In One Boat with Komandor Tyszko: Comics, Collaboration, Place-Making, and Knowledge Exchange

In One Boat with Komandor Tyszko: Comics, Collaboration, Place-Making, and Knowledge Exchange on the Theme of Postsocialist Transformations of Polish Sailing Tourism

by Hannah C. Wadle, The University of Manchester


The Collaboration After: On the Possibilities of the Comic and the Drawn Image

While there has been much work on collaboration during field research, the circulation and cross fertilization of ideas after fieldwork and writing-up has not gained the same amount of attention. The question of how can we fruitfully collaborate with local communities after fieldwork, so to say in a second heuristic cycle of knowledge production, is however an important one. As anthropologists, we can never lend somebody a voice, speak about of or for the other and that at most, we can speak “nearby”, suggests Trinh T Minh-Ha (quoted by Schneider 2015: 27). I want to explore one way of opening our academic texts to create spaces for local interpretations of and commentaries on our ethnographies after fieldwork and the first phase of writing up.

The project I am introducing here suggests the possibility of speaking alongside one another through the combination of different forms of representation. I propose that comics, cartoons or graphic elements crafted by local artists can accompany an academic text without reproducing its message, and without the need to cohere with the conclusions of the text. They can add an additional layer of understanding, and a morally self-standing, potentially critical perspective to the text. This perspective might refer to both the ethnographic realities that are discussed in the text, since the artist has an own socio-cultural position within the community studied by the ethnographer, and to the anthropologist’s (mis)understanding of the ethnographic context provided through the text. The results of the collaboration are thus not mirroring, decorative illustrations of the academic text, but be they must be understood as visual improvisations and graphic commentaries on themes of the academic text and its related ethnographic context.

Opening and Sharing the Ethnographic Canvas

We can visualise this with the help of Tim Ingold’s (2011) theoretical distinction between an oil painting and a drawing and the different role of the canvas in both art forms. In an oil painting, the canvas is a space to be completely filled. His allegory to the oil painting is traditional ethnographic accounts, in which a society was captured (seemingly) in total in a frozen state at one moment in time. The drawing instead grants the canvas agency, it mediates the relationship between movements and lines, accommodates and traces their ongoing discussion, conflict, merging. This second canvas is a great metaphor for the collaborative thematic space that I am moving towards with my project: an open space, in which differently authored texts and images can explore a set of ethnographically emerging themes without the expectation of ending in a comprehensive ethnographic vision but aiming towards shared ownership, dialogue, and multivocality.

A related argument is made by George Marcus (2010: 266), who draws attention to the particularities of giving form to anthropological knowledge, and in particular to the traditions and unwritten rules concerning the format and the aesthetics of “the ethnography”. One such way of unsettling the authoritative feel of ethnographic writing and of being at the same time conscious about existing aesthetics of for instance touristic places can be through visual improvisations and commentaries presented together with the ethnography. Collaboration with local artists can be a great way of pushing the boundaries of collaboration and striving towards co-authorship and inclusiveness. My collaboration with sailor and comic artist Jerzy Tyszko and our work on the transformation of sailing culture and sailors’ identities in the Masurian Lake District in Poland attempts to be such a project of pushing boundaries.  

Meeting the Captain and Following His Trail of Creativity

I first met Jerzy Tyszko in 2011 as the guardian of the chronicle books of the sailing Club LOK in the small town of Węgorzewo through which I wanted to learn more about the organisation of sailing tourism in Masuria in the past. As chairman of the sailing club LOK (Liga Obrony Kraju) in Węgorzewo, Poland, the white bearded, small, energetic ‘Komandor’ (commodore), gave me access to the chronicles of the sailing club, which the club had kept manually over more than two decades. In the chronicles I discovered numerous illustrations, and invitations with nautical drawings from Tyszko’s feather (see figures 1 and 2). I learned that he was not only the chief designer and illustrator of his club, giving his sailing community a shared aesthetics, but that he had also published several sailing handbooks in comics form (see figure 3). Tyszko had further designed and crafted the interior decoration of the clubhouse and the local sailing tavern (figure 4), and had previously collaborated with art students from Warsaw in sculpture work. Jerzy Tyszko is thus known as a cultural activist and creative force for sailing culture[1] in his hometown Węgorzewo and in Masuria.

Tyszko’s drawings and sculptures are technically true to the sailing materials, they are often educative, and tend to include fantastical elements from the spiritual realm of the sea. In addition to that and most characteristically, they never lack a good pinch of humour – often adult humour (see figures 4 and 5). They present us with a cultural imaginary, a set of values, and a body of knowledge that I similarly encountered in Polish shanty culture, in cultural practices within sailing, and discourses about Polish sailing culture. Early on, I was thus fascinated with Pan Tyszko’s work and thought about how we might be able to collaborate.

Exchanging Stories, Sharing Interests, Collaborating

In summer 2015 I returned to the Masurian Lake District as a research fellow at the Folklore Museum of Węgorzewo with the aim of bringing back some of my research to the different tourism and local communities that I had studied. As part of this agenda, I gave a talk about the transformation of sailing tourism in late post-socialism for the participants of an annual club sailing regatta. My talk was facilitated by Pan Tyszko and attended by him with great interest and officially thanked me for it in the end (Figure 7). In the preparations of the event, I asked Pan Tyszko whether he, both as artist and member of the sailing community, would be interested in a collaborative project on the subject of my talk. He immediately accepted my invitation to add personal and interpretative drawings to the text on which my talk was based, a chapter of my thesis.

Since the chapter is written in English, I wrote a short translated summary of it in Polish, and then also translated all headings and sub-headings. The core part of the dossier that I emailed to Jerzy Tyszko as a basis for our collaboration was a list of around twenty detailed descriptions of discourses, observations and protagonists that appear in the chapter and that the artist could use as starting points for his own images or cartoons. I chose aspects of my research that Tyszko or his sailing club members had brought up in the follow-up conversation of my talk or had raised at another moment; the important aspect being that Kapitan Tyszko potentially had an opinion about them and would be able to express his own perspective alongside my ethnographic observations in the text. I asked Jerzy Tyszko to treat this list as a pool of ideas and possibilities from which he could choose and develop the subjects that inspired him most. I emphasised to him also that he was more than welcome to bring in his opinion, his humour, or additional information, and to add or leave away drawings.

The Elder and the Anthropologist: Two Participant Observers with Two Different Stories to Tell

In a sense, both Pan Tyszko and I are participant observers of the post-socialist transformation of sailing tourism in the Masurian Lake District. Yet, Tyszko’s drawings will provide another story about these transformations than my ethnography. As a member of an older generation of sailing activists, he is a different kind of observer. Aged 80, and a sailor since 1950s, Jerzy Tyszko is part of the generation of sailors, who experienced the War, who were then raised in the spirit of the People’s Republic of Poland, who lived through breakdown of Socialism and the making of the new Poland, a democratic market economy, and later also the membership in the European Union. I, again, am the anthropologist from the ‘West’, trying to understand how people from my own generation, young adults in their 20s and 30s, yet with a different cultural heritage and with potentially different aspirations locate themselves within a socio-cultural context of Polish sailing. I attempt to grasp the socialist tourism legacy and understand how the generation of well-educated youngsters, of people who have grown up in a politically and economically transforming country, live creatively with this legacy. His observations are those of an elder, who notes the changes from one era to another. He perceives them both with curiosity and with moral concern. In that his view represents a large community of sailors, whose sentiments towards the new sailing culture in Masuria are strong and often tainted by cultural pessimism and nostalgia for a bygone, better past. And who form a strong moral community and moral lobby for their preferred, in their eyes the “correct” sailing culture.

Adding Layers, Including Voices, Creating Dialogue

In my original paper, it had been my purpose to look at the new tourists, rather than reiterating commonly encountered stories of “in the past things were better”. Yet, this story was then missing from the ethnographic picture. Jerzy Tyszko’s drawings allow me to invite the (moral) story of his generation in, and still keeping it explicitly one story, not my moral conclusion. It opens the article to an intergenerational dialogue, shows the gaze of the “elders”, and makes even more explicit the young generation’s challenge of navigating the contentious moral field of sailing tourism. In that sense the article will be a new creation with a new, double message once it encompasses Komandor Tyszko’s drawings. The different modes of representation (text and drawings) we have generated a space that allows for two interpretations of contemporary transformation processes in Poland that do not need to be coherent. We are planning to publish our collaborative work in an academic publication, and to exhibit it in a local exhibition. We are hoping that it will establish a working basis for a shared discussion and knowledge exchange. That it will help creating a sense of shared ownership of knowledge about the region and the sailing community.   


Calzadilla, Fernando and George E. Marcus (2010) Artists in the Field: Between Art and Anthropology (Ch. 7) In: Contemporary Art and Anthropology, edit. by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright. Berg: Oxford, New York: 95-115.

Ingold, Tim (2011) Being Alive. Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description: Drawing Together. Doing, Observing, Describing (Ch. 18). Routledge, London.

Kester, Grant (2014) Conversation Pieces: Dialogical Aesthetics (Ch.3). University of California Press, Oakland.

Marcus, George (2010) Contemporary Fieldwork Aesthetics in Art and Anthropology: Experiments in Collaboration and Intervention. Visual Anthropology, 23(4): 263-277.

Schneider, Arnd (2015) Towards a New Hermeneutics of Art and Anthropology Collaborations. Ethnoscripts 17(1): 23-30.

Tyszko, Jerzy (2013) Szkolne przypadki poczciwej DZ-ty. Uczciowo ilustrowane przez Jerzego J. Tyszko. Wydawnictwo FOKA, Szczecin.


List of Figures:

figure 1
Figure 1: Invitation for a Sailing Voyage drawn by J. J. Tyszko. Scan from the Club Chronicles of LOK Węgorzewo

figure 2
Figure 2: Węgorzewo, Quo Vadis? Drawing by J. J. Tyszko about the political situation in the Polish Town Węgorzewo. Scan from the Club Chronicles of LOK Węgorzewo

figure 3
Figure 3: Book Cover of ‘Szkolne przypadki poczciwej DZ-ty’ (Educational Cases of the Good-Natured DZ (open sailing yacht with oars), sailing instruction book in the form of a comic drawn by J.J. Tyszko

Figure 4
Figure 4: Picture of Jerzy Tyszko (on the left) at the handing over of one of his wooden sculptures. Scan from the Club Chronicles of LOK Węgorzewo

Figure 5
Figure 5: Drawing of a man-over-board-maneuver from J. J. Tyszko’s “Szkolne przypadki…” p. 15

Figure 6
Figure 6: Drawing of the different wind directions/ courses from J. J. Tyszko’s “Szkolne przypadki…” p. 21

Figure 7
Figure 7: Picture of H. Wadle and J. J. Tyszko in September 2015 at Port Keja, Węgorzewo Poland: J. Tyszko is thanking H. Wadle for giving a talk to the members of the club organized sailing regatta. Photo by Marek Makowski.


[1] Sailing culture in Poland and even more specifically in the Masurian Lake District in Northeast Poland, has its very own cultural aesthetics and intimacy which is influenced by socialist legacies of particular forms of sociality and communal rituals, by shared affective cultures of resistance, freedom, nostalgia, adventure, and by cultural imaginaries of the sea farers, maritime myths. These cultural aesthetics and intimacies manifest in the form of shanties, the particular formats of sailing tourism and other organised sociality, in interior design of taverns and bars, in food culture, and also through comics and the illustration of events.