Born Thaddeus Czebotar on October 28, 1915 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the second child of Polish immigrant parents, John Czebotar and Stella Sienkiewicz. The family will eventually number 6 boys and 2 girls.
Painter, Poet Riding the Rails
Recognized early for his artistic talent, Czebotar is a prolific cartoonist in high school and contemplates life as a poet. Eventually amassing more than 500 poems, he is urged in due course by Henry McBride, art critic for New York’s The Sun, to abandon poetry in favor of art.
After a dispute with his high school art teacher, Czebotar drops out and rides the rails west, covering the coast from Tacoma to San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and down into Mexico. He sleeps in cemeteries and exchanges sketches for food. Whoever at eighteen has climbed a box car and rode away forever, swaying in the soft wind into eternal promise, knows what freedom is, he writes.
Settling for 4 months into a Denver, Colorado hobo camp, Czebotar works for Paschal Quackenbush as a WPA mural artist and as a Scenic Designer for the Federal Theater Project. He later lives in and works from a tiny mountain art studio in the historic town of Central City.
San Francisco and Saroyan
By 1936, Czebotar is sharing an apartment in San Francisco with short-story writer John Lang. A friend now of the celebrated writer William Saroyan, Czebotar is drawn to Saroyan’s allegiance to art divorced of commerce. Throughout his life, Czebotar is wary of the commercial demands of art dealers, of the purely decorative desires of the paying public, and of what he sees as the limitations of formal art study.
Returning to Wisconsin after a bad automobile accident, Czebotar spends the early months of 1937 translating his western sketches as well as scenes of midwest life and his large family into watercolors, graphite on paper and, occasionally, oils. He also hops a train for his first short visit to Manhattan in order to expand his portfolio with depictions of urban life.
Curry Discovers ‘Art’s Newest Name’
In late 1937, Czebotar meets celebrated American Regionalist John Steuart Curry, who is serving as the nation’s first collegiate Artist in Residence at the University of Wisconsin. Deemed an important new talent, Czebotar is given a letter of recommendation to Curry’s own Manhattan dealer, Maynard Walker, owner of Walker Galleries and mastermind of the American Regionalist movement.
Hopping a train to New York, Czebotar impresses Walker enough to justify his first one-man show which opens December 19, 1937 for a 3-week run. It is later loaned to the Milwaukee Art Institute and to the Prints Room Gallery in Hollywood. While Walker is full of praise, Curry stews, convinced Czebotar is insufficiently grateful for his imprimatur. An exasperated Walker tries to quell his star client’s bruised ego by claiming Czebotar might have a touch of “dementia praecox” born from his rough experiences as a hobo.
The Passionate, Public Artist
From 1938 through 1940, Czebotar’s work is shown in a variety of venues. He is included in the Collectors of American Art Show in Manhattan; in a small group show with Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper and John Marin to open the 59th season of the Boston Symphony; and with Curry, Doris Lee, Olin Dows and Hobson Pittman at the Faulkner Memorial Gallery in Santa Barbara. Individual works are included at the Frazier Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, Berkshire Museum and in several Walker Gallery group shows featuring Walker’s stable of proven talent.
Moving between Wisconsin and New York in 1941, Czebotar is given his second one-man show at Walker Gallery. He also exhibits at the American British Art Center, the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the Wisconsin Salon of Art and the Wisconsin State Fair.
By 1942 Czebotar has relocated permanently to New York. His circle includes artist Joe Jones, whose tiny art studio in Fishkill, NY, Ted helps to construct; Don Freeman, with whom he sketches theatre scenes; cartoonist Al Hirschfeld; artist Altina Miranda, inventor of the popular Harlequin glasses; and Wisconsin artist Marshall Glazier, a student of George Grotz at the Art Students League. While happy to sketch with friends, he will not submit to formal art instruction.
The Pleasures of Solitude
Exempt from military service due to a hernia, Czebotar moves into Joe Jone’s hidden Fishkill atelier in 1943 after Jones leaves to serve in the U.S. military’s art unit. Moving with him is Dutch-born Elizabeth Snapper, known to friends as Els, an exuberant hat and hair ornament designer for Manhattan boutiques. Els purchases the Fishkill property from Joe Jones by summer’s end. The Czebotars will live in the small home for the remainder of their lives, Czebotar painting continuously, Els designing jewelry, cut paper art as well as writing song lyrics and short stories.
Czebotar’s work now focuses on the natural beauty of the rich Hudson Valley environment surrounding the Fishkill studio. Enamored of Els’ distinct ethnic beauty, he draws and paints a range of portraits of her.
In early 1945, Czebotar is granted a one man show of Pastels and Drawings at the American British Art Center. While he craves the solitude necessary to work, he continues a rich social life with artists John Heliker, Henry Varnum Poor, Joe Jones and Fritz Rockwell among others.
New Inspiration, New Public Praise
In February 1946, Czebotar leaves Fishkill for a sketching tour of the south with Joe Jones. Els is distraught at his absence, the first signs of the emotional fragility that will color the decades of their intertwined lives.
1947 sees Czebotar included in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ Annual Exhibit of Paintings and Sculpture. The American British Art Center honors him with a one man show that spring and his work is included in the 20th Corcoran Gallery Biennial Exhibition. Traveling west with Els for the first time, Czebotar begins a series of paintings of the Sonoran Desert.
In Search of the Aboriginal
From 1947 through 1950, Czebotar exhibits at a variety of venues including the Albany Institute of History and Art, the Wisconsin State Centennial Exhibition, the Polish American Artists Exhibition, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His entries focus on depictions of Els and Fishkill life although a desert scene, Saguaro Country, wins 2nd place at the Tucson Independent Artists Show.
Czebotar and Els Snapper marry in 1952 in Florence, South Carolina. The move is surprising because it was assumed they were married already, Els having used Czebotar as her last name for nearly a decade. A year later, Els becomes a naturalized citizen.
From 1950 through 1954, the Czebotars make regular trips to Tucson as well as visits to Mexico, Utah and other parts of the American west. In search of the aboriginal, Czebotar is interested in imagery that awakens the fundamental and raw urges of landscape.
In 1955, Czebotar’s Portrait of Els takes first prize in the Tucson Fine Arts Association’s Independent Artists Show. He prepares a canvas for the 1957 Corcoran Bienniel but does not formally submit it.
The Lure of the Olympic Peninsula
In 1959, the Czebotars travel east to Main and New Brunswick, Canada in search of the primitive landscapes he craves. They stay with friend Waldo Peirce, a prolific American painter with whom they share bohemian sensibilities.
When the east coast fails to inspire sufficiently, the Czebotars again turn west. They begin regular travel now to Washington’s rugged Olympic Peninsula, an area Ted has visited sporadically over the years. Now more than ever, the deserted windswept beaches, driftwood clusters and grey, darkened skies speak to him of a powerful, primordial past. The Olympic Peninsula finalizes its hold on Czebotar’s imagination and will prove to be his final, most provocative muse.
An Enduring Creative Drive
While unwilling to subject his work to the demands of the Manhattan art world, Czebotar nonetheless paints constantly and with unwavering passion. The small Fishkill home serves now as both a studio for the Czebotars (Els has begun crafting cut-paper designs fashioned from gum wrappers, feathers, glitter as well as exotic papers and foils) and storage space for the ever expanding inventory of art.
As the art world explodes in the 1960s with greater and greater minimalism and the exhilaration of pop, the Czebotars regularly take in Manhattan art exhibits and watch the world embrace the cultural openness they championed for years by example. Intellectually engaged in the art debates of the time, Czebotar refuses nonetheless to change his style to meet the current fads and continues to turn a blind eye to any suggestion that he should exhibit once more.
Continuing his annual pilgrimage to the Olympic Peninsula throughout the 60s and well into the 70s, Czebotar compulsively sketches the tangled, beached tree clusters and the sparse, chilled sea that left them in its wake. Shy and secretive, he does not paint plein-air but only turns the sketches into fully realized works after returning to the shelter of the Fishkill studio.
The Dimming of the Day
Abruptly, in the late 70s, Czebotar abandons his travels west. He continues to paint its landscapes, however, from the scores of sketchbooks and notes that are part of the tsunami of painting materials tucked inside the small house. Els, always fragile, struggles with the physical and emotional setbacks that are part and parcel of her own creative nature.
In his final decades, his own health gradually fading, Czebotar turns back to the natural world outside his door, depicting the sunflowers that dot his yard in a way that imbues them with both mystery and a kind of unexplained sorrow. He continues the daily exercise of making art almost until his final breath.
The Gifts Left Behind
On February 8, 1996, Els Czebotar dies of complications from a stroke. Shaken by the absence of the woman with whom he shared a vital yet complicated connection for 53 years, Theodore Czebotar dies at his home just five months later on July 28, 1996. He leaves behind in every nook and cranny of his beloved Fishkill sanctuary the output of a lifetime’s work. Reflected in the canvases, sketchpads and works on paper is his unabashed belief in the beauty of the natural world and of the artist’s special place as its necessary interpreter.