Living color: Artist Paul Zelanski’s gift of art lives on with 85Wishes
By Charmagne Eckert
Color is a power which directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul. – Wassily Kandinsky
What is the color of a life? How might the vibration of molecules, reflecting light back to the eye and translated by our cognition into cerulean, magenta, or yellow, express the fullness of wisdom, creativity, generosity and joy that a life well lived and graciously shared might express? When Paul Zelanski passed away last year after a courageous battle with cancer the worlds of art and education, to which he had dedicated his life, lost a prolific and ever generous contributor. Yet, from departure comes rebirth, and the creative vision and drive for enlightening the soul through the arts that Zelanski embodied throughout his lifetime continue through the 85Wishes Paul Zelanski Award of Excellence Fund.
This past April 13th marked what would have been the 85th birthday of Paul Zelanski, who did so much to illuminate and inspire so many people from all walks of life. Hence, the name, ‘85Wishes,’ was selected for the scholarship fund for students at the University of Connecticut that has been established in his name to honor and perpetuate art in all its beauty and power.
“Our dad had such life-changing impact on people – whether they were art majors or not. When we put together his website, www.paulzelanski.com, we had a flood – people from all over the world [spanning] 50 years knowing him. All these wonderful, wonderful stories,” Zelanski’s oldest daughter Noemi says, “We really needed to honor that.” Conceived of by Noemi and her sister Ruth, 85Wishes is comprised of a collection of Zelanski’s collages, curated by Noemi, and selected to represent their father as artist, educator, mentor, friend and loving parent and husband. The precise yet organic blending of textures, forms and perhaps most of all – colors – of each of the unique original collages, embody the dimensional man who was their creator.
Born in 1931, Zelanski knew by the time he was in high school that he wanted to be an artist and that he intended to support himself by teaching. After completing the certificate in art at New York’s Cooper Union in 1955, he went on to earn a BFA at Yale University, followed by an MFA from Bowling Green State University, where he also began teaching as a graduate assistant. Upon his return to Connecticut in 1962, he joined the faculty at the University of Connecticut in Storrs as a member of the fledgling art department. Dedicated not only to his own work as an artist, but to the mission of higher education, Zelanski helped to forge the new UConn arts curriculum; teaching the first course on color, the first graphic design class, and eventually the initial computer course, which ultimately led to UConn’s popular and innovative computer graphics program.
Through his work as an educator, Zelanski impacted countless lives, but his influence was always informed by who he was as a human being – and above all else, his unique expression of humanity was, as an artist. Art is hard work; it requires training, discipline, dedication and an enthusiasm for life – all of which Zelanski possessed. He served in the Korean conflict as an army photographer, witnessed the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire, drank beer with Robert Rauschenberg, dined on Long Island with Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner and shared exhibitions with Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. Trained initially as a painter, his pedagogical methods, ultimate focus on the study of color, and his exacting work techniques were influenced by Bauhaus artist Josef Albers under whom he studied at Yale. Zelanski was joyously prolific, not only with the volume of artwork he generated, but as a dedicated scholar, teacher of the fine and graphic arts, and author of four college textbooks on design that are still used in schools around the world.
That two of his three children followed artistic expression as their career passion is perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the inspiration Zelanski activated in so many people whose lives he touched. Noemi credits her father’s influence with enabling her to establish her award winning graphic design company, How2Design, and Ruth, whose initial medium is photography, also collaborates in the business. Both women recognize the profound influence Zelanski had on them – not only as their parent, but also, through their studies with him at UConn, where they experienced first hand the exacting criteria that enabled their own best creative expression. “What I remember as one of dad’s favorite phenomena as a professor was, that when something really clicked with someone, they couldn’t remember when they’d learned it. He would remind people, ‘yes I taught you that,’ and they would argue, ‘no, I’ve always known’ that this color theory [principle] happens. The things that we learned from him became our own – they became part of our molecules,” Ruth explains. For Noemi it was more about the opportunity to expand the limits, “I loved to challenge him because it made me a better designer, it made me push. It gave this really strong foundation of what design actually means and the purpose of it and understanding what you are trying to do. We’ve had clients cry because they had no idea you could be that moved by design. We’ve had clients tattoo our work on their bodies – it’s that kind of reaction to design that [tells us] that our dad’s thumbprint is always here.”
For Zelanski art was a way of life; an essential nutrient that he could no more do without than he could water or food. And as such, he believed that everyone’s existence could be enriched by it. The elements of hard work, dedication and self-drive that he brought to his own studio practice, he shared with all of his students – regardless of their personal career goals – and he knew theses were fundamental principles that could be applied to any field of study. His astute sensitivity to the elements of design that define aesthetics; to form and texture and most of all to his expertise – color – awoke an awareness in people that changed the way they interacted with and experienced the world. He touched the creative spark in everyone he encountered and provided the tools by which they could harness it in their own lives. As Ruth puts it, “Our dad was a very generous man with his time and energy and his true passion for teaching, and inciting that passion in other people. He always taught [that] whatever it was, you had to continue that gift for others – and that’s what excited him. It was never at any point about satisfying himself; it was always about giving to others and then seeing what would happen, where they would take it – for themselves.”
85Wishes. 85 collages – 85 expressions of color, texture, emotion, inspiration – generously created by Paul Zelanski, gathered for a special online fundraiser exhibition as a way to perpetuate his philosophy. While the success of the campaign’s web sales so far has allowed the scholarship to reach its funding goal of $25,000, (assuring that it sustains in perpetuity) the family has decided to maintain the online exhibition so that the scholarship will continue to grow. Visitors to the site can purchase collages while they last, and a corporate matching gift turns each $250 sale into a $400 donation to the fund. The Paul Zelanski Award of Excellence Fund will provide an annual prize to a University of Connecticut art student, awarded primarily base upon merit —whether or not they are an art major – so that Paul Zelanski’s legacy of excellence and generosity might go on to enrich future generations.
For more information, and to see what is still available for purchase, please visit: www.85wishes.org
If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation directly to the fund, please visit: https://uconn.givecorps.com/causes/1784-the-paul-zelanski-award-of-excellence-fund (The matching gift will not apply to these donations)
For questions or additional information, please contact Noemi Zelanski Kearns at email@example.com or at: 203-458- 9300.
Additional information about artist Paul Zelanski may be found at: http://www.paulzelanski.com