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This article by Cassidy Enoch-Rex was prepared for the January 18, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Of Gardens, Gauguin, and Greece

`Art is my life. In the studio everything is painted," says Evelyn Domjan. In her current exhibit, "Garden Woodlands and the Wide World Beyond," at the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick, even the front doors of Domjan’s studio are displayed. They are completely covered in paint on all sides by the hand of the artist, depicting highly decorated peacocks and fish. The show, a retrospective of Domjan’s work, ranging from 1943 to 2005, is on view through Sunday, February 12. The foundation is the only one of its kind in the United States, supporting and promoting American-Hungarian culture and education. At one point New Brunswick was considered the most Hungarian city in the United States, due to its large population of Hungarian immigrants.

Domjan (pronounced DOM-yun), 83 and still painting, was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1922. "This was a very traumatic period in Hungary’s history," says Patricia Fazekas, curator at the American Hungarian Foundation, "the end of the millennial Hungarian monarchy, the establishment of the world’s second Communist state, the subsequent Admiral Horthy’s bloody consolidation of power, and then the imposition of the peace treaty – the Trianon Treaty in 1921. Hungarians in general sought to retreat into the past, wishing for a simpler time. The art work of the period certainly reflects this, showing a retreat from the avant-garde to more traditional themes."

Domjan’s father was a wealthy business man, an importer who loved and supported the arts. Domjan was home-schooled, as were most children of well-to-do families in Budapest at that time, in the European intellectual tradition, receiving private lessons in piano, tennis, art, and foreign languages. The young Domjan proved herself to be quite talented in the arts, winning her first national prize at the age of six.

She studied graphic arts at the Hungarian Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. It was there that she met her husband, Joseph. She had previously fallen in love with the non-figurative pastel drawings of Joseph Domjan at a 1932 show titled "Spiritual Artists" at the Nemzeti Salon, and when she finally met him, a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, she fell in love with the artist as well. They worked both in collaboration and separately until Joseph’s death in 1992 at the age of 85.

Joseph and Evelyn married in 1944, and when they returned from their honeymoon, the Germans had invaded Hungary. Shortly thereafter Joseph went to Scandinavia to work but returned home to his wife and three children. The government had heard that he had been doing woodcuts (this is not true, he was painting at the time) and mandated that he have an exhibit in Hungary of woodcuts in six months – and that is how the Domjans began woodcut collaboration.

It was actually during an exhibit of the late Joseph Domjan’s work in 1997 that Fazekas met Evelyn and saw the wide range of her work. At this time there were already Hungarian folk art pieces by Domjan in the archives at the foundation, notably beaded headdresses. Though she created her own works throughout her life, Evelyn lived very much under the shadow of Joseph. It is interesting to note that although Joseph was known as the "Master of the Color Woodcut," Evelyn was actually doing her own woodcuts before him. Throughout their collaborative years, Evelyn actually cut many of the woodblocks for Joseph, who then applied multiple layers of hand-ground pigments on a single print, creating the rich, textured prints for which he became so well-known.

Evelyn’s prints are very different from Joseph’s. her prints are more about the decoration on the surface than texture. She utilizes an all-over patterning, decorating every inch of the picture plane with intricate, linear designs and simple washes of color. For example, in "Homage to Gauguin III," a color woodcut made in 1995, an intricate pattern of foliage and Tahitian masks surrounds an outlined female figure at the lower right. The formal descriptions of the figure, foliage, and masks are almost lace-like, on top of the background color. Says Fazekas: "I would definitely consider Evelyn’s approach to the patterning in her work to be influenced by all folk painting, since she has been exposed to so many world cultures, and many of them share common motifs and characteristics. The fluid, fine linear patterns, flowing curvilinear brushwork, particularly where she fills enclosed spaces with pattern, is very reminiscent of Hungarian embroidery and furniture painting. Although I don’t know how happy she would be for us to draw this observation. She was very concerned, as we assembled this exhibit, that her work be seen for its fine art value, and she wanted to de-emphasize the folk aspect of her work."

Domjan has traveled extensively throughout her life. She traveled to Tahiti to see the places that had inspired Gauguin. She traveled to China, India, Thailand, Greece, and other exotic locales, which had inspired so many other artists before her, and which had been the focus of so many of the childhood stories that fed her imagination. She has always enthralled by the diversity of the natural surroundings, the animal and plant life of every place she visits. At 83 years old, Domjan is still just as enthusiastic about nature. "I like sunshine and I like light. I have a happy life with nature and my artwork."

When she and Joseph moved to the United States in 1957 with their three children, Alma, Daniel and Mike, they originally settled in Rivers Edge, New Jersey, but when all the children had completed high school, the Domjans moved to Tuxedo Park, New York. In a conversation at the exhibit, Alma describes her mother’s artistic process to me as "absorbing what she sees and recreating her own image of what she has seen. She loves nature and exotic places, flowers, birds, and scenery. She does not draw first, she just starts right in painting or cutting the woodblock."

All of Domjan’s children are involved in the sciences: Alma has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Strathmore College; Daniel is a surgeon in Norfolk, Nebraska, and Mike has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of Texas. Alma says that as children, they "were not encouraged to go into the arts due to the unsteady income; it was the era of Sputnik and we were encouraged to go into science."

Tuxedo Park is the inspiration for many of Domjan’s landscape paintings, which show all seasons with a similar horizon and trees, utilizing the same technique of simple background color and linear shapes. However, when her decorative brushwork depicts falling snow or leaves, in both long brushstrokes and simple dots, there is a bit more depth created than in her floral still lifes and stylized animal depictions.

Perhaps there is a bit of the scientist in Domjan, a little gene that was passed on to her children. She presses on in her own work as if searching for the final cure. But what fuels her most is the project, the knowledge that after every conclusion comes a new question; discovery is the ultimate joy.

"Garden, Woodlands, and the Wide World Beyond," an exhibit of paintings and prints by Evelyn Domjan, Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation, 300 Somerset Street, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, February 12. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. 732-846-5777.

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