Outside the city of Przemyśl, in the far South corner of Poland, hills roll on to infinity. Long, round, shadows blanket the small green valleys. "There was my home," proclaims Julian Stanczak, extending his left hand towards the amber horizon. Where he points, however, lies nothing but a vast expanse of farmland. But, as a man of incredible precision and razor sharp memory, Julian has made no mistake.
The son of a farmer, Julian spent most of his early childhood days running through the fields and orchards around his home. Here, he was free. Here, he fed cows and listened to their melodic moaning; listened to the music of his beloved instrument, the cello, to counterpoint the singing cows; picked from the apple trees that he planted with his father; spent long sun filled days lying with his goat on beds of wild grass– what a beautiful goat he claims to have had. His tame, crystal blue, eyes narrow under his bushy white brows. "I was in raj– paradise!" exclaims Julian, "And then everything was taken from me." Julian lowers his gaze, sighs, and pauses. His right hand, paralyzed from traumatic stress in Siberia during his youth, hangs by his side.
I had the chance of meeting Julian and his incredible wife, Barbara (also an artist herself), over some coffee and cookies, one overcast January morning at their home in Seven Hills, a small industrial town South of Cleveland. After 88 years of a life filled with incredible trauma, relocation, fear, adversity, and creative ingenuity, Julian Stanczak sat confidently in front of me. "I don't like Nazism. Nor do I like Zionism, or any other radical movement," he pronounced with a powerful, raspy, voice, "but I do like Communism. They gave me a free ticket to work at a gulag in Siberia!" As he began to laugh, I started to marvel at the incredible man sitting before me.
Julian is a painter of extraordinary genius. After escaping the horrific labor camp in Siberia during WWII, he and his family immigrated to Equatorial Africa where the young Julian first picked up a paintbrush and found his deep love for color among the surrounding vibrant hues of the African jungle. It was also here that he managed to adjust to a life without his dominant right arm and regain his physical and mental strength. In 1948, his family moved to London before finally settling down in Cleveland. There, at the age of 21, he enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art. In 1956, following his B.A studies, he completed his M.A in Art at Yale. After his studies, he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art (for over 30 years). Julian was one of the core founder of the so called Op Art (optical art) movement and his paintings have received numerous accolades. They can be found in museum collections around the world, from the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, to the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. In 2012, Bloomberg ranked him among the hottest artists in the world.
Paintings from left to right: Procession, 1987. Structural, 1969. Lumina, 1991. Shared Center, 1983. Environmental Site, 1987. Uninterrupted Blue Green, 2005
As a remarkable artist and teacher, Julian was an incredible man to listen to. He spoke directly and elegantly, and his words resonated far beyond just the realm of the arts.
Here is a part of my interview with Julian:
Julian Stanczak: I only remember two words in Polish*. [laughing] Who was supposed to teach me? My goat? I only had a cat, a dog, and a pet goat. I did love my pet goat, though. When I ran to school each morning my goat would always run after me! Several times, my goat even ate my homework! The teacher would say, “Where is your homework?” and I would respond, “My goat ate it.” Oh how all my classmates would laugh! They never believed me! I was the only boy that lived outside of the town, out in the country: out with nature.
Vincent Prochoroff: How far did you have to walk to school?
JS: Using the road it was around 15 km, but I had another way that would take me only 10 minutes. [laughing] I would run like an idiot! Up hill and then down hill, through old castles, swinging on trees, and then, somehow, I would find myself in school!
VP: Do you source much inspiration from nature?
JS: Mother Nature is perfect in one way, but on the other hand she is mischievous. Because, you know how in music, if you want to imitate the bird then you are out of your mind! You cannot imitate the bird! You not only have to understand the nature, but also how you present it!
Like the composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos. In his music he would try to imitate the Brazilian jungle sounds. I remember one time I really wanted to hear his music, so I crashed through the stage of Severance Hall to hear the Cleveland Orchestra play Villa Lobos! So I enjoyed being in the jungle all by myself for that short period of time.
(1917) Uirapuru is an orchestral piece with an elaborate program about the mythical Uirapuru bird in the Amazon jungle.
If you don’t what you are trying to compose and how you are doing it, then it is very disarming to imitate nature. See, when you try to compose the nature, you try to identify with it. You want to attach it to tangible things, like the birds or some other thing. Perhaps, the shimmer of the reeds. We want to connect with the nature, but as soon as we connect, it dies! But, if we don’t desire to connect and only desire to enjoy what it does to us, we are free.
And then we always want to make the experience better. That’s a big question! If you enjoyed it once, you want to enjoy it further, into the unknown. You want to bring it in. That’s something we spend the lifetime trying to find. To find the absolute. There is this endless change involved.
VP: Does the absolute exist?
JS: Look at Piet Mondrian making his geometric patterns. Occasionally he would stop and paint a flower. I have many slides that I would use for my lectures, of these flower paintings by Mondrian which he achieved by dishing out the different variances of a color. He could do that with the same projection, and the same empathy, as he did with his geometric patterns. So he can create the response: I know it. That is the inner satisfaction. When you know it, we usually associate that with it being good. If you say, “Oh, I don’t know it, so it is bad,” then most of the times that’s how we see it. Anything we understand, we seem to hold on. Anything we don’t understand, we seem to negate; it’s no good!
VP: Is this how we react to the abstract?
JS: What is abstract? Define it! What is abstract? What do you mean by abstract!?
JS: You don’t have to answer, I can see your hesitation of trying to find the right words in order to express yourself. Express what? Something that you know, but to bring it out to share with others. It has to be clear. And, so, you are puzzled. “Does the choice of my words make it clear?” You defeat yourself! So... abstract? It is a synthesis to me. Abstract is just like an extract of things. But the question with abstract is what it does to us, not what it is. We have to separate the two.
It deals with our emotion, but we are trying to throw the emotion away. Why? Because emotion confuses our clarity of logic. So, if we want to pin point something, we cannot do it through emotion! You have to do it through the clarity of your brain cells. [laughing] You better go look at Donald Trump! He has a good brain, he said it himself. He said that there is a genius in him. You have to find that genius in you! Now what is it, that genius?
VP: I would like to find it.
JS: Right, you want to find it. That’s what you are doing right? You know, going to school and everything else. To find that genius! Otherwise it’s your response. I like it or I don’t like it. I want to hear it again or something like that. What is it?! What is it that has that magnetic attraction? So you look for that genius in you! The secrets. Those are secrets.
When I would teach art, I would sometimes hear a confused student ask, “What do I do? What do I do!? What do I paint?” And I would respond, “Just Paint! Don’t step on it! You’re stepping on it!” That’s usually what it is. We look to far. You think the answers are outside, but the answers are within yourself. The outside motivates you to search to find that secret. What is the secret? It’s ephemeral. It doesn’t hold down still. It doesn’t hold on; it's transient.
VP: Do you think you’ve found your genius?
JS: Me? [laughing] I’m still looking. And the only problem I have, is that I get incapacitated. Because this last year or so I tore my tendons again, and now I’m armless. So to do something, it’s impossible. My hand just falls asleep, so I cannot paint.
I would like, however, to have several things to look at to compare the past to now: to anticipate tomorrow. Otherwise, how can you progress without comparison? You endlessly look for handles to compare! Your handles were the moments when you were impressed. That’s the only thing that you have that has some honesty to itself, because it’s you!
You’re doing fine. You will be frustrated as hell. The farther you get, the more frustrated you will become. And many times one feels totally empty. There is nothing you could do. Some people will come and say, I like it, I dislike it, or I this or that! And after a while it will annoy the hell out of you, because, you want to help them and that’s normal human nature! To help your brother. But no matter what you say, you are not being heard. And if you are heard, then who get’s heard for not hearing? You. Because you wanted to give something and it was rejected.
Before I left his home, Julian wanted to show me something from his childhood. "They're over here," he told me as we slowly walked over to his work desk, filled with all types of different materials, glues, and paints. The first object he pulled out was the watch that his father obtained while stationed as a soldier in Egypt during WWII. "It's a fine thing, it still works despite the crack in the glass!" he exclaimed putting the watch back in it's place. Then suddenly, Julian began to panic, "Where is it? Where is my apple?" I began to wonder what in the world he was possibly talking about until he began, relieved, "Ah! Here it is!" picking up a small, black and shriveled ball from the table. "This is the apple. This is all that was left when I returned to my family farm in Przemyśl, for the first time in more than 50 years." He stood there, extending the hand holding his petrified apple, with poignant eyes, "We planted a whole orchard, my father and I. My goat was there too! When I came back, there was only one tree left. Now, all I have is this apple."
•Julian spoke Polish with the upmost fluency. Several times througout the interview he switched seamlessly from English to Polish and vice versa. Although abandoning his country from a young age he retained his strong Polish identity.