Lake Illawarra man makes device so wife can paint post-stroke

I can only wish that my partner would have a love for me like Janusz Zaklikowski has for his beloved Danuta (Dana) after 43 years of marriage.

I met them in their Lake Illawarra home to chat about Dana’s upcoming exhibition at Wollongong Art Gallery, something Janusz was incredibly proud of.

The free spirited artists left a war-torn Poland in 1981 and followed their “youth dream to move far away”.

“If the life was more permissible in Antarctica that would have been a probable choice,” Janusz joked.

They settled in Australia, exploring our beaches and sun-burnt landscape, all the while interpreting their discoveries through paint and sketches.

Today the very private couple spend the majority of their time in their Lake Illawara home. 

Dana is immobile due to a stroke in 2015 and a subsequent “heart episode” in May which caused further damage to her already fragile body.
 The love is there and clearly shown through Janusz’s devotion to her.

After her initial stroke, Dana – a former art teacher and fashion designer – was not prepared to accept her limitations.

As a part of her therapy program and to help her improve mobility in her arms she started sketching on paper, progressing further to paint with oils on paper and canvas.

We always said people have a pair of shoes, left and right, but to make progress you need both. Dana always said ‘it’s much safer to stand on four legs than on two’.

Janusz Zaklikowski

But Janusz noticed his wife was struggling with the weight of a paint brush so he put his engineering-wired brain to work.

“I have been able to build for Dana a special device, assisting her with multidirectional arm movements by removing the gravity element of the arm,” he said.

The device was cleverly constructed using a microphone stand with different bands and pulleys to make Dana’s arm weightless. Up until her most recent illness Dana was forging her new style of abstract art, her main form of communication.

Janusz would set her up in their art studio with a canvas ready and select a colour for her brush.

Lake Illawarra's Danuta Zaklikowski suffered an acute stroke in 2015 that has a massive impact on her life. Her engineer husband Janusz Zaklikowski created devices so she could continue practising her art. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Lake Illawarra's Danuta Zaklikowski suffered an acute stroke in 2015 that has a massive impact on her life. Her engineer husband Janusz Zaklikowski created devices so she could continue practising her art. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Sometimes she liked the colour he carefully chose, other times she would detest and refused to paint with the colour.

“It’s hard, people often see us as the end of the story,” Janusz said of how outsiders often perceive stroke sufferers.

“But we treat this as normal, it’s a new normal. We focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t.”

Their work was a collaborative effort and signed “DEER”, Janusz described the pen name as an easier “bush name” Aussies could understand. The signature incorporates each of their initials J and D into the calligraphy.

Working together on a single artwork was not new, they have been creating pieces for years and are displayed throughout their home. However, the pair have always sworn to secrecy which brush strokes belonged to whom so as to “keep the mystery”.

Janusz was a young man when he first encountered the endearing Danuta. He was studying to be an engineer at a technical college. She was his art teacher.

Janusz and Danuta Zaklikowski at Brighton Beach in Victoria. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Janusz and Danuta Zaklikowski at Brighton Beach in Victoria. Picture: Sylvia Liber

The older woman with long dark hair loved tapping into the inner workings of the mind and thoroughly enjoyed intelligent conversation. She made Janusz think.

“Even if she was well today, in a group of people she will stick with the young ones to probe their way of thinking, their approach to problem solving,” he explained. 

“She was blood and bone an educator in many ways.”

It’s not exactly a typical [union] but as our friend said ‘it was a match made in the heaven’.

Janusz Zaklikowski

More than 10 years later they crossed paths again and their love was very quick to blossom.

“She invited me over for evening supper, and she’s been preparing me breakfast ever since,” Janusz laughed. “I just come for dinner and stay ‘til today”.

Janusz married his love six months later in a beautiful old castle. Their 1976 “crazy” wedding with close friends and family, Janusz said, was unconventional just like their pairing.

“It was unconditional [love] despite a little bit of curiosity from friends and people,” he said. 

“It’s not exactly a typical [union] but as our friend said ‘it was a match made in the heaven’.”

When the couple arrived in Australia ahead of a “state of emergency” in their homeland they barely had any money nor belongings to start their new life.

Janusz worked as an engineer in the hotel industry and his beloved picked up the occasional commissioned artwork where she could. But life as an artist was difficult to sustain as a career.

“When you arrive to a new country with no language, with $3 in the pocket and two suitcases, your priorities lie somewhere else so you really need to survive,” he said.

“Being an artist is an expensive way of living – because you put [your time] into the creation without any guarantee you can [make money] from it.”

However, the inseparable pair continued to explore and create art as one, never in competition with each other but rather like yin and yang.

“We always said people have a pair of shoes, left and right, but to make progress you need both,” Janusz said.

NEW BEGINNINGS: An abstract painting of Lake Illawarra, largely by the hand of Dana using the device Janusz created for her. This is one of the works which will be on exhibition.

NEW BEGINNINGS: An abstract painting of Lake Illawarra, largely by the hand of Dana using the device Janusz created for her. This is one of the works which will be on exhibition.

“Dana always said ‘it’s much safer to stand on four legs than on two’.”

There is a joy in Janusz's face when telling me of his wife’s achievements and their time together. He is excited to celebrate her new abstract work in an exhibition at Wollongong Art Gallery next February. 

Paintings she has created over the last three years will be on display in the Community Access Gallery.

While Janusz is hoping to turn some of her works into postcards which will double as a fundraiser for the Stroke Foundation.

“Dana’s visual brain is working differently. However the artistic output is both pleasing and interesting,” he said.

Janusz tells me opening his home to a stranger from the Mercury was a little daunting.  But he said he was happy to do whatever it took so the world could also see the beauty he sees in Dana and her work.