A refugee’s artistic journey

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Carol Sorgen
Artist and art professor Wasyl Palijczuk poses in the traditional clothing of his native Ukraine, a country he fled during World War II. One of his sculptures can be glimpsed peeking out from behind the ivy. A retrospective of his paintings and sculptures is now on display at Carroll Community College.
Photo by Frank Klein

When one door closes, another opens, goes the familiar quotation attributed to Alexander Graham Bell. That has certainly been true for sculptor and painter Wasyl Palijczuk.

From the humblest — and direst — of beginnings in his native Ukraine to a creative life filled with personal and professional success, the 78-year-old artist and Idlewylde resident is the living embodiment of Bell’s sentiment.

Palijczuk arrived in the United States alone as a 15-year-old refugee. He never knew his mother, who died when he was 6 months old.

As a child, he and his father lived together in a one-room house with a thatched roof, no running water and no electricity until the older Palijczuk was sent to Germany during World War II to work as a slave laborer in a Munich rubber factory.

The two did not see each other from 1941 to 1945, when they were miraculously reunited in a displaced persons camp. “To this day, I have no idea how he found me,” Palijczuk said.

During those years on his own, the young Palijczuk lived by his wits, surviving — barely — from food he begged from neighboring villagers. (The experience left a lasting mark, Palijczuk said. To this day, he can’t bear to throw any food away.)

Not only was there little to eat, but there were no schools, no books, no pencils, no papers, indeed nothing to foreshadow the life of art that awaited him.

“I had no idea what art was,” said Palijczuk, his speech still accented by his native tongue. But when he saw village children playing outside with the dark, Ukrainian mud, instead of making “pancakes,” he created three-dimensional mud “sculptures.”

And instead of drawing on a piece of paper, which he didn’t have to begin with, he took the burnt ends of wood from the stove used for heat and drew on the blank walls — a creative effort for which he received a sound beating from his father.

Palijczuk may not have known what art was, or even that what he was doing was art, but neither that nor his father’s thrashing stopped him from keeping at it.

Immigrating to America

During the war, Palijczuk also ended up in Germany, first as a servant for a family, where he drew pictures for the children who lived there, and then as a patient in a children’s hospital.

After the war, an American social worker saw Palijczuk drawing and asked him what he was doing. “I don’t know,” he recalled telling her.

After looking at his sketches, the young woman (who today lives in New Jersey and whom Palijczuk, who is still in touch with her, calls “my hero”) asked if Palijczuk would like to go to America. He knew nothing about the faraway country, but “It was like asking a dead person if he wanted to go to heaven or hell.”

Palijczuk arrived in New York in 1950, and he was sent to live with other refugee boys on the second floor of a Bronx synagogue, though he himself is not Jewish.

“I became the ‘shabbes goy,’” he smiled, a Yiddish term referring to a non-Jewish person who is hired by Orthodox Jews to perform routine chores — such as turning on lights or the oven — that aren’t permitted on the Sabbath.

Several months later, Palijczuk was told he was being relocated to Baltimore, a city he had never heard of.

“I wanted to go to California,” he said, where he expected to find cowboys, Indians and gold. A taxi driver convinced him Baltimore was much closer, and except for a stint in the Air Force in Washington State and in Guam, Baltimore has been his home ever since.

He spoke no English when he arrived in Baltimore, but Palijczuk eventually graduated from Baltimore City College, went on to earn a B.A. and M.A. at the University of Maryland as the school’s first sculpture candidate, and in 1965, completed a two-year fellowship at the Rinehart School of Sculpture in Baltimore.

That same year, he received an M.F.A. degree and was awarded the prestigious Henry Walters European Traveling Scholarship, which enabled him to spend eight months traveling throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Teaching young artists

When Palijczuk returned to Baltimore, he began working as a sculptor. But in another happy accident, he received a call from Louise Shipley, then the art director for Western Maryland (now McDaniel) College, asking him if he would be interested in teaching.

“I wasn’t,” said Palijczuk, “but she convinced me to meet with her and offered me a job on the spot.”

For 38 years Palijczuk taught at McDaniel as a full professor, instructing future generations of artists in such subjects as watercolor, oil painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, 3-D design and more. He also has taught art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Maryland Institute of Art, and Baltimore Jewish Community Center.

Today, his sculptures and paintings are in more than 500 public and private collections across the country and around the world.

Now retired from McDaniel, Palijczuk’s lifetime of artistic accomplishment is being recognized in the exhibition, “Wasyl Palijczuk at 78: Art and Life Retrospective,” on view through Nov. 30 at the Gallery in the Scott Center at Carroll Community College in Westminster.

Works filled with symbolism

Palijczuk’s subject matter is as eclectic and diverse as the artistic styles he works in. “It’s whatever comes to my heart and my mind,” he said. “It’s not about the person viewing my work, it’s about my life.”

A painting of storks on a thatched roof, for example, might not mean anything to the casual observer, but to the artist, it is a symbol of his early life in Ukraine and the legend there that storks bring good luck.

In “Springtime of Our Life,” a transparently pregnant woman is handing a flower to a man dressed in traditional Eastern European garb. That painting was done shortly after Palijczuk’s wife, Oksana, became pregnant with their twin daughters.

“I didn’t get married until I was 42,” said Palijczuk, “and this painting represents that new beginning in my life.”

Palijczuk’s sculptures are equally symbolic. He likens carving stone to writing a novel. “There are many symbols in my work,” he said. “You can’t just glance and walk away.

“Don’t ask me what my art means,” he advises viewers. “Ask what it means to you.”

This current exhibit features 48 of Palijczuk’s works, though he estimates he has created “not less than 1,000” paintings and sculptures. And though he still feels the urge to continue working as an artist, he is doing less of that these days, in part because he is occupied with family responsibilities, and in part, because “what the heck would I do with it?” he asked.

If he had more spare time, Palijczuk would also like to grow bonsai trees, the Japanese art form of miniature trees grown in containers.

“I like nature in all its forms,” he said, to the extent that some of his sculptural pieces even include the skeletal or petrified remains of animals he has found. (He emphasizes, however, that “no animals were killed for my art!”) “I admire what nature does, and I work with what it does,” he explained.

While some artists look down on teaching, Palijczuk found that his art complemented his teaching and vice versa. In teaching his students a multitude of art forms, he had to demonstrate those styles to them. It was an ideal melding of his own restless spirit.

In his artist’s statement, Palijczuk explains what art means to him:

“Art is spontaneous, fresh and exciting. It is love, hate, drama, simplicity, complexity, sadness and joy. It is reality, fantasy, one’s dreams and disappointments. It is a personal view of life, death, the present, the past and the future. Art isn’t a reproduction of another’s work or idea, but is your own personal statement and philosophy of life.”

Palijczuk had the opportunity to return to Ukraine in 1991 after the fall of Communism. The one-room house he grew up in was no longer there, nor was there anyone he remembered.

And while he has kept his Ukrainian connections strong — he was a member of the Ukrainian-American Association of University Professors, the Baltimore Ukrainian Education Association and the author of a chapter on art in Ukrainians in Maryland — it is the United States that Palijczuk credits with saving his life.

“I was born in Ukraine, and she is my mother,” he said, “but America accepted me and she is my love. This is my home.”

What still surprises him though, more than a half-century after arriving in this country, is how unplanned his life has been. “One thing just led to another,” he said.

Would he have done anything differently had he actually made plans?

“No,” he said thoughtfully. “Once the war was over, life happened and I’ve enjoyed every part of it.”

Carroll Community College, which will exhibit Palijczuk’s work through Nov. 30, is located at 1601 Washington Rd. in Westminster. Gallery hours are Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.


Mr Wasyl Palijczuk

I met Mr Palijczuk today at our community yard sale and had no idea that he was famous in the art world.

I purchased a beautiful plant stand from him and we talked a little about his life. I came home and looked him up on the web when I discovered who he was.

What a pleasure it was to meet him. I plan to take a trip to CCC to view his work.