“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there."
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
East wall of Theo Wujcik's studio/loft, with paintings stacked in racks.
A recent conversation with Kirk Ke Wang at Tempus about Theo's estate and the Creative Loafing article on Susan Johnson in the Ybor issue created the sense of urgency that brought me here. The two interlocking hearts graffiti are gone, as is the 'theo' that was on the lower right of that big, black steel industrial door at the entrance of Theo Wujcik's studio/loft in Ybor City. I tap on the door, hear Susan Johnson saying something from the inside, and the door opens. My eyes need a minute to adjust and the space is much bigger than I remembered. The skylights give it a kind of medieval religious painting aura in daytime. I am also greeted by Frankie's effervescent, well-behaved brindle Pit Bull.
SE corner of the studio.
I knew Theo mostly through the art shows and followed his moves for decades through the Tampa Bay area Art scene. Personal note: I own one little thing he gave me, and a portrait of him that at one time he expressed great interested in acquiring, going so far as to offer a trade (which I should have taken him up on). The story of his legacy and what will happen to it is important. Theo was one of a handful of local artists whose work has been shown nationally and is in the collections of several major Museums. Theo left behind several dozen works. They are mostly stacked in the wooden racks along the East wall of the studio, a few pulled out, including his last painting.
Susan Johnson was Theo's second wife and mother of his third daughter, Frankie, and his caregiver during his battle with cancer. She tells me in an anguish-tinted and loving voice that during that time "We had many good days". Her voice has that terse grounding that survivors' voices do.
The works in her possession are presently worth a considerable amount of money and are part of the inheritance of Susan and Theo's three daughters (two by his first wife). They are also his personal - and a significant part of this city's - cultural legacy/history. It's complicated. Susan tells me she reached out to USF, where Theo worked as a beloved professor until his retirement, TMA, and the City of Tampa, and they have surprisingly shown no interest. This is not the only time I have personally heard of the apparent disinterest of local institutions as to the historic legacy of the 70's to the present. I have also heard the exact same thing about Saint Petersburg. I am aware of the financial pressures on institutions, the difficulties of raising funds, and that everyone is hanging by a thread, but this is a part of our history: work that garnered major national attention, people that forged present-day Tampa culture and will play a major role in its future. The City thinks nothing about dropping 20 plus million into a ferry; this could be done for a fraction of that. It's about more than Susan Johnson and Theo's daughters.
Now in the Studio area in the back of the space, I'm trying to grasp the amount of work, the creative outpouring that took place here. The cat on another table is so quiet and still it looks like a cat from a Balthus painting. Susan pulls down a box from shelves full of boxes.
Theo kept meticulous, unusually complete records, artifacts, found objects, photographs, you name it. And diaries. Details and documentations, the rare kind of provenance that makes an art historian's heart race. Susan knows the contents. She has organized the archives, which go back to the Tamarind days. It's not just the history of his work and life, but that of an artist and his time. At the bottom of one box I spy a weather-worn faded Madonna peppered with nicks, hands fused in fervent prayer, and a very small doll of a man that appears, much larger, in at least a couple of his paintings. There are detailed records of works, who they were sold or given to, ......drawings.....then Susan pulls out a yellowing, delicate stencil for the chainlink paintings. I almost lose it upon seeing this, but press the camera to my face and loosen a too-long string of exposures. Memory lingers but the moment doesn't.
Perhaps a Museum of Modernist Art, muses Susan. Granted, it is not a good time for a new museum, but it is not a bad idea. She mentions several names of other artists that would be a good fit, and I agree. The significance of all this is overwhelming. I can only imagine how it must be for her. The lease on the space goes until the end of the year. I take some pictures, nowhere nearly enough (I could spend a long time here), but just enough to give an idea of what is here. I think all of this needs to be digitized immediately, before anything happens (but that would also require money), not just to make it accessible but to preserve its integrity. Frankly, I'm amazed no one has already swooped in and cherry-picked from the works.
Susan tells me she's not good at asking for money, a skill that is hypercritical at this juncture with eight months before the end of the lease. Tremendous pressure. She needs interns (a grand opportunity for any budding art history student), a grants writer, and a fund raiser. Plus as time passes, there is the inevitability of chronological fading. Perhaps a crowdfunding effort. Theo had a lot of friends who know their way around a camera.
Two early Theo Wujcik paintings.
Ideally, a donor can be found to purchase the archives and put them in care of a Museum. Struck with grief and the urgency of the situation, I sort of babble through a conversation with Susan a bit before leaving. On the way out, daylight hits me like a solar avalanche and my thoughts turn to Tampa's former Black Art Museum, a two-story gem of interesting, historical, good-quality works that was bypassed decades ago. When it fell on hard times, the city of Tampa just couldn't find the 30K to rescue it. The Board of Directors, wanting to preserve its integrity, sold it to Baltimore, if I remember, where it became a successful attraction there.