My grandmother Petronėlė Gerlikienė, nee Kromelytė (June 19, 1905?, Chicago, United States – March 14, 1979, Vilnius, Lithuania), painter and textile folk artist. Together with her parents, she came back to Lithuania and settled in the village of Mažrimai in Žemaitija region (Samogitia) in 1908. After retirement, she lived with her son’s family in Vilnius and began to focus on creative work – textile and painting.
P. Gerlikiene began creating large-scale tapestries in 1972, paintings in 1976 and began participating in exhibitions in 1974. Petronele Gerlikiene’s art has won recognition and numerous prizes in Lithuania and abroad.
Petronele Gerlikiene entered the Lithuanian art scene after she retired and moved to live with her son’s (painter, portraitist Pranciškus Gerlikas) family in Vilnius. There she started embroidering tapestries on a very large scale. She envisioned her own house with tapestries on the walls; to make them she used different techniques such as embroidery and applique. She was fascinated with trees and used it as a motif for her textiles An Oak, A Rowan, A Maple Tree and A Red Tree.
Later she also embroidered scenes from the Bible, Adam and Eve in Paradise: Man and Woman. Petronele said:
I need to have a very translucent yellow background in order to embroider Paradise. Paradise is above the houses and only the thin branches of trees covered in blossoms and fruit support Adam and Eve. Adam is naked and worry-free. His soft and relaxed body, with clearly marked Adam’s apple, seems to sway weightlessly in the air. With his hands on the stomach, he moves his toes enjoying Paradise. Eve by his side is interpreted very differently, as a contrast to Adam, she is full of anxiety: her skirt is so bouffant… The woman must always be more beautiful than the man. She holds a bouquet of forget-me-nots. Eve’s body is tense, she is focused and ready–she knows what awaits her. (Petronėlė Gerlikienė, LTS, 2005)
Petronele Gerlikiene. Tapestry Man and Woman. 1975. Cotton, embroidery, applique, 208×147 cm. Lithuanian Art Museum Collection
She was encouraged by her daughter-in-law, Danute, who brought pieces of cardboard and paint from her son’s studio. P. Gerlikiene was amazed that she could paint so quickly and effortlessly. She always had a clearly formed idea of the painting, its composition, and combinations of colours in her head. She painted fast, hurrying as if in oblivion, without sketches, dabbing paint directly from the tube, mixing the colours right on the cardboard or canvas. First, with a dry brush, with its stem (“why stroke and daub needlessly”), Petronele would outline the place of the main character. She only used a palette for putting paint tubes on it. Like this, in one fell swoop, she created her first painting, Under the Maple, Under the Green One…:
This is after the song “under the maple, under the green one, there’s a young lad lying…” and, of course, a young girl is handing her heart to him. The girl’s heart is always bigger than the boy’s.
(Gerlikaitė, J., Petronėlė Gerlikienė ‒ gyvenimas ir kūryba // Liaudies kultūra. 2018. Nr. 3.)
The very next day she demanded a large piece of cardboard – she intended to draw The Ship – Noah’s Ark. Petronele outlined a big oval – the ship and began placing people aboard. First of all, she drew Noah and his seven daughters, then animals and birds, a couple of each. Noah and his daughters are rowing. Noah often turns and watches his eldest daughter in the stern, because his wife is very old and she only sits by the chest with her cane. In this way, the human race survived…
Petronele Gerlikiene’s most mature and emotionally strongest works, The Sorrowful One, A Mother, The Virgin, and Benefaction are broad-brush works and extremely poignant. Each work has a diversity of colours, freedom of composition, and a powerful sense of wholeness. The emotional expressiveness and inner strength allow the comparison of her paintings to works of professional painters. Moreover, Gerlikiene’s works often surpass those made by professionals in terms of originality of the vision, uniqueness of interpretation, and humour.
In 1985 her name was included in The Encyclopaedia of Naive Art, she is the National Treasure of Lithuania. Her paintings and textiles were exhibited around the world and are in the collections of the Lithuanian Art Museum, M. K. Čiurlionis Art Museum in Kaunas and the Modern Art Centre in Vilnius.
Petronele Gerlikiene survived two World Wars, genocide, occupation… I think no one has said it better than my Godmother, art critic Gražina Kliaugienė:
Petronėlė Gerlikienė entered Lithuanian art at quite a venerable age. Her appearance in the world of art was rather unexpected, and the stay – brief. Nevertheless, she left a small but exceptionally authentic creative heritage. The spontaneous artistic power that manifested itself in the last years of her life and eventually transformed into an individual world of poetic visions was a gift of destiny for her as well as all of us. The archaic firmness of her work and the serene assuredness of her single truth revealed a personality of a rare unanimity that, regardless of any hindrances from the side, managed to let the clear and spiritualized image of life’s wholeness break through the commonplace. The themes of Gerlikienė’s tapestries and paintings appear basic and simple; however, through the self-evident, there emerges the outline of an extremely individual and imaginative world. It is real poetry, the essence of which is beyond the exactness of words. When looking at Gerlikienė’s works one unconsciously remembers S. Riauba, S. Šepka, and those nameless talents of former epochs able to look through the surface of reality into its very depth with ingenuous wisdom.
In Gerlikienė’s works, everything around and within us unites in one indissoluble layer. Nothing is separate in the bright light of her visions – trees and birds have human eyes, nature as well as humans lives and dies only temporarily, and the moment of time quietly recedes into infinity. The artist’s extraordinary vitality is expressed in a free, expressive, and perfect way. There are neither coincidences nor unimportant details in Gerlikienė’s works. The painter’s artistic flair, free of the meticulous need of perfection and the great deceit of trying-to-make-it-look-like-it’s-real, provided her with the elemental strength, and the freedom of color and drawing controlled by a sensual impulse. The latter qualities distinguished Petronėlė Gerlikienė’s work from the common specimens of modern folk painting.
Petronėlė Gerlikienė’s impulsive nature manifested itself most vigorously in her paintings in 1977–1978 when her works became marked by shadows of apprehension. The celebration of life pulsating from her early works that had fascinated with its effervescent energy, omnipresent flourishing and abundance (A Ship, A Rowan, An Oak Tree), now became filled with intense but extremely powerfully expressed tragedy and frightening omens whose unseeing eyes were full of sorrow (A Mother, The Sorrowful One, Looking at the Sun).
The world that Petronėlė Gerlikienė saw in her visions will not be added to or continued, but its strength of emotion and inner freedom – the core of true creativity – will never cease to appeal to us.
(Gražina Kliaugienė, Exhibition catalogue, 1979)
Below: in this silent monochrome video by Mečislovas Dimbelis you can see both Petronėlė Gerlikienė, Gražina Kliaugienė and my family at the opening reception of P. Gerlikiene’s first personal exhibition at the Cities Planning Institute in Vilnius, 1977.
Gerlikiene, Petronele // World Encyclopedia of Naive Art, 1985, p. 267, 289.
Petronėlė Gerlikienė. Biography, album (compilers: Jurgita Gerlikaite, Darijus Gerlikas, text: Jurgita Gerlikaite). – Vilnius: LTS, 2005. – 154 p.: illustr., in Lithuanian and English – ISBN 9986-9189-6-0.
Gerlikaitė J., Petronėlė Gerlikienė: savos tiesos žinojimas // Šiaurės Atėnai. 2005.
Gerlikaitė J., Petronėlė Gerlikienė ‒ gyvenimas ir kūryba // Liaudies kultūra. 2018. Nr. 3.