University of Pittsburgh

Drawing Life

An object found at a Japanese flea market inspired a series of drawings by Paul Glabicki, a Pitt professor of studio arts. It also sparked a solo exhibition of the work at a Manhattan gallery. His art invites another way of looking at the world, and another, and another.

Written by Cindy Gill



Several decades ago, the American artist Paul Glabicki was exploring street life in Tokyo, walking around neighborhoods and taking photographs that might later feed his work. During his wanderings, he came upon a flea market full of objects from Japanese life. One item, in particular, drew him closer. A thick, folded pamphlet of vintage paper was covered with Japanese markings—handwritten calligraphy, vibrant red stamps, and intriguing ink-drawn symbols. He didn’t understand the language or the image-concepts, but he found the piece to be both beautiful and mysterious.

It was, he discovered, an antique Japanese accounting ledger, full of calligraphy embodying the handwritten chronicle of long-ago business transactions over days, weeks, months, and years. The rice-paper ledger, tied closed with a ribbon, contained a series of horizontal, folded panels, each brimming with the records of fleeting transactions dating from the 1930s.

Glabicki purchased the pamphlet, carried it home to Pittsburgh, and placed it neatly in a drawer. Occasionally, over the course of more than 20 years, he pulled the ledger out and considered its visual tug. Even when he wasn’t examining it, the ledger was at work on his unconscious perceptions, stimulating his impulse to create something new, something lasting, something worth expressing.

This spring, the results were on display in New York City. The Kim Foster Gallery on 20th Street in Chelsea mounted a solo exhibition of Glabicki’s most recent art, titled Accounting for. There were more than two dozen complex drawings, each representing a panel in the Japanese ledger but also containing far more. From a distance, the images—framed in simple blonde wood—appeared delicate, almost fragile. They certainly weren’t the large-scale blasts of color that characterize much of contemporary art. Stepping closer, though, the viewer entered an engaging, mysterious world.

Each drawing has layers of handcrafted images and marks, a dense yet somehow airy collection of symbols and concepts that express aspects of human experience through time. One drawing brims with lists of numbers, geometric shapes, geographical references, architectural sketches, arcane symbols, and elegant script. The art is created in inks and colored pencil marks on printmaking paper that resembles the original ledger paper. Other drawings, similar in style, contain kindred objects and more layers of information: botanical references, place names, dates, Roman numerals, circles, rectangles, rows of letters and words, and on it goes.

Moving through the gallery, frame by frame, visitors travel deeper and deeper into Paul Glabicki’s world. It’s as though each drawing is a parcel of space in a large archeological dig of all things human, yesterday and today. The work requires, and repays, up-close, intimate viewing.

“There are calendars,” adds Glabicki. “There are stock market quotes, and images dealing with measurements of different types, and architectural data like diagrams showing the proper way to measure steps or make a roof.” There are mathematical formulas, chemical elements, and acupuncture sketches. There are word associations (Leather, Diamond, Fashion) and random words (winnow). There are map segments. There are ladders and chairs. There are dots and lines and spirals.

Over 18 months, the artist produced 34 of these drawings, filled with the remnants of human activity. Describing them, he mentions East-West influences and the mixing of past and present. He likes juxtaposing images and concepts, playing with notions of time, layering ideas.

For Glabicki—who is a professor of studio arts at the University of Pittsburgh—that process derives from a roving curiosity and the pursuit of artistic expression across disciplines. His early influences ranged from Russian silent film and Cubist cinema in Europe, to Japanese calligraphy and synthesized sound, to his own Catholic background, the mystery of diverse religious iconography, and a childhood fascination with Walt Disney films.

He remembers that as a youngster he was captivated by a boxful of objects brought back from wartime Japan by his father, who was a marine during World War II. His father preferred not to talk about the war or the artifacts in the box, but the young Glabicki was drawn to it and to the interesting images inside.

Years later, after his university studies and his arrival at Pitt to teach painting and drawing, he had an experience that sheds light on his work. While attending the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in Japan, he was suddenly struck by his situation. The festival was held near Hiroshima’s Peace Park, a memorial to those who lost their lives in the nuclear bomb attack on the city in World War II. He was standing in a city where his father had once visited, shortly after the bomb was dropped. In 1945, the city was ravaged by war; now, the son was participating in an arts festival to promotepeace. Glabicki thought about the long-ago box full of Japanese objects, which he had acquired when his father died.

“I had this strange experience, thinking about time passing,” says Glabicki. “There I was in this place, remembering the war souvenirs, thinking about the relationships to another culture and time period. It felt really odd, yet it was very moving. It was all about time, space, memory, and enormous change and transformation.”

Glabicki’s work captures these disjunctions and layers of time, place, culture, and thought. His art expresses how he thinks about things and, at the same time, illuminates the human psyche.

“It is fractured,” says the artist. “Perceptions of things happening in a moment may generate a memory, sometimes a taste or a sound. Sometimes you can be thinking about several things at the same time, about what you’re looking at and what you’re hearing. Filtering things out, filtering things back in. That process of storing things becomes layered over time or decays over time, reflecting how our conscious mind and unconscious mind perceive things.”

That’s the well of creativity for all of Glabicki’s art. His personal vision encompasses the wide world of human experience, and his art compels us to look, to really look. It’s one of his primary goals when teaching Pitt students. “They’re bombarded by visual stuff, and they’ve developed a quick discard process. A lot of what I do in class is to point out what an image might be saying, what it might be conveying.” Look. How many layers of meaning exist?

In creative circles, Glabicki is best known—and internationally known—for his work in experimental animation and filmmaking.  His films have been shown at Lincoln Center, the Cannes Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum’s Biennial, and the Venice Biennale, among many other venues. Some of his original art and film negatives are preserved at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Prints and artwork also are in the study collection of New York’s Anthology Film Archives, as well as in various museum and private collections.

As a teenager in the 1960s, Glabicki began experimenting with Super 8mm film, developing animation techniques using collage and found images. He continued this work as an undergraduate painting major at Carnegie Mellon University during a time when “underground” independent cinema was beginning to receive serious art-world attention. Then, as a graduate painting student at Ohio University, he was introduced to filmmaker and Japanese film scholar Joseph Anderson, who had just established a Department of Film there. Anderson gave him free reign to experiment, providing full access to the department’s resources, his vast knowledge of Japanese film and culture, and an eclectic group of faculty and students passionate about cinema.

Glabicki’s first 16mm films combined live action with animation, and opened up new experiments with sound recording and editing. In Diagram Film (1978), for instance, he introduced his own hand drawn animation technique. This film was a major breakthrough, and his first international success.

His films became more complex in technique and concept, and he began to approach each drawing as a work of art. One second of film requires at least 24 drawings. Under the Sea, completed in 1989, took five years to create and contains about 10,000 exquisitely handcrafted images. The 22-minute experimental film draws ideas from several classics of literature, including Madame Bovary, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Gulliver’s Travels.

In 1989, as early computing services were evolving at Pitt, he gained access to emerging computer graphics technology at Engineering Hall. There, he was able to experiment—creating still images and gaining confidence to explore more advanced graphics software as it developed. University grants brought this technology to his Frick Fine Arts studio, where his own creative process often pushed off-the-shelf software beyond its intended uses. During the 1990s, Glabicki focused entirely on digital media, including animation, three-dimensional stereo projections, and multimedia installations.

Throughout his career, his work has appeared in dozens of juried film festivals and international art events and has won a bevy of awards. In 2001, he was named Pittsburgh Artist of the Year. The handdrawn frames from his films and animations are sought-after art acquired by museums, archives, and collectors internationally.

This year, Glabicki is featured in a just-released book by Robert Russet called Hyperanimation: Digital Images and Virtual Worlds (John Libbey Publishing). The book pays homage to innovators in the field who began adapting early computer software to create pathbreaking art.

“Paul’s work is deeply fascinating on an intellectual level,” says art curator Vicky Clark, who has organized exhibitions at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art. “He layers ideas, and signs, and symbols, and he does it with an incredible understanding of the effect and the beauty. His work is compelling because it marries the aesthetic and the content.” It transports viewers to another world, she says, and that is exactly what the artist intends.

Early in his Pitt career, Glabicki received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship that launched his first trip to Japan, with encouragement from the legendary animator Jules Engle, who had contacts there. Arriving in Tokyo, Glabicki was immediately immersed in a flurry of new sensations: unreadable signs, vibrant colors, inexplicable languages, unusual smells, distinctive sounds, strange foods, perplexing customs—often, all of it happening at the same time. There were layers of sensory, cultural, and personal experiences that he had to filter quickly to navigate. He wasn’t sure which train to catch; what, exactly, was going on; or what he might encounter next. His usual, day-to-day experience of life was completely disrupted.  He loved it.

His guide—and guiding spirit—on that trip was Sayoko Kinoshita, an artist. She was eager to expose the young American visitor to experiences that would feed his creative sensibilities. So, within 24 hours of arriving in Japan, Glabicki was whisked to Kyoto by bullet train and immersed in a prewedding dinner ceremony. He was sent to perplexing theater performances. He was led to street markets full of unusual produce.

“It was not only the vegetables, but also the atmosphere, sound, light, smell, color, shape, season,” says Sayoko Kinoshita about her intent to introduce new perspectives that might become creative fuel. When she first met Glabicki, she was struck by his innocence, sensitivity, and warm-heartedness. These are qualities that he retains even now, she says. “I am very much attracted by Paul’s work because I feel much deepness and wideness beyond the frame. I feel something like our ‘universe’ in his work. It shows a very sophisticated philosophy, yet also humor. There is something very pure in his work.”

Whenever Glabicki returns to Japan, he visits Sayoko Kinoshita, who is the longtime director of Hiroshima’s International Animation Festival (and the wife and creative partner of the late Renzo Kinoshita, an animation filmmaker). He knows what she’ll say: “I have an experience for you.”

Such influences were evident in Glabicki’s solo show this spring at New York’s Kim Foster Gallery. “You just fall into his world,” says Pittsburgh artist Diane Samuels, who visited the exhibition. “It’s not linear, but you get keys and clues that you can put together, as the viewer, for yourself. There’s an entire world there to read and absorb.” Samuels, who also is represented by the gallery, has known the artist since his undergraduate days, and their work has been displayed side by side.

It’s clear from the Accounting for drawings that he is fascinated by recordkeeping and the rubble of time, so it’s not surprising that a vintage accounting ledger caught his attention in a Tokyo street market. Yet, the drawings also brought renewed life to the old document. Each framed drawing coincides with an actual panel from the ledger: Embedded in each is a custom-drawn transcription of original marks from a counterpart ledger panel. Then, the artist added his own “accounting,” drawn from the fluctuations of his daily life—postmarks on letters, scraps of correspondence, images noticed on the Internet, bits of text from that day’s  New York Times, photographs taken while traveling, even a Leonardo da Vinci cloud sketch inspired by an afternoon thunderstorm while Glabicki was at work on the series. “The drawings were always being fed as I went along,” he notes.

Gallery owner Kim Foster says that the pieces are both novel and important—not a combination she often sees. “I looked at Paul’s work, and the minute I saw it, I knew this guy was intelligent, knew a lot about art, and could draw,” she says. “It’s done interestingly and innovatively, like a journal of what’s going on in society. It’s bits of information, data, all kinds of things—like the World Wide Web, with everything hand drawn.”

Exactly. Glabicki’s work melds old and new; fleeting time, the petrified past, this very moment. Now, as the fall semester approaches, he is back at work in Pittsburgh. The framed drawings that hung on the gallery walls are stacked around his campus studio in cardboard packaging—and, elsewhere, some are hanging on the walls of art collectors who purchased pieces from the gallery show. Soon, Glabicki will be back in classes with students, guiding a new generation of artists.

Already, he is thinking ahead about his next project, maybe a painting series, maybe another film. He’s reading, combing the internet, corresponding with artist friends, looking at others’ work, planning some travel. He’s ready for the next experience, the next leap of imagination.