Paul knew he wanted to be an artist and support himself as a teacher by the time he was in high school. He worked many jobs growing up in Hartford, from newspaper delivery to factory jobs to working tobacco in the summers. After graduating from Hartford High he was accepted into Cooper Union in NYC in 1950, attending for 2 years until he went into the army during the Korean conflict, stationed in Germany as an army photographer. After leaving the army in 1954 he returned to Cooper Union to complete his certificate in art in 1955. He received a BFA at Yale, where he studied under Joseph Albers, who had an enduring influence on Paul’s own teaching directions, as well as his lifelong study of color. He earned an MFA at Bowling Green State University, while working as a graduate teaching assistant. He then taught art at North Texas State University in Denton, TX for 4 years, arriving back in CT in 1962 where he began teaching at the University of CT in Storrs. He was the 7th faculty member to join the new art department.
Paul taught the first color class, (and continued teaching color for the next 34 years), the first graphic design class, and later, the first computer course (a programming course in computers for art students, which several years later led to computer graphics). Through the years he taught other courses, but he most enjoyed teaching the fundamental courses, hoping to get students fired up about art as freshmen, and off to a good start with a thorough background in basic design and color. In the early 80s he started the computer graphics program. He had met an Apple representative at a computer conference, who in turn donated a dozen computers to the Art Department, and the program was born. Paul taught computer graphics until his retirement in 1995. The computer graphics program at UConn was innovative and well-known in academia, drawing new students to the art department for years because other schools didn’t have computer labs set up yet. Paul felt computer graphics were the future when few felt computers would benefit the arts. The students who were part of that early period have made very successful graphic designers through the decades since.
To be a teacher is to be a storyteller, according to Paul, and a long life well-lived gave him many stories. From being at the Hartford Circus Fire in 1944 to being the first person from Hartford admitted to The Cooper Union; from drinking beer in New York City with Robert Rauschenberg to having dinner on Long Island with Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner; from being in exhibitions with Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg to inventing (and selling, along with the rights) the first Slinky Dog, Paul loved sharing his memories, and just when you were convinced you had heard them all, he would surprise you with a new one.
Paul received a lifetime Achievement Award from the Connecticut Art Director’s Club in 2005, and was inducted into their Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, there were ex-students of his from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, a cross-section of artists who were still active in the arts. It was truly a highlight of his career.
He has been in shows throughout America, as well as overseas, and was a visiting professor in Holland and Poland. He is in many permanent collections from California to New York City, London and beyond. Back in the 70s he started making collage buttons, and sold them in museum gift shops, but he enjoyed more being able to give them away. He particularly enjoyed telling people that if someone liked the button they were wearing, they had to give it to the person, and then contact him and he would send them another. Although some people admitted to not wearing their buttons in public, Paul was contacted for replacements from people around the globe.
Over the last 30 years he has concentrated on making small collages rather than large paintings, recently exploring how to make them 3-dimensional while still in a frame. He loved the idea of recycling paper that others might find useless, and he loved pressing the leaves that were used in each collage. Most of all, Paul loved color, and he was an expert in using it as his own personal voice in all his images. Since his retirement he worked every day in his studio, creating his beautiful and lyrical pieces, only missing time when health issues made it too difficult.
He enjoyed brightening someone’s day, strangers and friends, if only for a moment. For the last couple of decades, if you had any contact with Paul he most likely gave you a Werther’s Original. A small token of thanks, he felt it was important to acknowledge those around us, and he passed his candies out all over eastern Connecticut, from the mechanics at Tony’s Garage to cashiers in the supermarket, and every receptionist and nurse he met.
Paul was incredibly grateful that he was able to do what he loved his entire life, and that was a guiding principal in his role as a father. He supported his children and their choices in careers with two conditions: that they follow their passions and always do their best.
Paul is survived by his wife of 50 years, Annette (Harding) Zelanski, and their three children: son John Zelanski and fiancé Tammy Bowman, daughter Noemi Zelanski Kearns and husband Ted Kearns, daughter Ruth Zelanski and husband Ron Lambert, as well as a daughter from a previous relationship, Suzy Kessler and her husband Dean. There are 6 grandchildren: Nolan, Zophia, Sadie Bea, Meret, Milou, and Ali. His children and grandchildren have been the delight of his life. Paul is also survived by his niece Debbie Sacharek and her children Kelly Thompson Lopez and Lucas Nelson, nieces Jean and Kathy Zelanski and nephew Alan Zelanski, and several great nieces and great nephews.
There are no calling hours or funeral, but a memorial service will be held August 17, 2015, from 4-8pm, at The William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut. Paul’s wishes were for a happy celebration. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Mansfield Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, 100 Warren Circle, Storrs, CT 06268 or donations may be made to “The Paul Zelanski Award of Excellence Fund” at the UConn School of Fine Arts. Please make checks payable to: The UConn Foundation, Inc., 2390 Alumni Drive Unit 3206, Storrs, Connecticut 06269. A note accompanying the check should state that this is a gift made in memory of Paul Zelanski.
For online expressions of sympathy, please leave a comment below.