free zone / NGO zone

Lublin: I Sculpt in People

Institute of Reportage

After retirement she would like to become a bum in Paris. Meanwhile, after teaching art in public elementary schools for the last 30 years she created a buzz thanks to a project involving senior citizens. The portrait of the director of "Skarpa" community centre in Lublin, Renata Kiełbińska, written by Olimpia Wolf (Polish School of Reportage).

It's getting dark. Renata and three hooded boys are looking over their shoulders. They choose a grey block of flats, enter the first staircase, do their thing, and leave. Nobody saw them, everything went according to the plan.

- If the venture is "illegal", I'm in - Renata Kiełbińska says with a smile. She is the director of "Skarpa" community centre in Lublin. Her three hooded friends decorated the staircase with stickers: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself", "Do unto neighbours as you would have them do unto you", "A good neighbour is not bad".

"Skarpa" is located on the first floor of a grey two-storey building from the 1980s. It is maintained by "SM Czuby" housing cooperation; each tenant pays 2,50 PLN a month. There is over a dozen of colourful rooms: jack-of-all-trades' workshop, a handicraft studio, a gym, Youth Club, "Cuddly" Children Club, Women's Club, as well as rooms for dance, art, music and theatre classes.

A graffiti on the wall of the Youth Club: some people lift an elderly woman and a boy. They give each other a fist bump.

The old woman is Mrs. Danuta, who took part in one of "Skarpa's" projects, here shown sharing her energy with another participant, Grzegorz, a member of the younger generation. It's a reference to the fresco in the Sistine Chapel, where God is passing on the divine spark of life to Adam. Project was titled "Senior graffiti".

Renata: - The idea came from Darek, one of my great "finds". At one time he was in trouble, had a guardian. Now somebody helped him and Darek is back on the right track; he's learning to become a paint sprayer.


Renata is a loner, but she tries to fight her nature. She doesn't read fiction, because she already has not enough time to catch up with all the professional literature about culture, architecture and sculptures. She loves her dachshund - Misiek, Diego Velázquez's paintings, and trips: she used to hitchhike, now she takes a tour bus.

Renata was born in 1953 in Nowa Góra. From her childhood she remembers children parties and games, as her mother was a member of parent associations in schools of each of her three kids. She also was in the Military Families Society and used to organise various events in the tenement house they were living in. Renata, a young hippie in the 1970s, went to art education studies in Lublin. Later she found her own way to rebel against the world.

- All these two teachers do is teaing, teaing [drinking tea], and fucking knitting - somebody described Renata and her friend, who both boycotted boring faculty meetings by knitting scarves.

She managed to force the headmaster of that school out of the office. He used to pick disabled children from class and order them to skin his rabbits.

In 1988 she began to work as an art educator in "Skarpa" community centre. - I left school because art was underappreciated. There should be more classes of this subject both for the younger and the older students. Renata was not considering a social activity at the time. After the divorce she was a single working mom, raising her daughter by herself.

In 2005 her daughter left to Gdańsk to study, Renata became the director of the centre. She was 52 years old and felt that she was just starting to spread her wings.

Renata Kiełbińska

fot. Agnieszka Rayss


Renata: – They were sometimes 40 minutes late, because one of them was waiting for the other outside the door, too ashamed to come in. However, they were coming every Friday, choosing the community centre over clubbing. They finally took their hoods off and started to help senior citizens to cut out stencils.

Renata, always fighting against ugliness, decided to renovate the devastated square in front of "Skarpa". It looked so bad that even the kids from the neighbourhood no longer came there. She wanted to put up new benches, set up a climbing wall, design a place for flowerbeds, a stage for theatre plays or movie screenings, and finally to… cover everything, including the nearby wall, with graffiti.

Who was supposed to do it? Senior citizens and young people. Why together?

Renata: - Out of spite. I wanted to show everybody that both groups could find a common language. Besides, I like working with young folks. I couldn't let the older participants become laughing stocks and force the younger participants to do something "uncool".

That is why she called the project "Senior graffiti". She knew that the kids would love to learn how to paint, while the old people often feel the need to colour their world.

Kasia, 19: - I was afraid whether will be able to find a common ground with senior citizens, but we got along perfectly. They humbled me and taught me that we should not think with stereotypes or judge people by appearance. Later on we organised the Christmas Eve supper together. And also: the Valentine's Day ball.

Anna, 57: – We tend to patronize young people. This time they were teaching us. Before, when looking at a graffiti I was thinking to myself : those little sods made a mess again. Now I became more of an art critic: I know how to tell a nice graffiti from a bad one.

Renata: – I wanted them to open up and get to know each other. Both groups clearly stated what they don't like in their counterparts. Senior citizens admitted that they're the ones setting bad example. They were ashamed of old folks verbally attacking kids on a tram before they even manage to give up their seats to them.

Paweł, 25: – The boss created a right atmosphere: she knew all our names and treated each of us the same. We broke the ice because we worked in the same room.

For six months over a dozen people, aged 14-76, cut out graffiti stencils, designed the square, and painted the self-portrait of the group on the wall.

Renata Kiełbasińska: - I'm a culture animator, not an artist. That's why I invited architecture students and young graffiti painters from the European Foundation for Urban Culture.

76-year-old Marian was the oldest in the group. He perceived graffiti as a form of vandalism, but in course of the project he realised that it's a form of art. He and his friend, who joined him, did really good during the workshops.

By the spring the square was ready: new paved paths (financed by the housing cooperation), the flowerbed, the painted wall, the stage and a convertible screen. It became a place to watch movies or theatre plays, grow flowers or simply to rest. The cooperation helped them to plant an oak tree. Later all the people involved in the project took part in a outdoor party with pea soup and spraying each other with whipped cream.

In order to participate senior citizens had to rebel: against the peer pressure, their neighbours, who would mock them: "he's making a fools of himself, he should stay home". They had to leave their safe cocoons.

– And step right into the spotlight - adds Renata. - Gazeta Wyborcza, Kurier Lubelski, Dziennik Wschodni, Kultura Enter,, Old folks had to give consent for publishing their images. Had they not changed their mentality they would still be shy housewives and old men watching TV.

fot. Renata Kiełbińska

„Senior Graffiti - taking action with space" was carried out between November 2008 and April 2009, as one of the winning projects in the "Senior citizens in action" competition, organised by the Association of the Creative Initiatives "ę" and financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation.

In 2009 Renata Kiełbińska became famous. She was even nominated for the "Lublin's citizen of the year" title.


She covers the kitchen window with a white canvas, as she does not want to see a skyscraper, "once delightfully grey", now: painted in many colours.

Kiełbińska: - We are mocked by the whole world. They call us the "Styroland". The estate I see through my window looks like Disneyland. Speckled and kitschy as an ugly Christmas glass ball. Each part of the wall is painted in a different colour. The pattern has nothing to do with the architectural function.

Renata Kiełbińska knows what she is talking about, because she likes good architecture and aesthetic surroundings. She also likes to act in an unorthodox way. She's inspired by people who illegally planted ivy, a lady, who tears posters and advertisement off posts, and the night happening of night painting of cars which took up more than 1,5 meters of pavement (with washable paint).


– Łukasz, I selected a fragment for you - Renata sticks painter's tape to the wall. - Tighten it at the bottom and on the top. Darek, here is your painting dish, let's go outside and mix the white paint.

Renata Kiełbińska wanted to make the world more beautiful, so she asked her neighbours whether they liked green panelling in the staircases. They didn't, so she was given a green light.

"SM Czuby" housing cooperation also agreed to start a renovation. All winter long young and old volunteers participated in art and interior design workshops, designing colourful trash cans and decorative mirror frames. In the spring they painted and adorned two staircases (up to the first floor) in the Czuby district. Two of the participants lived for the last twenty years in one of those buildings.

Anna, 59: - We used to just greet each other, now we started to talk. I found a new friend, but lost an old one - she was against the renovation. It seems that not everyone likes the ideo of making the world a more beautiful place. I liked it a lot, especially the cooperation with young people.

Kiełbińska has read that an aesthetic space is degrading at a slower rate than a devastated one. - It's true - she nods - After several months staircases are still in perfect condition. Nobody touched the small tiles we covered the walls with.

- Tenants were surprised: you work for free on weekends? That was the reaction Renata wanted to achieve.

- All of a sudden people's attitudes changed. Some were asking us: "what about our staircase?", others picked up the paints themselves and got down to work.

Stickers were part of the project. Kids, after getting their parents written consent, started to sneak into the staircases by night and place the slogans.

"Beautifying the world 101" is the second Renata's project which became one of the winners of "Senior citizens in action" competition. It was implemented between November 2009 and April 2010.

Beata Tokarz, the Association of the Creative Initiatives "ę", competition's organiser: - We support undertakings that break through age barriers and prove that old people can cooperate with the youth.

Senior Graffiti project

fot. Renata Kiełbińska


"One has to try something else before dying, because we don't want to realise, while resting in the coffin, that we missed an opportunity that was within our reach". Kiełbińska is not the author of the sentence, but she used it to energise older ladies. It worked. For the last 11 years she was running the Women's Club with over a dozen members.

However, most of potential candidates still spend their time at home. Kiełbińska remarks that senior citizens are excluded from the society in two ways: some of them because of their own lack of activity, but mostly due to the lack of places where they could meet with other generations.

- I'm not talking about nursing children and cooking. I want them to start to think about themselves as people with social potential.

Kiełbińska organised handicraft workshops, bus tours, dances, birthday parties. Ladies initially did not like the idea of embroidery class, but after a couple of months they showed her their works.

Renata "scolds" her students with affection: - Two of them left us and joined Kanwa embroidery club. They exhibit their works in the Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź, they became known in that circles.

- Many of those women have never been anywhere, even at the Lublin castle. Renata loves to travel, so she takes her students to Hrubieszów, Łęczna, Nałęczów. - They have small chance to see or experience anything more in their lives. It's nice to watch them having fun in the Łazienkowski Park in Warsaw, to see them ordering cognac and coffee in the Belvedere restaurant.

Members of Women's Club have no time for boredom, especially that Renata is thinking about new projects.


They will be seven meters high, each in a different phase of blooming. Their petals will be paved with ceramic tiles made by the tenants.

- That way they will have their personal contribution to the sculptures. There are over 160 such objects in Wrocław, much more than in Lublin. Needless to say, the poppies will be the first sculptures in our neighbourhood. It’s a gift from a Californian sculptor and architect who used to live here in the 1980s. I was asked to take part in this project.

She loves to help, although she is aware of the amount of work ahead of her. That's because she has to fight both the organisational obstacles and citizen's unwillingness.

- I will manage. If there are any problems with the choice of the spot, the sculpture can be placed in front our community centre.


Kiełbińska's dream: - Four boys come to the centre and tell me they want to learn how to take pictures with a pinhole camera. I give them money, room and artistic freedom.

In her opinion community centres should change their philosophy: they have to find the way to satisfy today's needs, not to be defeated by the dangerous rivals: the Internet and a satellite dish. Therefore she submitted a project to the City Hall: a cycle of weekend art workshops (paper, ceramics, textiles) for the whole family.

- How is a child supposed to know that it's fun to do something when his or her parents watch TV all the time? We're complaining that fewer and fewer people care about culture, but if we don't encourage our children, they won't become conscious art consumers in the future.

- The Night of Culture in Lublin costs one million zlotys, while all the community centres combined receive only 250 000 a year.

- Allocation of the resources is necessary, the City Hall seems to understand it. But first we have to open officials' eyes.

Kiełbińska's eye-opening activity takes place in SPOKO (Citizen's Organisational Committee of ECC Lublin 2016). That's where animators meet with city clerks and coordinate town hall's decisions.
SPOKO is another place where she works with young people.

- I can't stand the fact I was born too early. These active members of the younger generation are like flowers, growing on our desert. My only hope is that "old farts" will let them have their say.

Piotr Choroś, Homo Faber, another member of SPOKO: - Renata Kiełbińska? I don't know where does she get all that energy from.

Senior Graffiti project

fot. Łukasz Majerowski


Renata travelled across the Western Europe in her youth. She already has a retirement plan: to become a bum in Paris.

- To be free, no appointments, duties, no thinking about tomorrow. To be able to buy a book in one of the second hand book shop and read all day long. This vision has a lot of appeal, but I'm afraid that after retiring I'll be even more active than now.

- What are you working with? - a friend asked her during a reunion meeting. - You showed o much promise at the academy.

Kiełbińska loves sculpture, that was her major at the academy. - There are generally two ways to sculpt: by addition or subtraction. When you work in stone or wood you get rid of the material, and the sculpture is what's left. If metal is your material of choice, you have to weld another elements to it. But there's also the third way, relating especially to clay. It can be moved, moulded, without tearing it apart, glueing together, or grinding. It can be modelled.

– I sculpt in people – she replied.

Olimpia Wolf
Translated by Krzysztof Heymer

This article (together with the questionnaire) is part of a series of reportages on grassroots cultural/social initiatives in various Polish cities. They were written especially for ECC by students of the Polish School of Reportage established at the Institute of Reportage in Warsaw.