Sidonka Wadina believes “tradition is the glue that keeps families and communities together.”
And for Wadina, the daughter of Catholic Slovaks who immigrated to Milwaukee after the Great Depression, the symbol of that tradition is the intricately woven spiral crosses from which she has made a masterful career.
Last month, Wadina, a resident of Lyons, and parishioner at St. Francis de Sales Church, Lake Geneva, received the nation’s highest honor for folk and traditional art when she was recognized as a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellow.
It was a proud moment for Wadina, who has been creating traditional Slovakian art since her childhood, when she learned how to weave straw at the feet of her grandmother Johanna Biksadski.
“My grandma always said to me, Sidonka, you are the future. It’s up to you to pass this along so it will never be lost,” recalled Wadina.
Wadina’s lifelong artistic vocation was due in large part to Biksadski’s influence, she said. Her grandmother came from a small village north of Bratislava called Studienka, and her devotion to religion and culture was closely entwined with her affinity for the folk art of her homeland. Some of Wadina’s earliest memories include creating elaborate woven hearts and harvest talismans with her grandmother for community celebrations that took place in her family’s primarily Slovak neighborhood in the Menomonee Valley.
She also has fond recollections of the community’s annual pilgrimage to Holy Hill, where the first Communicants would help to carry ribbons streaming from the carefully crafted platform bearing a statue of the Blessed Mother.
A trip to her grandmother’s native village when Wadina was 13 years old proved to be a transformative experience for the budding artist.
“I’d been weaving hair braid and twisted rope hearts with Grandma up until then. Some of the more intricate weaves I hadn’t seen until Grandma took me to Slovakia. We had been visiting relatives in Moravia for a while and the day we left, my cousin Vlasta came to the train station to say goodbye. The train was just pulling out when she ran up and handed me a spiral lantern through the (train) window. I sat down, I looked at it and said, “Oh Grandma, this is so beautiful. I wish I could make something like this. Grandma said, ‘Sidonka, those are made to wish on!’
That was the beginning, for me, of a fascination with straw and a wish come true for me. Little did I know at that time, that I would become so fascinated with that spiral lantern.”
The teenaged Wadina struggled and practiced for years trying to recreate the piece’s spiral pattern with oat straw, until a trip to the Wisconsin State Fair at age 15 inspired her to try using wheat straw instead.
“I just became very obsessive with it because I was told it was one of the most difficult weaves to do. It’s hard to control the shapes,” she said of the spiral weaving, now something of a signature in her pieces.
Throughout adulthood, straw weaving was much more than a pastime for Wadina – it was more of a calling.
“I just never got tired of it. I was meant to do this,” she said. She married and moved to Lyons with her husband, where she was a stay-at-home mother to three children to whom she passed down the traditional folk arts. When the children moved away, she sought a degree in graphic design at Gateway Technical College, graduating in 2007. It was a move that helped her to expand the business side of her artistry, she said, which includes the 2009 publication of a book of Slovak recipes.
Throughout her career, Wadina has served as a master artist in the Wisconsin Arts Board’s competitive Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program five times in the past 17 years. A participant in the arts board’s folk arts programs for 30 years, Wadina has represented Wisconsin at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the regional Midwest Folklife Festivals.
Every year, Wadina and her grandmother would sell their art at the Holiday Folk Fair International in downtown Milwaukee. The young girl’s works of art soon became a hot-selling item.
Ever a devout Catholic, Biksadski, said Wadina, would donate money she earned at Folk Fair to the seminarians at St. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Michigan. It was a poetic use of the profits, given that, at the time, Communist-controlled Slovakia was at risk of losing its own religion, said Wadina.
The influence of the current regime on the long-held faith of its people was making its way even into their folk art, specifically in the form of the traditional decorated eggs that Wadina and her grandmother made.
“When Slovak’s couldn’t practice their religion anymore, a lot of that information was lost,” said Wadina. Working religious symbols into the eggs’ patterns was taboo. “People couldn’t go in churches, so nobody talked about the religious patterns on the eggs – instead they had to say, this is the plowed field and these are the sprouts, and this is the sun symbol and rain drops instead of saying, this is a symbol of God’s love for mankind, these are Blessed Mother’s tears which she shed when Christ died for us on the cross.”
Still, Wadina likes to emphasize the similarities between the traditional Christian motifs in her eggs and straw weaving – including crosses and Madonna symbols – with the pre-Christian folk beliefs of her ancient ancestors.
“Harvest crosses, before Christianity, had equidistant arms and a sun symbol in the center. When Christianity came to Eastern Europe, the bottom arm was elongated. The cross then became a symbol of Christ as the bread of life, and wheat the grain that fed the world,” she said.
It would likely make her grandmother proud that even to this day, Wadina’s inspiration is more spiritual than temporal.
“People ask me where I get my inspiration from. I don’t sit down and say, OK, I’m going to invent a new weaving today. I don’t do that,” she said. “When I’m driving into Milwaukee, I usually pray; for family or friends. I thank God for them and for my wonderful life; that is when I sometimes have a sudden inspiration or remember something Grandma told me long ago that ends up being an idea for my next creation.”