Text and photos by Aarne Anton
I recall meeting Ionel Talpazan for the first time in 1995, years after reading the 1990 article by Jay Tobler in Folk Art Messenger. I had heard he sold his art on the street, but I had never run into him. Finally someone gave me his home address in Harlem in an area where I had been robbed at gun point years earlier coming out of the subway.
On entering his small apartment, I saw UFOs everywhere I looked. One wall was covered with large drawings on paper that were diagrams of space ships, often revealing the inner workings shown in colors and graceful lines. Other walls held paintings large and small – some with spaceships, some with planets and distant galaxies, and others with both. Some walls had related photos, clippings and a variety of notes and detailed diagrams tacked up. Besides the small bed there was an easel and a single round table covered with silver-painted plaster models of UFOs piled up, leaving just a small space to eat his meals. The single lightbulb on the ceiling was turned on and off with a pull from a spaceship hanging from a cord. This was total immersion as if nothing else mattered. I had stepped into another world of obsession.
After speaking with Talpazan for a while about his beliefs and art, he told me of his life growing up. He was born in Romania to a poor family. His mother gave him up as she already had many children. He was adopted by foster parents who were also poor. His foster mother was abusive to him.
It was during this time when Talpazan hid outside in a ditch to avoid a punishment that he had his UFO-close encounter at night. He described an object in the night sky that came and bathed him in a blue light. Whatever happened that night it was profound for him and affected him the rest of his life. You could say it defined his life even though he did not understand its meaning at first.
Growing up he began to learn construction yet felt the unfairness of the system and was unhappy under Communist rules. At age 19, he finally executed an escape from Romania by swimming across the Danube River at night with a friend. He just barely survived but his friend did not. He found himself in another repressive country – Yugoslavia. He was arrested quickly, not having proper papers, and ended up imprisoned in Belgrade. With the help of a United Nations mission there, he was assisted and allowed to apply for special immigration status to the United States. Coming to the U.S. fulfilled a dream he had of freedom from oppression. Over time Talpazan made friends and maintained some contact with the Romanian community in New York City.
After hearing his story and looking at the art, I told Talpazan that I was planning on doing a show about space and UFOs, and I wanted him to be the featured artist. He was elated. The only problem was he had an eviction notice on the apartment, and Con Ed was about to turn off the electricity if he didn’t pay. Apparently, selling pictures of UFOs on the streets was not going well with weather, police harassment and other street sellers protecting their turf. He was afraid of becoming homeless again as he had been at two earlier times, once sleeping in a cardboard box. Our friendship began with my buying one picture and telling him to give the money to the landlord with the promise that he would catch up on rent. I also offered to give him a job in my sculpture base-making shop until we could mount a gallery show of his art the following year. It was a year requiring infinite patience.
The first show of Talpazan’s art at my American Primitive Gallery was in “Visions of Space & UFOs in Art” in 1996, which included many self-taught artists similarly obsessed. Some of the artists had also had contact with UFOs and abduction, which they pictured in art. Talpazan’s art received the greatest critical acclaim with a pair of articles in the New York Times, which led to the articles being picked up in Europe by the Herald Tribune and CNN coming to cover the opening. It was a bizarre media convergence fueled by the popular film, Independence Day. Sales of Talpazan’s art came with the success of the show as well as a series of TV interviews, press inquiries and requests of loans for exhibitions elsewhere. With that phenomenon of quick fame came a letdown as it couldn’t be sustained. Media moved on after a while for Ionel Talpazan.
I could no longer keep my friend employed and retain my sanity, so I worked on loaning his art to outside exhibitions across the country and in Berlin. Talpazan had been asked to show his art in Baltimore at the American Visionary Art Museum. For this show he had decided to make his largest and most complex art work, a three-dimensional plaster UFO that would be painted and have lights embedded in it. It seemed to get bigger and bigger, growing in his apartment. For more than a year, he mixed bags of plaster and smoothed and sanded and built contraptions to help him keep it round and shaped evenly. He was stretching as an artist but also living with everything covered in plaster dust. With tremendous effort he got it all wired with changing lights and bright paint on the silver skin.
By this time Talpazan and I were still friends, but I made it clear I wanted nothing to do with the mother ship. Not only did this tremendous space ship take up most of the apartment, you could barely get by it to get to the other side. I was worried for the floor as it was estimated to weigh up to 2000 pounds. The museum sent six big moving men to pick it up. And they could just barely get it turned to fit out the door. To me it seemed a miracle. The last I saw of it, it was pictured in the New York Times with the spaceship suspended in the air above a seated Rebecca Hoffberger. I would not dare to sit under that spaceship even if I sat with a guardian angel.
Ultimately Talpazan and I had to part ways with my showing the art. He didn’t understand the art world and had a mistrust of consignment and how business works. When he ran short of money, he resorted to selling on the streets again. The worst was when he would set up his table of art a block from my gallery hoping to catch some collectors. That was followed by an Outsider Art Fair where I had one of his drawings in my booth, and Talpazan was set up outside the entrance in the cold trying to sell outside the Fair. The irony was not lost to many including Raw Vision Magazine. After that I became a collector of Talpazan’s work as my belief in the art did not wane, only the relationship became distant. Talpazan received a new wave of interest in his visionary art with the Hayward Gallery (in London) in the exhibition, The Alternative Guide to the Universe, where his art was well featured. He also made a stellar appearance in the BBC documentary, Turning the Art World Inside Out, with the help of my and his friend, Henry Boxer.
One of Talpazan’s dreams was to become an American citizen. When he had some money saved he got assistance in going through the process. One day I got a message that he needed help going to court, and could I come as a character witness. It seems that in the questioning to become a citizen he was asked if he had ever voted. He answered yes, he had voted a couple of times. He was not aware that to vote you have to be a United States citizen. He had seen on TV that it was your duty to vote, and so he did. Now he was being charged with a felony and was required to go to a deportation hearing. Talpazan was so stressed and scared at the hearing that his face was bright red. I was very worried. A small group of supporters were there to explain the mistake and state that he was an artist and a national treasure. Happily the judge accepted the explanation, and Talpazan went on to not only become a U.S. citizen but also to change his name to Adrian DaVinci. He said it was the happiest day of his life.
In the last few years Talpazan began telling me of health problems, and it was getting more difficult for him to sell out on the street. I couldn’t understand how he was able to survive in the city. I would come by and purchase some art but it was not enough. He was still making art, so at times I would just bring collectors over to buy from him directly. Despite his health problems he resisted many offers of help. The one time he was dragged to a doctor he was diagnosed with diabetes. Even after suffering a stroke that left him with one arm and one leg paralyzed, he refused help offered. He said his apartment was so precious to him he was afraid to leave it. The last two times I spoke to him he mostly spoke Romanian to me.
Talpazan was finally assisted to the hospital by a Romanian friend. As his health deteriorated he passed away September 21, 2015 at age 60. His work is in the collections of the American Visionary Art Museum, the Museum of Everything, the Musee d’Art Brut L’Aracine and many private collectors. Ionel Talpazan’s hope was that in the future NASA would interpret his work as both art and science. He will be remembered as a one-of-a-kind American artist who revealed mysteries from the skies.