KCJ Szwedzinski | Courtesy of KCJ Szwedzinski

The recently announced winner of this year’s Hadley Prize for Visual Art is KCJ Szwedzinski, a graduate student at the University of Louisville’s Hite Art Institute who works in mixed media with a focus on glass.

The Hadley Prize is a highly sought-after award, given yearly, through a partnership between LVA and the Community Foundation of Louisville. The award comes with a pretty decent chunk of change and is funded through the George and Mary Alice Hadley Endowment Fund.

The Community Foundation of Louisville’s website describes the prize and its purpose:

The Mary Alice Hadley Prize for Visual Art is an investment in creative capital for Louisville, recognizing artists who demonstrate a commitment to and potential for growth within their chosen medium in the visual arts. The $5,000 prize is designated for enrichment experiences that will help the winning artist pursue their personal and professional ambitions and achieve their full artistic potential.

Insider spoke with Szwedzinski by phone to get an idea of how she plans to put the prize money to work creating art, what she’s interested in artistically, and how she got to Louisville. 

“The Klezmer Step” by KCJ Szwedzinski

While she works primarily in glass, Szwedzinski branches out into other mediums frequently.

“I found glass-blowing after college,” she said. “I loved it and started taking classes at Jackson (Fla.) University. Took classes at the Penland School of Craft (N.C.).”

Szwedzinski knew she wanted to get a master’s degree and also knew she wanted an interdisciplinary program. Before she started working with glass, she had another medium she loved.

“I wasn’t sure whether I loved printmaking or glass-blowing. They have a lot of similarities, but they are completely different crafts,” she explained.

She ended up at UofL, and while she still has one year left before she graduates with that degree, she’s already on her hustle outside of her grad program.

“I’m constantly applying to shows, I’m trying to connect with the community, to build my CV,” said Szwedzinski.

She applies for a lot of opportunities — she estimated that she sent out around 30 applications last year, including the Hadley, which particularly caught her eye due to the nature of the award.

“It’s for an artist’s development, and as I go into to my final year of a graduate program, research is really important to me,” she said. “The whole point of being in grad school is to build this body of work that is research-based and thought-based.”

“Secret Seder” by KCJ Szwedzinski

The Hadley Prize struck Szwedzinski as being geared toward that sort of intense, thought-based work, starting with the application process.

“You are building an idea from nothing, from scratch, what you want for yourself,” she explained. “And then you have to write your itinerary, and your why and how you’re going to give back, so the whole experience of applying to something like that is a really good experience.”

Szwedzinski’s proposal keys into the body of work she is creating in her grad program.

“It’s about Judaism, about memory and identity of Judaism. What does that mean? The closer I looked at it, the harder it is to define,” she said. “Judaism can be an inherited genetic marker, it can be a religion, it can be a secular nationality for people in Israel.”

“Hidden Histories” by KCJ Szwedzinski

While she hasn’t started working on her Hadley creations just yet, you can see some of her previous creations on her website.

“Hidden Histories” is a large piece of glass on a formidable-looking metal pedestal. It’s aesthetically arresting, grounded by the heaviness of the metal, wedded to the glass’ sense of fragility.

Looking closer, there are words printed on the glass: on one side, transcripts from Nuremberg trials, on the other, excerpts from Holocaust survivor Jankiel Wiernik’s “A Year in Treblinka.” With that image, the thematic components begin to stir in the mind. 

Many of her works echo this methodology — striking, almost confounding visuals that require decoding, which lead to a closer look that might reveal Szwedzinski’s search through the ephemera of being human, with that current focus on the many ways one can be Jewish. The result is a visual and physical confabulation.

With funds from the Hadley Prize, Szwedzinski is doing some traveling to further excavate her identity.

“I’m going to the Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco, and the Holocaust Center there,” she said. “I’m interested in this historical thing, and the thing I’m interested in at the Jewish Contemporary Museum is how that organization connects to contemporary issues and an audience that’s not necessarily just Jews.”

Those connections between the Jewish experience and the larger world intrigue Szwedzinski.

“They pull in all different types of artists, ideas and cultures. And yet, somehow it’s still grounded in Judaism, and that is something I’m working on in my work,” she said. 

She’ll also visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She’s interested not as much in the history itself, but in how people today access and interact with that history.

“How is it archived? How does it change in the telling to each generation? How do we remember it collectively?” asked Szwedzinski.

Like her multifaceted work, her travels also will teach her about other parts of her creative process. With a trip to Philadelphia, she’ll take classes at the Rare Book School, learning about artist’s books, a kind of work wherein an artist uses a book, or its form, to examine or put forward their vision.

KCJ Szwedzinski with her dog Maka | Photo by Breanna Tivvis

“I do a lot of work with the idea of the book, pushing the boundaries of what exactly is a book,” she said. “What’s a book’s purpose? What are the physical limits? What are the intellectual limits?”

Then she’ll dig into a more personal past when she visits a genealogical library in Indiana.

“I’m trying to find some of my own family records. There’s a stopping point in my family history, where we can’t go any further back,” she explained. “How do I get past that dead-end?”

It will be some time before we see the end results of Szwedzinski’s Hadley Prize, perhaps next year at her graduate thesis show, but Insider will be sure to let you know when it’s on display.

In the meantime, the LVA is hosting a free reception for Szwedzinski on Thursday, June 21, from 5:30-7 p.m. LVA is located in Portland at 1538 Lytle St. You also can see some of her work at the Claypool-Young Art Gallery in Morehead, Ky., which is part of the Bluegrass Biennial exhibition.