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The Parallel Paths and Singular Quest of Barbara and Julian Stanczak

Artist Sweethearts [Barbara / Stanczak]

SOUND: patrons milling at gallery opening

DCB: There’s a moment of hesitation when a visitor to the Beck Center art gallery tries to shake Julian Stanczak’s hand. His right arm hangs immobile by his side, paralyzed from a childhood stay in a Siberian labor camp. But, then he quickly offers his other arm for a slightly awkward left-handed shake. It’s a familiar encounter for the 79-year-old artist, and he doesn’t like to make a big deal out of it.

JULIAN: I have no right to impose my pain on others. Naturally, with others you try to be free and cheerful, because that’s what everybody wants to be. You are cheerful, and then you regret you were cheerful [laughs]

BARBARA: [shares the laugh] I don’t think I ever felt that way.

DCB: Barbara Stanczak clucks her tongue at her husband’s dour demeanor. Their 45-year marriage has been a study in contrasting personalities: She the bubbly optimist, he the serious brooder.

FRANCES TAFT: They are very different people.

DCB: Frances Taft has been teaching about art and art history at the Cleveland Institute of Art since 1950. Taft has guided many budding Northeast Ohio artists into their careers --- including Polish immigrant Julian Stanczak.

FRANCES TAFT: He was very quiet. And, not typical of all art students, he was really, really interested in the history of art. At that point, Julian was interested in everything, because he had had such a traumatic childhood.

DCB: His determination to be an artist carried him through the grueling process of re-learning to draw, using his left hand. He later enrolled in the Yale Masters program where he studied with abstract painter Josef Albers, considered to be the father of Optical --- or “Op Art” --- as this eye-popping genre was christened in the psychedelic 1960s.

MUSIC: “Are You Experienced?” UP & UNDER

DCB: “Op Art” --- you’ve see it… those tightly drawn, parallel rows of lines or curves that seem to play tricks on your eyes… those images from 40 years ago… when poster designers were trying to achieve a mind-bending experience. Like my of his contemporaries, Julian Stanczak doesn’t like the label “Op Art” --- feeling it trivializes what he does. Joe Houston called it “Perceptual Art” in an exhibition he curated last year at the Columbus Museum of Art.

JOE HOUSTON: As a curator, I’m interested in people talking about art…and trying to accept some simple terms, so that we can get beyond that and discuss the work, which is what’s really important, no matter what you call it.

DCB: Joe Houston says Julian’s time at Yale taught him that art didn’t always have to be about …things… about representations of the real world.

JOE HOUSTON: It wasn’t about images anymore. It was really about color…pattern…design affect you --- first through the eye, then through the nervous system, then through the mind, as well. It really pushes the boundaries of your sense of perception. You really begin to realize how your eyes work.

DCB: Julian’s eyes began working overtime when they gazed upon a young German immigrant student in his classroom at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where he was a teacher in 1960.

BARBARA: I was a little bit timid because I thought he would hate me being German once I knew that he had very severe experiences. That intimidated me a little bit, but I loved his work, I loved his teaching, I admired him, and the rest is history.

DCB: Art has always been a part of Barbara’s history. She comes from a family of artisans and church painters.

BARBARA: Art and life was not a separate thing. In my family, almost everyone was an artist, in one way or another. You had to weave the curtains... you had to make a carpet… Everything was homemade. You fixed the chair that’s broken. You built the table that isn’t there. You didn’t think of it as art. You did what you had to do to keep on living.

DCB: Her ideas about art…and what art could be…expanded greatly in Julian’s classroom…and just being in America.

BARBARA: In Germany at that time, you did not ask questions. You just did what you were supposed to do. Here, I could ask questions. It was wonderful, and it still is. I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel very much embraced by everybody and everything. I can reach out to other people without embarrassment, without holding back.

DCB: But, her artistic ambitions were put on hold as she raised her own children and supported Julian in a career that has brought him international acclaim.

BARBARA: I think in the back of my mind was always, “My time will come.”

SOUND: chiseling UP & UNDER:

DCB: Barbara Stanczak gleefully chisels a chunk of stone in the garage. She loves using the raw materials of nature --- everything from a rotting tree trunk to a translucent piece of alabaster --- and shaping them into sculptures. In yet another contrast between Barbara and her spouse --- she never quite knows what she’ll come up with when she starts shaping the material, whereas he has an entire optical art painting in his head before the brush ever touches the canvas. Joe Houston of the Columbus Museum of Art says Julian is very philosophical.

JOE HOUSTON: I can see him planning things out to a tee in his head. But, he’s one who wants perfection --- and he achieves it, as far as I’m concerned, although he’ll never be satisfied. Barbara can handle some imperfections, because that’s kind of how reality is.

DCB: And Barbara says she wants to keep the experience of art alive for the viewer as well. That’s why there are little signs placed through out the Beck center gallery bearing the surprising request: “Please touch”

BARBARA: We have learned to keep our hands to ourselves, many times. Reaching out and touching is a very giving gesture…a very revealing gesture.

DCB: And she extends that sense of discovery to the act of teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

BARBARA: For me, the students are like clay…or like a stone, where I have to discover what’s within it in order to help reveal what they should be doing; helping them see themselves. It’s exciting to teach them.

DCB: Julian Stanczak also finds inspiration in young people.

JULIAN: Children, they respond. And they say, “It has something.” They don’t know how to describe it. They will say, “I like that”.

DCB: Julian Stanczak smiles as he considers what it must be like to come at life with that sort of innocence and optimism. Memories from a very different childhood don’t allow him to indulge in such qualities. His former teacher, Frances Taft, says he’s been able to find some solace in his life within the ordered lines of his art.

FRANCES TAFT: Julian was able to turn off the sickness of the world … the trouble and deep tragedies of the world … and think, “Through my art, I can create a world that is controlled, and, in terms of aesthetic, with the color is very beautiful.” So, it’s beautiful, it’s controlled, it is rational. And he’s come from a world that was irrational --- being carted off as a child… family torn apart… having injured his right arm and being treated so cruelly that it never healed --- these are irrational acts. And so, if you just shut yourself off… It is beautifully controlled, and beautifully thought out. The concept of “thinking” is very important.

SOUND: Julian grumbles about the difficulty of laying out straight lines.

DCB: Sitting at his work table, Julian Stanczak is a study in concentration. He’s working on a panel for a new piece. It’s one of many that will all be fitted together into a mosaic of black and white lines that bend in different directions. Right now, he’s doing something incredible --- he’s applying long, thin strips of white tape to a black canvas. Each line is perfectly parallel to the next… each one is applied free-hand…with one hand…with his left hand. Barbara sits on a stool by his side and shakes her head. She still doesn’t know how he does it. Joe Houston thinks they’re both pretty amazing.

JOE HOUSTON: You won’t find a couple of artists more immersed in their craft than they are. Their home is just filled everywhere with their art. Julian has made the tables, he’s made the furniture…they’ve contributed to this environment. It’s interesting how they’ve crafted this world for themselves --- both through their art and through their life. So, I’m impressed with how they’ve managed to live their life in almost an aesthetic fashion. And it’s kind of inspiring.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.