Acclaimed artist and USF professor Theo Wujcik dies at 78

Published March 31 2014
Updated April 1 2014

TAMPA — Theo Wujcik kept odd hours, often closing down the Castle in Ybor City and returning to his studio across the street, where he would paint until daybreak.

His work could not be categorized as pop or realist or abstract, though it contained those elements and more.

Nor did Mr. Wujcik himself fit into any genre. He turned 21 when Elvis Presley's All Shook Up topped the charts, yet would lead a "movement" in Ybor City in the 1980s called Mododado, which combined punk rock and salvage art and dancing.

Around the same period, Mr. Wujcik saw a rolled-up chain link fence and thought of a tornado. In 1984 he painted Tampa Tornado, a chain link whirlwind that contains and destroys all. He continued to use the fence metaphor in his category-defying art for years.

That whirlwind has finally stopped. Mr. Wujcik, a nationally acclaimed artist who taught for more than 30 years at the University of South Florida, died Saturday of cancer, his friends say. He was 78.

Mr. Wujcik was also a master printer at USF's Graphicstudio. His work was admired by many, and collectors lined up to pay thousands of dollars for it. He constantly experimented with new ideas, but a consistent theme was one of appropriated cultural symbols and imagery.

"The innovative part of Theo was that he moved through various themes and ideas that were often stimulated by global and political events and his everyday life," said Margaret Miller, who directs the USF Institute for Research in Art. "He would take fragments from the art world and detritus on the street, changing strategies and constantly reinventing himself."

A colleague of 30 years at USF, Miller recalled that Mr. Wujcik sometimes slept in his studio. In the evenings he took bets from the cleaning crew, and placed them along with his own at Tampa Greyhound Track, happily returning their winnings to them, Miller said.

Collectors in the Tampa Bay area and beyond, however, knew Mr. Wujcik as a heavyweight, a two-time best of show winner at Gasparilla Festival of the Arts whose work hung in scores of galleries in the United States and Europe, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He loved to work with colleagues, including internationally renowned artists Edward Ruscha and Robert Rauschenberg, and would incorporate their themes — along with that of Rodin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Andy Warhol and others — into his own work.

Such appropriation, Miller said, was done "out of affection and admiration for those great art heroes, but he was among them."

Theodore Wujcik was born in Detroit in 1936, the ninth of 10 children. After winning awards from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and the Ford Foundation, he studied as a master printer at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Hollywood, Calif. He moved in 1970 with his first wife and two children to Tampa, where he became a shop director at USF's Graphicstudio.

His marriage ended in 1979. Mr. Wujcik bonded even further with Ybor City, his studio since the 1970s, when the area was in decline and considered dangerous. He was part of a group of creative people who gave the historic Tampa neighborhood its quirky, artsy reputation.

He became a leader in a growing punk rock scene in Ybor, staying up late and dancing and creating art from cast-off materials.

His reputation continued to grow. If he never cracked the New York art scene, it wasn't because he didn't have influential backers, including James Rosenquist, an internationally known artist who lobbied New York galleries several times on Mr. Wujcik's behalf.

"His problem is, he would paint," said Rosenquist. "However, as soon as he would have a series of coherent ideas together that would make a beautiful show, he would turn around and sell them off cheap, at $1,000 or $2,000, and so on.

"In the real art world, the starting gun for prices is about $25,000 a pop," said Rosenquist, who said he considers Mr. Wujcik "one of the foremost printers in the world."

In 1991 Mr. Wujcik married Susan Johnson. They divorced 12 years later but remained close.

In 2000, Largo's Gulf Coast Museum of Art put on a 30-year retrospective honoring Mr. Wujcik's work. He retired from USF in 2003 but continued collaborating with other artists.

"A lot of art professors slow down and just teach," said Kirk Ke Wang, 52, an Eckerd College art professor who painted a well-known portrait of Mr. Wujcik. "Sometimes I felt guilty because I'm so young, but I couldn't keep up with him."

Even after learning in October that he had late-stage cancer, Mr. Wujcik continued to paint. His last exhibit opened at the Galleri Urbane Dallas in February.

Times staff writer Lennie Bennett contributed to this report, which used information from Times files. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.