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He Made the Cut

 

From Chicago to Orlando, artist Charles Turzak left his mark in woodcuts and paintings. 


It seems incredible today: during the Great Depression, American artists of all stripes could earn a living though the Works Progress Administration, Franklin Roosevelt’s program to stimulate the economy by putting people to work on public projects.

Charles Turzak, a Chicago fine art printmaker who spent the last decades of his life in Orlando, made a name for himself in the 1930s with boldly modernist woodcuts that celebrate urban life and the working class. The WPA commissioned many of his best-known woodcuts as well as murals he painted in post offices and other public buildings in Illinois.

Many of Turzak’s prints from this era continue to be collected and can be found today in major art museums. The Cleveland Museum of Art, for example, purchased three of his best-known works within the past 15 years. Jane Glaubinger, the museum’s curator of prints, says she was drawn to these woodcuts because of their strong imagery and use of black-and-white contrast. “They summarize in a really striking manner what was happening in the United States historically. But they’re not just documentary—that’s why they retain their interest. They’re also great art.”

Printmaking was a popular art form in the early 20th century, partly because of its relative affordability for collectors. Turzak took to woodcutting naturally as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1920s, says his daughter, Joan Turzak Van Hees, who lives in Turzak’s former Orlando home near Lake Como. A son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, Turzak learned to whittle at an early age, as did many young men of the time who had roots in middle Europe. “Everybody of peasant background was always making something to sell” or to use in the home, Van Hees explains. Turzak was so expert in wood carving that he was hired to teach printmaking at Chicago’s Academy of Fine Arts after only a year of study at the Art Institute.

Following a career as a fine and commercial artist in Chicago, Turzak semi-retired to the warmer climate of Orlando, working in a large, sunny studio at the rear of his home. He increasingly focused on painting, producing colorful abstractions and thematic works. He died in 1986 after almost 30 years in Orlando. Many of his prints and paintings are on view at COMMA Gallery on Virginia Drive through November 7.

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