November 12, 2009

A dual biography of two of our artistic native sons

Root River with D.P. Wigley, from the State Street Bridge
Watercolor, ink and pencil, 1939, by Theodore Czebotar

By John Dey
For RacinePost

Racine’s unofficial poet laureate David Kherdian has written a touching portrait of another artistic native son, Theodore Czebotar, whose paintings and sketches of Racine were featured earlier this year by the Mathis Art Gallery downtown.

Czebotar’s watercolors of local scenes and buildings do for the eye what Kherdian’s well-drawn poems do for the ear, preserving an artistic vision of the old Racine, the industrial town of hard-working immigrant families somewhere on the young side of the 20th century.

But it was a town that young men go walking from as well. Kherdian with kindred sympathy for Czebotar, who preceded him by about a half generation, gives us a compelling picture of a young artistic soul at odds with a life being drawn up for him by parents.

It is in some ways a dual biography, for those who know Kherdian, as he holds up Czebotar’s compulsion to leave Racine for artistic reasons as a lens for viewing his own story.

Finding Theodore Czebotar
by David Kherdian. Tavnon Books, 2009, $25
Cover art: Self-portrait by Czebotar

Both were young, from immigrant families – Czebotar Polish and Kherdian Armenian – ethnic identities that shared a sense of being put upon, a downtrodden quality.

Kherdian writes about Czebotar not from memory but from notes gathered from surviving relatives and from his own research in the last year or so. That he did not know the artist is amazing, given his insight in piecing together the tale of his life.

We follow Czebotar from Racine to the west coast and back, then to New York for several successful gallery exhibitions. In between he befriends a rising William Saroyan, makes a great splash in New York art circles, and finally finds a wife and settles in a small homestead in rural New York.

Peripatetic, yet always returning to Racine, Czebotar became reclusive and is a forgotten artist today. This book with its warm-hearted, engaging style will help to correct that.
John Dey is a reference librarian at the Racine Public Library

The book can be purchased from Dey at the Library, Martha Merrell's Books (online), Milaeger's and the Racine Art Museum.

For more examples of Czebotar’s work, visit
Mathis Gallery's website. Although the gallery's show ended last February, Emile Mathis still has some Czebotar paintings on hand.

More about David Kherdian, when he was awarded the Racine Public Library's Emily Lee Award, is here. And here's his website.

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