Ashia Grzesik


My last blog entry told ArtsWatch readers about my experiences in the Czech industrial city Ostrava, where with Czech actors, we created a music video that involved themes of the earth and green growth. The story continues with another video, currently in post-production, for the song “They Take” from my new album, “Diesel vs Lungs,” just issued on the German record label JARO Median. It will be released this Thursday, November 14 in Portland at a show at the Alberta Rose Theater.

The ideas for this new video project began this last, very long and dark winter in Berlin, Germany with my physical actor friend, Karen Remy. She listened to me practice “They Take” and immediately began to imagine herself tied as a slave moving rhythmically and mechanically in an industrial-style cube, as she loses her innocence to the mysterious and ominous hands of the “Theys” (that is, the forces that take from human kind and nature), as Nature (represented by the cellist — me) sadly watches. At first, she was inspired to create an original live theater piece, but then we both began to see the potential of a music video film with a meaningful storyboard.

Pic #7 Ashia:Nature plays at Chalk Mine

While I was performing a six-day-a-week, five-month stretch from February until July with the acrobatic Dummy the Show at the Chamaeleon Theater in central Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood, we discussed and prepared the scenes as well as finding locations. I had only one day off a week on Mondays and performed a demanding show Tuesdays through Sundays. In the show, I played solo cello looping songs. If I made mistakes the acrobats could react negatively, so the pressure was often very high. One of the pieces I wrote was very emotional and dynamic and the tissue/silk artist, Marjorie Nantel, a very intense performer, brought out those characteristics with her incredible talent and electric energy.

Some nights I left feeling full and very satisfied, and other nights, completely empty; even applause at the end of the show couldn’t replace what was given during the show. Often I would go home alone or find my fill in Berlin’s crazy, pulsating nightlife.

Finally, one gorgeous warm spring Berlin night, the vocal mic stopped working during the show during the tissue act, so I sang entirely unamplified in the 350-seat theater. It was exciting and woke all of us up. Day in day out, mistakes on stage in a daily production show can also be a great rush. On my way to home after this epic surprising April night, I broke my right foot on a theater stair!

For the next month, I spent all my free time outside of the show at home in my studio East Berlin apartment (it was more like a high-ceilinged Commie Cube room), healing my foot and thinking up ideas for the video, applying to record labels, and mastering/preparing the new CD. The theme and idea of the artwork was something positive exploding over a dark, industrial theme. My sister, Ania Grzesik, and I came up with this.

These themes of man vs. machine and industry vs. nature, that began and that inspired me last summer in Ostrava poured into the “They Take” video project as well. This time, though, instead of the whimsy of “Country Will Do Her Well,” we wanted to dig deeper and darker, even somewhat underground if we could for these shots. My friend found a great location to start the video about an hour and a half (by train) from Berlin in Rudersdorf, at an old chalk mine. We actually looked at the space the day I broke my foot with the camera director, Eva Ghenke.

Near this old chalk mine, an independent circus, Wiesenzirkus Bunterhund had set up a live and work space with colorfully painted caravans and huts circling a rehearsal space dome with an outdoor kitchen — the perfect place to prep make-up and costumes for our shoot at the mine and feed the core actors and crew!

We put in a whole June day shooting out at the mine and surrounding areas, spent the night under a full moon, and woke the next day to drive to the next location, two hours north of Berlin. Among pine trees and Northern German wilderness, we were greeted by old holiday bungalows partially built for Hitler Jungen camp, later used for Stasi (much-feared security police) and MDL (Ministry of the Interior) during East Germany’s communist era. As we rode by in my friend Kath’s bright yellow 1980s Mercedes camper, we saw that one of buildings was cheerfully painted with the words “Coolmuehle.”

We had entered a community project created by 40 people who purchased these old Stasi lands to re-create it for workshops, art projects, festivals, and community living. (They even have a sauna now… and I even went kayaking naked on their pristine lake, but that’s for another blog!) In an abandoned looking building just off of one of the roads was the right space for the underground shots, the They Take of all scenes: a dark, dimly lit, ancient coal-powered boiler room, dusty and rustic. PERFECT!!

Once we wrapped up the shoot, I completed my end of the trade made with my friend and community member Jakob to use the space for the video. I performed cello songs for a BBQ party gathering to the community under the summer German night, moths dancing in the light, and children dreaming on blankets. Even though I was excited to perform, as often I am, I also found it interesting that a Polish-born cellist, would sing songs of her grandma’s difficult times and life in World War II and working in an industrial factory — in an old Hitler Youth camp. And that this place made the perfect end for her Eastern European Industrial-inspired video. I hope that in some way it ended a story, or continued it through generations, evolving with a more positive light and life than the last couple of chapters. I am grateful to have had these incredible opportunities to create art and narrative with amazing artists, in strange, interesting places.


Portland singer/songwriter/cellist Ashia Grzesik, a member of Vagabond Opera and Portland Cello Project, releases her latest solo album, Ashia & the Bison Rouge’s “Diesel & Lungs,” in a concert at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre presented by Classical Revolution PDX Thursday, November 14, that also features Polish immigrant songs and guest appearances by CRPDX performers and members of Chervona, Vagabond Opera and more. They’ll also perform Friday at Sam Bond’s Garage in Eugene.

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ArtsWatch Guest Post: Return to roots — a Polish Oregonian cellist in Europe

Dispatch number one from cellist Ashia Grzesik on the road in Europe

Portland cellist Ashia Grzesik

Portland cellist Ashia Grzesik


Editor’s note: Ashia Grzesik is a Polish-born, Pacific Northwest-raised cellist, singer, and composer who has been living in Portland for the last four years. Apart from her pop-folk, indie-classical solo project, Ashia & the Bison Rouge, she has performed with Cirque du Soleil, Vagabond Opera, and the Portland Cello Project. She is currently performing with the acrobatic show “Dummy” in Germany. She’ll be sending ArtsWatch occasional dispatches from her European sojourn.

Friday, January 26th, was my third time performing in Ostrava, CZ. It’s a city located in the northeastern part of Czech Republic near the Polish border and an area that is known for its intense industrial history of coal and steel mining and processing.

The first was on the day that you burn witches in Czech Republic, and happens to be my birthday, April 30th (2012). I had no idea what to expect. It was a stop on my tour that a friend from Prague helped me organize.

It was a hot, gorgeous day and my concert was indoors so not very many people came, but it didn’t matter. I set out to connect to my Czech brethren and sisters…. and to burn a witch! (I’ll tell you more about that tradition in a later post.) The organizers of the venue, Cooltour, loved the show and decided that evening that I needed to be a part of their Shakespeare Summer Festival premier of  “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” They not only wanted me to perform in it, but to perform my own songs. This would have meant returning to this strange space of shuttered coal mines, closed store fronts, steel factories, 19th century mixed in with modernist Communist architecture, shiny shopping malls, and really good beer in June. That was so soon, but so interesting, but I’d be missing the Portland summer. Hmmm… both places offer good beer… I think I’ll survive!

Once back in Czech Republic for the second time, I realized I was really close to what was home — and yet horribly far. Portland had grown to be where I return to and call “home” for the last four years. I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, as a child of Polish immigrants, and the forests are a deep part of my life, as well as the clean air.

Ostrava’s air had a sharp, strange industrial scent, especially on weekend nights. They say that some of the more toxic air gets released when no one can see it, most likely from the steel plant, among other factories. Portland, in contrast, has been cutting down on industrial jobs. Regardless of the harsh air, I felt oddly so close to home, and I wasn’t even in Poland.

Slavic Soul

My Slavic roots were drawing me in. Odra River, which begins outside the city in the mountains, flows first through Ostrava, winds its way to the Polish border and then splits as it enters Wroclaw, the city I was born in. The people and actors of the play and festival were so welcoming, open, and many of us connected deeply even though we couldn’t always understand each other. One of my friends told me “We are of the same blood…. I see you as a Slavic Soul, that just happens to speak English perfectly.” I was experiencing intense emotions and the beer wasn’t helping.

While completely sinking into these lands as the coal sediments in the Odra, I was becoming homesick for fresh Pacific Northwest air and trees. About two to three weeks into the rehearsal and just before the premier of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” I thought I was going to go nuts. The production manager took pity on me and drove me to the forest just a half an hour away for a hike. This was a dream! There was even moss and a few chanterelles and if I had any of the local beer I would have felt as though I was back in the Tillamook Forest. I wanted to bathe myself in fir branches!

During the rehearsal period, the organizing director mentioned that they could make a music video out of one of my songs. The actors’ favorite song in the play was “Country Will Do Her Well,” my solo show opener about the kale and pumpkin babies a Willamette Valley Farmer and his/hisher/her poly-amorous Portland city hipster, bicycle riding, vegetarian, fire spinning, cabaret, belly-dancing, lover would make. Oh no, we don’t have front lawns in Portland; we have vegetable gardens. Yes, here I was sowing the seeds of home grown agriculture to people who kept small gardens on the outskirts of cities to supply extra vegetables to their families during the difficult decades. Social Communism packed its people into block-style Stalin houses, so people had their gardens in other parts of town. Same concept, but born from different systems, priorities, and needs.

So, my existence was such in this industrial city, with all these ideas of a green West Coast Portland life that I wanted to make alive in to the minds of audiences. The videographer/director and I decided it would be perfect to create and combine a collaboration between the Shakespeare Festival Ostrava actors, the song, myself, and concepts of the environment, and dirt. The actors were so patient in their work, and I feel incredibly grateful to work with such Czech talent. And I even turned my cello into a garden, safely.

My heart and roots rest here in these Slavic lands… but perhaps my branches will keep extending longer and taller in Portland? That I’m not absolutely sure of yet, but I know that I’ll be singing, performing, and cultivating these ideas, songs, and dreams of forests, and a greener life, such as with this music video.


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