Guerilla art

August 24, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

No one got it.

This was to be expected. After all, it was an opening reception for Paul Zelanski's latest exhibit of 3-D images and paintings at the University of Connecticut.

By his estimation, hundreds were milling about, politely bouncing from work to work. Still, it wasn't a tough nut to crack ...

An hour into the show, a colleague's son came up and grabbed the artist's attention.

"You know Mr. Zelanski," the 10-year-old said. The boy proceeded to decipher Zelanski's little riddle: Each painting title in the exhibit was a line from Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky," arranged in reverse.


"He was the only person there that picked it up," Zelanski marvels, years later. "That just blew my mind."

The subtle twist to Zelanski's art represents the guerilla-like measures the artist takes to engage viewers in his work, which for more than 20 years has been comprised of primarily collage images of others' discarded memories.

"I'm a recycler, I guess you could call me," Zelanski, 71, says. "Or too cheap to buy stuff; one or the other."

Trash, treasure. Treasure, trash. For Paul Zelanski, one man's throwaway item becomes the linchpin of his artistic vision.

Treating recycled second thoughts as if they were meticulously polished gem stones, the Willington, Conn., collagist brings his layered hodge-podges to Shippensburg University for a month-long show debuting Monday, Aug. 26.

"I think it's profound how he integrates homemade materials, natural materials, organic materials, even printed material like a postage stamp," says Shippensburg professor Steve Dolbin, a former colleague of Zelanski's at UConn. "There's just a beautiful composition to these things. Everything works in a harmonious way. There's a contrast, but there's not a conflict."

A native of Connecticut, Yale graduate and longtime professor at UConn, Zelanski studied at The Cooper Union in New York and earned a master's degree at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. As if that weren't enough, Dolbin trumpets Zelanski's writing career; he's the author of several well-known textbooks that revolutionized the presentation of art history by writing from the artist's perspective.

It was juggling classes, writing and his painting that led Zelanski to return to collages. Now retired, he spends his time teaching the occasional master class. Nearly every day, though, he enters his studio, where multiple 7-by-5 inch collages are always in various stages of creation. More than 70 will be displayed through Sept. 25 in Shippensburg's Kauffman Gallery.

Zelanski's works tend to evolve in one of three ways: As a standard collage; appearing from a distance as a painting; or hard-edged, sharp images.

Aping the Where's Waldo? hidden image concept, his work often includes something from nature for viewers to search for; other popular materials are stamps or old, usually European, money.

These are the items, he says, people easily relate to, triggering memories from their past. It is the same reason he keeps his work relatively small, or plays with titles, as he did with the 'Jabberwocky' paintings.

"For instance, one of my favorite books is 'Alice in Wonderland' and I read 'Alice in Wonderland' maybe once a year, and 'Through the Looking Glass,' for probably 50 years. And every time I read it I find something different in it," he says. "I think that a good piece of music does the same thing, a good poem. ...

"All good art should interact with the person looking at it. Even if you look at it and say 'I hate that damn thing' because at least you're looking at it."

Dolbin contacted his old friend to come to exhibit at the university as a continuing effort by the school to provide students with an interactive entrance into the art world. Dolbin remembers interacting with artists as part of his studies and says it is a valuable, vital part of the educational experience.

"We're not in New York, we're not in D.C.," he says. "We can get to those places, but that's not where we are, so we need to focus on bringing these resources to our students."

Zelanski trolls for materials in magazines, at flea markets or from paper samples supplied by friends in graphic design. Wrapping paper is a favorite of his.

It may sound strange, he says, but the art talks to him. Instinctively, he will work on or set aside pieces as if they are saying to him 'I'm ready, make me whole' or 'Nah, not quite ripe yet.'

Early in his career, Zelanski taught at North Texas State University in Denton, Tx. The school offered a degree in jazz, attracting top musicians, and there were times when they would gather in Zelanski's art studio, jamming and socializing.

The artist remembers times when one player would settle into a solo and the rest of the group would look on with admiration, picking up on an impressive subtlety the layman would miss.

He strives for a similar reaction with his work, providing viewers with a springboard into their own memory and creative flight.

"Hopefully, someone will look at something like the players looked at the soloist," Zelanski says. "And say, 'I never thought of that. That's good. I think I'll use that sometime.'"

If you go . . .

Collages by Paul Zelanski

Monday, Aug. 26, through Wednesday, Sept. 25

Kauffman Gallery

Huber Art Center

1871 Old Main Drive

Shippensburg, Pa.

Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday, 6 to 9 p.m. Reception Thursday, Sept. 5, 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.

For information, call 1-717-477-1530 or send e-mail to

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