Charles Turzak – Coming to the Front

As the Obama Administration seeks to create and save jobs through the AARP, a New Deal  institution is still having its effect felt some 75 years after it was created. The Works Progress Administration was created in 1935 and employed millions until its cancellation in 1943. One of its agencies was the Federal Art Project which employed out of work artists to create public works of art, mainly in post offices and in other federal facilities. Some of the more famous artists in this project were Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollack, and Grant Wood. However, there was another young artist who used the FAPtursak as a stepping stone to a long career in art.

To begin, Charles Turzak was born in Streator, Illinois, to Czech immigrants. After winning a prize contest sponsored by the Purina Company, Turzak attended the Chicago Art Institute. He would graduate in 1924 and work various odd jobs in and around Chicago before traveling to Europe. There he studied the “masters” of Europe in galleries in and around Germany, Austria, and France. Upon his return, the crash of the Stock Market signaled troubled times ahead for Mr. Turzak.

Early on, Turzak tried his hand at watercolors before returning to illustrate books. He had first illustrated a book called, “Eastward Ho!” in the 1920s. By using mainly wood prints, Turzak’s black and white art stood out. His second book of illustrations was called, “All About Chicago”. He would add two more illustrated books in the 1930s, “Abraham Lincoln: A Biography in Woodcuts” and “Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in Woodcuts”. Turzak even tried his hand at watercolors again but it was his woodcuts that were gaining attention.

To his advantage, Turzak was contracted by the Federal Art Project to do a mural in the post office in Lemont, Illinois. One of the stipulations of the contract was that Turzak was to buy his own supplies using federal money and he got to keep the tools when the job was done. Once again, Turzak kept with a Lincoln theme painting the above mural entitled “Canal Boats”. The supplies would help his career immensely.

Some additional art created for the WPA/FAP was about Illinois History. Striking in its lines and content, a series of woodcuts of what the French called The Illinois Country, are still in circulation today.

Turzak would go on to a successful career in teaching art, art direction, advertising and eventually a move to Florida produced a change to more color in his work.

George Rogers Clark Captures Kaskaskia

When one looks back at the art of Charles Turzak, one is drawn to the clean lines, the black and white contrasts of the wood prints, and the simplicity of the story told. While his other contemporaries may have signaled a shift in the art of America, Turzak’s simple works are echoing today. Whereas Thomas Benton Hart, Pollack, and Wood created masterpieces of American Art, Turzak’s art is still quality work. Turzak’s friendship with Frank Lloyd Wright is a sign of the appreciation of his art. Turzak’s daughter states:

Over the years, social engagements and art functions had brought the Turzaks and the Wrights, Frank Lloyd and Olgivanna, into an acquaintanceship. They had often visited each other both in Chicago and at Taliesen, the Wright’s hillside home, and studio/ school of architecture in southwestern Wisconsin, near Spring Green. After the war ended, the Wright’s held a grand weekend get-together for their mid-western friends with Charles and Florence being among the invited guests. This visit with Frank and Olgivanna would prove to be their last, as Taliesen West, near Scottsdale, Arizona, was to become the Wright’s permanent home…

Even Turzak’s house, built by Bruce Goff is a Chicago Landmark. It:

stands in pronounced contrast to traditional residences of the period. Designed as the home and studio for artist Charles Turzak and his family, it incorporated many features that did not typically appear in residential architecture until more than a decade later, including a carport, corner picture windows, and overhanging balconies.

In the end, Turzak may be a minor artist of the Depression Era but his work has withstood the test of time. He may not be Thomas Hart Benton but his work is still sold at many galleries and websites today. Part of the reason is the testament to the art. Another reason is the art is reflection of the time. And his career is a reflection of Chicago and Illinois in the Great Depression. One simple job created ended up fulfilling one man’s life and career.

Notes
Charles Turzak Biography. Accessed Online at: http://home.earthlink.net/~turzak1/index.html. This site is maintained by Turzak’s daughter, Joan Turzak Van Hees.

Turzak House. Accessed Online at: http://www.cityofchicago.org/Landmarks/T/TurzakHouse.html.

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