Alexander Shundi – Meanderings and Musings
By Nancy La Mar-Rodgers / Photos by A. Vincent Scarano
It is a beautiful afternoon when Alexander Shundi welcomes us into his home, a restored church built in the 1850s. Knowing just a bit about Shundi before meeting him I expected his home to be something out of the ordinary; however what I walked into was at once a wonderland, a museum, a playground, a time machine, and a sanctuary all in one. Shundi’s collections span from Native American to African to early European artworkp; and every inch of wall space, every nook and cranny carries with it a story.
As he gives a very brief initial tour before we are to sit down to lunch, Shundi mentions the swallow birds a few times as he points out why these birds are often depicted in his paintings. I ask him why the fascination with the swallow, and he recounts the time he spent as a child in the city of Parma, Italy. “I would watch the swallows from my window as they would circle the steeples of the buildings that I could see, and I would…” As he brings forth the memory, he becomes that child again as his hand begins to move over the kitchen counter, “I would watch them in flight, and I would trace with my pencil their movements,” Shundi’s hand begins the dance of the swallow as if he is holding that same pencil. “When I would finish, I would look down at the pattern that I made; and I believed that they were sending me a secret message in that pattern.” With his playful telling of the tale and his delight with its meaning, one can only believe that whether it was the swallow or something greater, Shundi has been receiving secret messages from the world around him and these messages, still clandestine in nature, have made their way into everything he touches; his paintings, his sculptures, and his writings.
Shundi continues his story as he and his wife Elizabeth work in tandem to create a meal. His voice is heavy, deep, and filled with awe and humor. This is a man who has fun with this experience we call life and he is not afraid to explore the darkest parts of men’s souls while bringing much needed levity to his explorations.
Born in the city of Parma in 1944, Shundi recounts the days of his childhood at the beginning of WWII. With bombs exploding on a regular basis, he explains the family’s need to leave Parma for safer ground and the eventual move out to his maternal grandfather’s farm. “When my mother was pregnant, my grandfather moved my parents out to a farm in Correggio. The bombing in the city had become too much.” During those early years on the farm, Shundi’s father, who was a well educated pharmacist, became a local doctor for the farmers in the area because of his knowledge of medicine. “My father was a well known man in the local community as someone who knew something about medicine. During the war, he would have the Partisan soldiers showing up in the middle of the night; and he would patch them up, until of course the Germans found out.” Shundi recalls the political quagmire his father found himself in and how their bucolic life was to come to a halt as his father figured out a way to get his family away from the strife. His father decided that the family was going to leave Italy. “We were living in my mother’s side of the family’s house. My father had always had this thing about coming to America, and so we did but we were not immigrants. We were considered part of a political asylum program, USEP, the United States Escapee Program.”
In 1957 at the age of 13, Shundi arrived in the US when his parents settled in Bridgeport. “The reason we ended up in Bridgeport was because my father who is of Romanian descent was able to be sponsored by the local Romanian community, but it was terrible. My parents were so upset that they had come. It was no good.” He shakes his head as he remembers the conditions and turmoil that was Bridgeport at that time. “My parents were so unhappy. It was not what they expected.” As Shundi grates an exquisite parmesan cheese for our lunch he remembers the food given to his family as part of the asylum program. “I remember lots of cans and Wonder Bread and packaged food, that for my parents, was not really food.” He laughs now, but for a young man and budding artist, finding himself in a town riddled with racial tensions and strife was a torment. “I remember the first night we were there, a gang fight happened right outside the house. It was crazy.”
Shundi admits to only knowing about America through the films that he and his family had seen. “So the last film I saw before coming to the United States was On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando, and it really scared me.” He throws his head back and laughs a deep hearty laugh. “I just remember thinking to myself, what are we crazy? We can’t go there.” But they did, and America was nothing like the movies. Despite Bridgeport’s lack of cultural intrigue, the tough landscape that was his neighborhood and the foreign approach to life’s simple pleasures, Shundi managed to set a path for himself; and with the encouragement and push of his family, he got into the schools and the circles that mattered.
Shundi moved on to art school right after high school. He first attended the Silver College of Art in New Canaan, continuing his education in both France and Italy, and would eventually graduate from Yale with an MFA full scholarship and fellowship. Shundi continues to teach today, working in both Manhattan at the New York Institute of Technology and upstate NY at a school called Arts on the Lake on Lake Carmel. Additionally he has private students who come to his studio for intense hours of painting, reflection, and critique.
As we dig into the risotto and asparagus, superbly prepared by Alexander and his lovely wife Elizabeth, he talks a bit about his grown children and how incredibly proud he is of both of them and their own incredible accomplishments. It is obvious, not just from this father’s words, but from the passion with which he speaks of his family, that they are an integral part of what inspires this man. With the giddiness of a child at Christmas time, Shundi shows us the rooms in which his children spent their formative years…they are masterpieces. Intricate murals that contain a tribute to each child, a menagerie of color and imagination that leaves us breathless. One can only imagine the joy it brought to a child.
In Shundi’s upper floor studio, there is a cathedral like skylight. The room is surreal, much like the home’s lower level. With the studio walls covered, every inch an homage to a forgotten artist, tribe, school of thought, and even Pinocchio. In the center of the space are Shundi’s current paintings. He works beneath the skylight; and the swirl of energy in the middle of the room sucks you in and leaves you encompassed, engulfed, and enamored as your eyes try to take it all in, interpret, breathe, and wonder. What is real, and what is Shndis imagination? As Shundi bounces from painting to painting, trying to explain its meaning or pointing out his poetry meticulously painted into his work, I can’t help but feel as if I am in a scene from A Beautiful Mind, as Shundi’s intensity can hardly be contained by any physical or tangible planes.
Taking up the length of two walls, Shundi’s trains are a marvel, each one with a theme and fueled by the sociopolitical musings of Shundi’s mind. There is the capitalist train that is fueled by money; there is the train that runs on petroleum. “I may be putting these trains on display in Grand Central.” With a dark humor that is contagious, Shundi holds up another one of his trains that runs on, as he explains, “shredded documents. Check this out.” He twirls the train around so I can see it from all sides. “You see here the Special Ops guy along with James Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan.” He laughs again at his own biting humor, and you can’t help but appreciate how this man uses his art to speak his mind. Shundi’s political satire is nail on, and yet the wit he brings to each piece shows a man who thinks and cares deeply about what is happening in the world around him. While it is doubtful that Shundi will ever stop using his art to comment on the world’s atrocities, it is also clear that he will continue to see the world as a place of beauty, wonderings, and possibilities. In Shundi’s own poetic verse, “I search for the freedom to imagine, to then concretize…”
Alexander Shundi will curate a show at the Hygienic Art Gallery in New London, featuring 8 artists (including himself) from around the country. The show is titled Passion, Discipline, Intuition, Intellect. Show opens Saturday July 6 at 6pm and runs thru August 3.
For more information on the artist: www.alexandershundi.com