for her protest against removal of crosses from classrooms. It was not until her adult life that she graduated from the Folk High School in Gardzienice. Kołodziej has worked on the farm all her life. In 1979, she founded the Farmer’s Club (Klub Rolnika) in Wielkolas, and she has also headed the local Village Women’s Club and started the vocal and theatre ensemble ‘Wielkolasianka’, for which she directed a number of dramatised productions, e.g. Wieczór wigilijny (Christmas Eve Night), Gaik (Little Grove) and Kusaki (a carnival show).
Kołodziej started writing poems in her adolescence; she made her publishing debut in Biuletyn Informacyjny STL (1974, no. 7-8) and went on to publish in such newspapers, magazines and periodicals as Chłopska Droga, Gospodyni, Gromada – Rolnik Polski, Kurier Lubelski, Lubartów i Ziemia Lubartowska, Rolnik, Sztandar Ludu and Twórczość Ludowa, as well as in anthologies titled Gruszo polna graj na wietrze (Lublin 1980), Nasz chleb powszedni (Lublin 1983), Nad ołtarzem pól (Lublin 1986), Ojczyzna (Lublin 1987), Śródpolne pacierze (Lublin 1989), Wołanie z ziemi (Lublin 1991), Prowadź nas w jasność (Lublin 1994), Ziarna wiecznej nadziei (Lublin 1994) and Gdzie pył chlebowy słońca sięga (Lublin 2001). The artist has also brought out her own volume of poems Kwiaty, motyle i świerszcze (Flowers, Butterflies and Crickets, selected and edited by E. Aleksandrowicz, afterword by S. Aleksandrowicz,Lublin 1992) and a volume with her own poetry and illustrations, Z pieśnią podniebną... [With a Sky-High Song..., selection, edition and foreword by D. Niewiadomski, illustrations and preface by H. Kołodziej, Lublin 2005, Biblioteka ‘Dziedzictwo’ STL, vol. 51 (81); revised 2nd edition, Lublin 2011, Biblioteka ‘Dziedzictwo’ STL, vol. 70 (100)].
She appeared amongst a group of folk authors from Lublin Land in the catalogue Chłopscy pisarze Lubelszczyzny (selected and edited by S. Aleksandrowicz, foreword by D. Niewiadomski, Lublin 1995) and featured in S. Niebrzegowska’s Kwiaty, motyle i świerszcze w wierszach Heleny Kołodziejowej (Twórczość Ludowa, 1992, no. 3-4),W. Michalski’s Tradycje literackie Lubartowa i Ziemi Lubartowskiej 1543-1993 (Lubartów 1994) andP. Onochin’s Znana i uznana. Jubileusz Heleny Kołodziej (Twórczość Ludowa, 2004, no. 4).
Helena Kołodziej has appeared amongst the winners of the Jan Pocek National Literary Competition (1984 – Third Prize, 1974 and 2006 – honourable mentions), the Sacred Folk Poetry Competition of the Lublin Diocesan Constituency (1987-1990), a satire competition (Association of Folk Artists, Lublin 1974) and the One Poem Competition (Association of Folk Artists, Lublin 1982). She has also received honourable mentions at competitions whose purpose is to document rural lifestyle and culture, such as ‘My Village Then and Now’ (Lublin Village Open Air Museum, Lublin 1977) and ‘Family Customs in Folk Culture – Love and Marriage’ (National Museum of Ethnography, Warsaw 1977). She has been one of the winners of the national competition ‘Easter Eggs and Palms’ (Third Prize, Association of Folk Artists, Lublin 1987) and the regional presentation ‘Rural Works of Art’ (Voivodeship Cultural Centre, Association of Folk Artists, Lublin 1987, 1995, 1998).
The artist received the Bronze Cross of Merit in 1982, the Award for Merit to Lublin Land in 1978, the Award for Merit to Culture in 2003, the Award for Merit to Polish Culture in 2011, the Regional Social-Cultural Award (Lublin) in 1982 and the Marshal of Lubelskie Voivodeship Award in 2004. She joined the Association of Folk Artists (Stowarzyszenie Twórców Ludowych, STL) in 1973 and she is also a member of the Lubartów Regional Society, in addition to collaborating with the Lublin Village Open Air Museum, the Voivodeship Cultural Centre in Lublin and the Museum of Ethnography in Toruń.
Helena Kołodziej’s artistic legacy is multi-faceted: it comprises works of literature, folk art and folklore. Her poetry features the cult of ‘local homeland’ – a person’s immediate environment: place of birth and daily existence. It includes agrarian motifs, in which working in the field is treated in a metaphysical dimension and viewed in the context of eternal salvation. There are images of fertile soil portrayed as an ancient provider of food, while seasonal representations are dominated by the spring, when nature takes on Arcadian and sacred qualities. Her family poems are deeply poignant in their evocation of maternal love. While her personal poems are infused with sentimental reflections, her religious works are imbued in prayerful and hymnal tones, striking for their pious devotion. Some of them include Marian motifs and several contain references to John Paul II. On the other hand, the author does not shy away from satirical and occasional texts, some of which has been used, by her immediate circle of friends and family, as song lyrics.
Helena Kołodziej owes much to her mother, who taught her the techniques and designs of traditional works of plastic art, both ritual and decorative, which she creatively developed and perfected. The motifs found in her handicrafts include Christmas stars and cribs, Christmas tree decorations, Easter eggs, spiders, rods, wedding garlands, harvest festival wreaths, paper-cuts and tissue paper flowers. She also makes characteristic and recognisable works made of straw: figurines, baskets, hats and toys. She has appeared at the Folk Art Fair (Targi Sztuki Ludowej) in Kazimierz Dolny nad Wisłą, the Jagiellonian Fair (Jarmark Jagielloński) in Lublin and similar events held in Warsaw, Kraków and Toruń. She has represented Lubelszczyzna (Lublin Land) at Expo 2000in Hanover and at folklore presentations in Düsseldorf, Kiel and Magdeburg. Kołodziej collaborates with kindergartens, schools and with the Galeria STL (Association of Folk Artists’ Gallery) in Lublin, where she familiarises the children and adolescents with folk culture and teaches the artistic skills she is so well-versed in.
Worth mentioning is also the artist’s ethnographic passion: she loves recording folk beliefs, customs, habits and rituals, jotting down songs and tunes, recreating Christmas and carnival theatrical shows (such as jasełka and herody) and writing scripts for ritual performances.