Sunday, July 22, 2018
Human Interest

Sorting through a life's work by artist Theo Wujcik


Susan Johnson often gets emotional as she sorts and archives decades of work that her late husband, internationally renowned artist Theo Wujcik, left behind in his Ybor City gallery.

Sometimes she cries when she discovers a touching letter he saved, like the one scribbled by their now-adult daughter Frankie Wujcik when she was barely old enough to write.

"Dear Theo, I like to go to art shows and do paintings with you. I love you."

Other times, Johnson loses it when she is overwhelmed by her self-charged task of turning an unsorted mess into an organized chronicle of the artist's career, much of it based in Ybor City.

"Theo needs to be in art books," said Johnson, 57. "He is a major art figure. Around here people say he was a great artist and a cool guy but I don't think they really grasp the depth and importance of his influence on other artists."

Locally, Wujcik was a two-time "Best of Show'' winner at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts. But his art also was exhibited across Europe and in Boston, San Francisco and in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Colleagues included famed artists Edward Ruscha and Robert Rauschenberg. A collection of Wujcik's paintings, sketches and original graphic prints will receive one last major exhibition in October 2017 at the Museum of Art-Deland. Johnson wants to donate what she archives to a university with an arts history program.

With 71 paintings stacked neatly against one wall, the space at 1517 E Ninth Ave. where Johnson is working still looks a bit like an art gallery. But it's really more of a storage unit now.

Piled on shelves are dozens of boxes labeled according to content: Slides of paintings, photos of artists, comic books, journals and letters. Other boxes filled with still unsorted belongings are strewn throughout the room.

"It feels like a pinball game in here," Johnson said. "I'm always bouncing off things."

Wujcik was laid to rest when his ashes were sprinkled into the Hillsborough River near Lettuce Lake Park. He died of lung cancer on March 29, 2014, at the age of 78.

But his memory lives through what he left in his gallery, Johnson said.

"If you want to know what he was like, it's all here," she said. "This is an art historian's dream."

Different people knew Wujcik differently. Some remember him for dancing the night away at The Castle, an Ybor nightclub near his studio.

"One of the cute things I found were journal entries about making out with chicks at The Castle," Johnson said with a laugh as she held up the black boots Wujcik often wore to go dancing.

Others knew him for his stops at the Tampa Greyhound track or as a loving father to his three daughters. There were the 30 years Wujcik spent at the University of South Florida as an assistant professor of art and master printer at its Graphicstudio.

Still, Wujcik was best known for the art he created in his native Detroit, Los Angeles and finally Tampa, where he moved in 1970.

Stories behind that work can be found in his archives.

There are photos he snapped of prominent artists Philip Pearlstein and Brooke Alexander that he used when he created sketches of each.

There are objects that inspired paintings, like his daughter Frankie's seashell statue of a rabbit that was front and center in a piece titled She Sells Seashells.

There are piles of notebooks that explain the meaning behind specific works. She Sells Seashells, he wrote, is a metaphor for his fear of Frankie being kidnapped and forced into a life of prostitution.

And there are diaries of his struggles and triumphs.

"I will never be among the great masters," he wrote in a 1962 entry, "but I will be among the restless, vigorous and adventurous."

It was all once scattered about, Johnson said. Eventually, it will all be classified by sub-category and time frame, properly preserved and then digitized.

She has spent up to 12 hours a day in the gallery when not working as a prop stylist for HSN.

She said it could take another two years to finish. Or it could take forever, she joked.

"I talk to Theo a lot when I am doing this and I do curse him," Johnson said. "But usually I laugh and smile at the memories I find.''

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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