From Beer City to Bielsko-Biała: Exploring Art in Grand Rapids’ Sister City

From Beer City to Bielsko-Biała: Exploring Art in Grand Rapids’ Sister City

October is Polish American Heritage Month, and what better way to spend it than in Grand Rapids’ Polish Sister City, Bielsko-Biała. This exquisite city in the south of Poland is shaped with an eclectic mix of architecture, animation, and art — truly an incredible place to experience Polish culture at its finest.

Prior to 1951, the Biała River separated the two cities of Bielsko and Biała. Since uniting, this city has come to being known as one of the most technologically advanced cities in Europe. This beautiful place is located in a mountainous region and within a short distance to cities like Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. Similar to Grand Rapids, this city is quite comparable in size, climate and production.

Stained glass artwork of prosperity for Bielsko city in the Municipal Savings Bank by Wolko Gartenberg. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.
Stained glass artwork of prosperity for Bielsko city in the Municipal Savings Bank by Wolko Gartenberg. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.

As a Grand Valley State University student, I’m currently spending this semester studying in Kraków, Poland. Since I’m of Polish and Czech descent, I decided to study abroad in Poland as a way for me to experience more of my ancestors’ culture. After meeting with the Grand Rapids Sister City International organization they introduced me to Ewa Kozak, who works for the City Promotions Department in Bielsko-Biała.

Rudolf Nahowski’s Residential House, better known as The “Frog” House. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.
Rudolf Nahowski’s Residential House, better known as The “Frog” House. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.

During my first week in Poland, I took a short bus ride to Bielsko-Biała, where Ms. Kowak took me on an exceptional tour of the city. Known as “Little Vienna,” this city’s mix of Art Nouveau and Neo-Renaissance architecture make it an absolute gem of a place to walk around and explore.

One of the first historical buildings we came upon was Rudolf Nahowski’s Residential House, better known as The “Frog” House because of the two statues of frogs relaxing over the entrance. While one of the frogs is shown smoking a pipe, the other is playing the mandolin while sculptures of beetles seemingly roam free along the sides of the building. Designed by Emanuel Rost Jr. and constructed in 1903, this is a whimsical take on Art Nouveau.

The 14th century Castle of Sułkowski Dukes. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.
The 14th century Castle of Sułkowski Dukes. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.

One of the next historical buildings we saw was the Castle of Sułkowski Dukes. With architectural designs ranging from Medieval to Renaissance, this is one of the oldest and largest buildings of historical importance in Bielsko-Biała. This castle dates back to the 14th Century and continues to tower over the city center.

Venetian inspired Municipal Theatre. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.
Venetian inspired Municipal Theatre. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.

Near the Castle of Sułkowski Dukes’ chapel, we were able to look down from the castle walls onto the Municipal Theatre, which is one of the best Viennese structures in the city. Created by famous architect Emil Ritter von Förster, this beautiful building was completed in 1890. Although the façade is not extravagant, it features a statue of Apollo atop it and two muses, Thalia and Melpomena, in niches of the structure.

Commemorative sculpture of “Bolek and Lolek”. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.
Commemorative sculpture of “Bolek and Lolek”. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.

Throughout the tour we ran into adorable sculptures commemorating the most popular Polish children cartoons. Similar to Snoopy in America, Poland’s Reskio is a multitalented dog, capable of fixing his own dog house and befriending cats, hens, and other dogs. The first episode of “Reskio” aired in 1967, and the series ran until 1990 with 65 episodes.

Bielsko-Biała’s Animated Films Studio also created the characters Bolek and Lolek in 1962. Their series follows the two young friends as they go off on adventures and spend a lot of time outdoors. With over 150 episodes and two full length film, this was the most popular animated series created by Wladyslaw Nehrebecki.

My tour guide, Ewa Kozak, and me in front of the mural painted by a Grand Valley State University professor and two alumni. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.
My tour guide, Ewa Kozak, and me in front of the mural painted by a Grand Valley State University professor and two alumni. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.

Our last stop was at the mural painted by two former students and a professor from Grand Valley State University. In June, professor Tim Fisher and former students Sean and Megan Hamilton created this colorful mural welcoming visitors to Bielsko-Biała.

The mural features an ornately dressed large central bird, a sign of welcoming, which sits on a carpet full of Maki flowers, which are found across the region. This mural was one of my favorites things to visit, because it was a beautiful reminder of how connected our sister cities truly are.

What should I experience next in Grand Rapids’ Sister City? Tell me in the comments below.

Special thanks to Grand Rapids Sister Cities International, Ewa Kozak, and the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship Program for this incredible opportunity.