A life packed with unique experiences is now being made public in former professor Zigmunds Priede’s “visual memoir.”
Decades spent working quietly in two quaint, white studios surrounded by bushy grass and smelling lightly of sandalwood, striving to create pieces that are meaningful and unique, have paid off. As well as other pieces, a 30-work collection showcasing memories of Priede’s childhood, adult life, relationships and decades spent at our college will be on display at the Mallin Gallery, which is run by the Kansas City Artists Coalition.
The work will be shown in the gallery through August 30. The pieces chosen by the gallery serves as a visual memoir for Priede’s life; across 30 canvasses lay countless photos, copies of drawings and paintings, maps and other memorabilia from Priede’s life, pasted together on collages representing various events or emotions. One canvas, with a childhood drawing Priede had done of rabbits sitting in a field, represents some of his memories from his home country of Latvia. Others represent World War II or his time spent teaching at Johnson County Community College.
In the early 1980s, Priede sent in his application to the college and met with a dean in control of the fine arts area, who asked him to bring in a portfolio of work.
“He opened my folder, flipped through and said, ‘Zig, you’re hired,’” Priede said. “We’ve been friends ever since.”
Priede became highly influential to the college. He taught here from 1983 to 2005, becoming Department Chair in 1991, but left after the three-decade stretch to move to Philadelphia. In 2008, he returned to the college until his retirement in 2013. Priede served on the Campus Art Project Committee, had work in the first-ever faculty art show and impacted countless students, including Penny Thieme.
Thieme met Priede when she enrolled in his Drawing II class at the college in August of 1990.
“He was the most influential and inspirational teacher I’ve ever had,” Thieme said. “He gave us tools and set up situations for discovery for us that really helped us find what we connected to…I wanted to connect with him and have the opportunity to tell him what he meant to me.”
Priede lived in Kansas for most of his life, but the story of his arrival is a complicated one. He moved to The United States from Latvia in the 1950s and began creating art in school and at work. Art permeated the fabric of Priede’s life early on, emerging in small ways like when he colored with lipstick on the walls of his parents’ Latvian apartment and repainted the rusty farming tools of his later Minnesota home.
When his father was drafted for the war, his mother did everything in her power to keep herself, Priede and his sister from being captured by the Russians invading their country during World War II. Eventually, they found themselves in rural Minnesota on a contract with a farmer. Priede’s mother, sister and he moved to Minneapolis after a couple of years, where Priede eventually attended college.
The day Priede stepped into The University of Minnesota’s print room, he had an epiphany. After completing high school in three years, Priede signed up for summer classes and strolled, unsuspecting, into the room where printmaking was done. The process, which would become a massive part of Priede’s life, took ahold of him instantly.
“I thought it was beautiful,” Priede said. “I thought, this is it. I forgot all about my other classes and stayed there the whole day.”
His love for art and printmaking blossomed during his time at the university. When the time for graduate school came, he hopped into a car with his then-girlfriend and her friend and headed to California.
“The three of us loaded up in this ‘54 Ford with my canvasses rolled up and tied down on the top, and we headed for the West Coast,” Priede said. “It was a terrific trip, very exciting, and we ended up at Berkeley.”
There, Priede took care of the school’s gallery, a job which paid enough to cover his schooling. He met Michael Goldberg, a well-known expressionist painter who invited him to New York City, where Priede worked as a handyman for various artists. Wanting to return to printmaking, Priede eventually called upon a printmaker in the area; after producing quality work, he moved to Universal Limited Art Editions, a world-renowned printmaking studio in Long Island.
“There wasn’t much there, but there was a press and that’s what I needed,” Priede said. “I remember walking up to the door and there was this very diminutive Russian lady standing there. She came out and right then I knew, me being a Latvian and she being a Russian, we’d get along just fine. There were no problems, no problems at all.”
Priede worked at Universal for years, printing for famous artists like Jasper Johns and Helen Frankenthaler, until deciding to leave and become a teacher. That’s when he decided to move back to Minnesota and get a job at the college there.
“I first started teaching at The University of Minnesota in a drawing class,” Priede said. “It was kind of funny — I didn’t look that much older than the students, and on the first day, when all of the students came in and sat down, I’d stand near the front of the room. They’d all start fidgeting, asking, ‘Where’s the instructor?’ Finally I’d step out, pull out a Pall Mall cigarette and say, ‘Well, here I am.’”
After his stint in Minnesota, Priede landed a job at Sweetbriar, the all-women’s college in Virginia. After seeing racist interactions between the entirely white staff toward the black groundskeepers and janitors, Priede was disgusted enough to leave the school. That’s when he ended up at the college. His impact on his students was enough to make Thieme eager to reconnect later in life, initially with the sole aim of expressing her gratitude.
But, after walking into his studio and seeing the art he was producing, Thieme was awed. Knowing how much Priede detested contacting galleries or self-advertising, she began occasionally reaching out on his behalf.
“I get to be his voicebox sometimes, and other times he tells me to shut up,” Thieme said, laughing. “Zig is never going to be the person who’s out self-promoting, the person who will figure out how to get through all of the loopholes to do things. What he cares about is the work.”
Whether it be not wanting to get involved in schmoozing with art dealers or simply not caring about having his work in the public eye, one thing is for sure: Priede cares far more about still being able to create art at his age than he does about showing it off.
“There’s no big philosophy,” Priede said. “At this stage in my life, it’s good that I’m still moving and my body is still responding. Art has been the driving force of my life, and no matter what else is happening, I’ve got to persist.”