A Conversation Between Amy Wilson and Daniel Wojcik
Artist and Majuscule board member Amy Wilson has a small painting of a UFO hanging in her hallway for the last twenty years, which she purchased from a mysterious man selling artworks on a street corner in New York City back in the early 2000s. In researching a bit about its creator, Ionel Talpazan, she came across the writing of Daniel Wojcik, a professor at the University of Oregon and author of the forthcoming book Artist as Astronaut: The Otherworldly Art of Ionel Talpazan (London and Cambridge: Strange Attractor/MIT Press), June 2023. Here, Amy and Daniel talk about the person behind the UFOs, and the artist who endured through tremendous struggles to bring his visions to life.
Q: I first met Ionel Talpazan in 2002 when he was selling his UFO paintings on Prince Street in NYC. What was his background, and how did he come to start selling his paintings on the streets of NY?
Well, it is a hell of a story, that begins in rural Romania and includes a visionary experience as a child; escape from an oppressive communist regime by swimming across the Danube River; and the ongoing struggles of an impoverished refugee somehow surviving by selling his flying saucer art on the streets of Manhattan. Talpazan was self-taught and produced more than 1000 works during his lifetime, claiming that that his work possessed a scientific as well as artistic value. His art has now achieved international acclaim and is included in important collections and museums throughout the world.
I initially encountered Talpazan at that exact same spot where you first met him, next to the Prince Street subway station in the SoHo district. It was in the late 1990s and he was displaying his work in front of the Victoria’s Secret store at that location. His vibrant depictions of otherworldly spacecraft were lined up on the storefront’s exterior-window ledges, leaning against the window glass and blocking the view of lingerie displays inside. I was captivated by his art and life-story, and we became life-long friends.
Ionel Talpazan (1955–2015), was born Ionel Pârvu in Romania on August 16, 1955, in the small village of Petrăchioaia, about twenty-five kilometers northeast of Bucharest. He was born a twin, and premature. His twin brother died a few days after birth, a loss that haunted Talpazan throughout his life. Talpazan’s parents were not married, and because of conflicts between them he was sent away to be raised by his father’s parents, who later gave him up for adoption. This period of his childhood was especially difficult, as his foster mother was violent, drank heavily, and beat Ionel regularly.
One evening in the summer of 1963, after his foster mother beat him for losing a farm tool, he ran away to an orchard, hiding in a ditch in a field, as it rained throughout the night. Suddenly the rain stopped, and he saw an enormous blue light overhead, and he was engulfed by a swirling “blue light of energy” that he later believed was from a flying saucer. Talpazan’s all-consuming obsession with depictions of spaceships, cosmic mystery, extraterrestrial technology, and alien life was triggered by this numinous experience. At the age of twelve he began to draw saucers and made hundreds of sketches. He said that his life’s purpose and his art were determined by that encounter, and that he was compelled to “sacrifice his life to the UFO.”
In 1987, Talpazan escaped from Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime in Romania, swimming the Danube River to Yugoslavia and nearly drowning in the process. He woke up unconscious on the riverbank and later wandered the countryside, until he was captured, imprisoned, and then sent to a refugee camp. Eventually, he was granted asylum in New York City as a political refugee, where he struggled to survive as a street artist, at times homeless. Despite adversity and poverty, Talpazan gradually made a name for himself, initially selling his work near the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan, and later at a regular location on Prince Street. In the mid-1990s, he had several highly acclaimed exhibits of his art and was written up in Artforum and the New York Times, lauded by critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, among others. On the verge of stardom, he largely disappeared from the gallery scene, retreating into his one room Harlem apartment, in part because of his distrust of galleries and art dealers. Then, he was back on the street again, selling his art where he felt things were more honest and straightforward.
I’d like to talk a little bit about the practicality of this moment. For some artists, turning their back on the art world may not have too many implications beyond just not furthering their career and reputation—they might continue to live in relative comfort and financial security, based on money coming in from other sources. But Talpazan was essentially destitute, right? And selling his work on the streets meant getting maybe $50 or $100 here or there, scraping by to survive?
Yes, he was destitute much of the time and survived, just barely, by selling on the street. For a while he did have some success with gallery sales, but he had general mistrust of galleries and those interested in selling his work on consignment. He preferred to deal directly with potential buyers, offering his work for as little as $10, with larger works in the $50-200 range. As he put it: “I like to sell direct—no consignments, no contracts—low, I need money, I need to survive.” When he had the money, he would bundle up his art and take the subway at the 137th Street station near his apartment to the Prince Street station; in hard times, he would walk the entire distance, roughly 10 miles, one way, pushing his art in a folding metal cart. He told me about the times he thought he would have a good day on the street, so he splurged and took the subway to SoHo, his cart loaded up with art. And then nothing would sell, and he would walk back home, sometimes in the rain and snow.
Talpazan was infamous for displaying his art “on sale” outside the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York City, standing in the snow, while the art dealers inside attempted to sell his work at gallery prices. Gallery owner Yvette Jacob, who featured Talpazan’s art in the early 1990s, recalled him standing in front of her gallery to sell his work for half price, as she held an opening for his art inside.
On numerous occasions when I spoke to him he was broke and completely despondent: “I live poor, and I survive day by day. It’s a terrible life. What am I gonna do? I don’t know what’s gonna happen to me tomorrow . . . I have nothing, no money, no insurance. If I get sick or cannot pay rent, I go back on the street . . . I am alone, no family, nobody to help me . . . I have my art, that’s all. My life is like a bomb, atomic—it can explode, any time.”
I take it Talpazan was a “true believer”—meaning that he believed in the literal existence of UFOs. Was his goal to spread awareness of UFOs, or to be an artist, or both? How interested in art (that wasn’t his) was he, if you know?
Talpazan did believe in the existence of UFOs and life on other planets. He wrote treatises about his views, in a hybrid language of Romanian, English, and indecipherable words. There are some fabricated statements about his experiences and beliefs (that he was abducted and probed, et al.), but Talpazan never mentioned any of this to me during the years I knew him. He was not very interested in extraterrestrials or abductions; for him, it was all about the extraterrestrial technology and how the UFOs flew, and their utopian potential.
About his goals, that is difficult to say. He was an artist first and foremost, totally devoted to express himself in every way possible in attempt to understand his mysterious blue light experience, which transformed him and obsessed him. He was constantly experimenting with new materials and forms in order to explore and manifest his ideas. But he did not proselytize about UFOs and he mostly was disconnected from broader American UFO subcultures and themes. He existed in his own realm, guided by his own singular visions, some of which were influenced by the nascent underground UFO culture in communist Romania. In the United States, as far as I know, he did not show much interest in other art or art world trends. He envisioned himself to be in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci and others whom he considered as artists-scientists and visionaries of the future. In fact, toward the end of his life, he changed his name to “Adrian DaVinci.” He once said, “The artist is like an astronaut . . . With the mind, you can travel the entire universe.”
For Talpazan, the technology of flying saucers was associated with cosmic principles and some sort of universal spirituality. As he told me: “My art shows spiritual technology, something beautiful and beyond human imagination, that comes from another galaxy. Something superior in intelligence and technology. So, in a relative way, this is like the God, it is perfect.” He believed his art and related theories could promote peace on earth and improve the world.
Caption: Ionel Talpazan (Adrian DaVinci), Tehnologie spirituală (Spiritual Technology), 2003. Oil crayon, marker, poster paint, pencil, and ink on paper, 30 x 53 inches. Photo: James Wojcik.
You’re a religious studies [correct me if I’m wrong!] professor at the University of Oregon. How did you get interested in UFOs, and also in Talpazan’s work in particular?
To be exact, I am a professor in the English Department and the Folklore Studies Program at the University of Oregon, and affiliate faculty in Religious Studies. But you are correct in that my interests fit more clearly into the areas of religious studies and the broader field of culture studies—with a focus on belief systems, worldviews, vernacular art, visionary culture and experiences, subcultures, alternative religions, stuff like that. My MA and PhD degrees are actually in the offbeat but fabulous discipline of Folklore Studies and Mythology (from UCLA), and the program there emphasized an interdisciplinary approach to the study of contemporary cultural expression and behavior.
How does all of this relate to my interest in UFOs and Talpazan? Well, I am a child of the nuclear era and the fear of doomsday was very real when I was young. I practiced duck-and-cover drills in elementary school, my neighbors had bomb shelters, there was the Cuban missile crisis, and then my nuclear war nightmares, etc. I was not alone in these experiences and fears. So years later, I studied apocalyptic beliefs and have written about this topic. And then, I am fascinated by modern mythologies, especially the meaning-making and mythic systems created by people during times of crisis. For me, the early flying saucer faith that emerged in the 1950s checks all the boxes, as: 1) modern mythology; 2) expressing apocalyptic fears with millenarian hopes of worldly salvation, and; 3) an emergent and grassroots belief system that reflects the anxieties, concerns, and hopes of its era.
People often assume that if somebody writes about UFO beliefs, they must be a believer in UFOs. I have had students in my classes who have read the one little article I wrote on UFO beliefs ask me whether I have been abducted, and when I say no, they seem doubtful, or they even insist that I have been, but that I don’t remember! So to be clear, I am not obsessed with UFOs. My interest in the topic is just one small part of my broader research in how new mythologies are created—with UFOs beliefs as a techno-mythology, a hybrid merging of science and religiosity that re-enchants a secularized world.
In some ways, Talpazan epitomizes all of this. I can’t unpack it all here, but I try to explain it in my forthcoming book about him and his art. He grew up with fears of nuclear war, but from a different perspective, in communist Romania, so it is interesting to compare. He created his own mythic belief system that helped him deal with life trauma. For him, UFOs were redemptive in the face of personal poverty and oppression, with the potential to save our crumbling world on the eve of destruction. The widespread hopes and broader societal fears felt by many people are all there in a nutshell, but expressed by Talpazan in a uniquely artistic way.
Talpazan embodies other things too—ideas of cosmic wonder, crisis, escape, freedom, and being “from elsewhere” which were central themes in his life. The UFO, as a global icon, symbolizes these notions. Talpazan recreated himself through the artistic process, despite endless struggles, poverty, and trauma. For me, his life story is a remarkable narrative of the refugee experience, one of survival, resilience, and transformation through art. He relentlessly explored the endless artistic possibilities of the flying saucer, which served as a visionary vehicle that transported him to another realm. In response to a life of ongoing adversity, Talpazan’s art enabled him to reach for the stars.
Ionel Talpazan (Adrian DaVinci), Energies of the Cosmos, 2000. Acrylic, oil crayon, marker, pencil, and ink on paper, 28 x 22 inches. Photo: James Wojcik