By Louis A. Zona
I hope that Jon Naberezny’s legacy in Youngstown and at Youngstown State University will be remembered.
Jon, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, was one of the great educators and artistic talents to come out of our area. But instead of beginning by telling you of my affection for this great man, I want to begin at the end for no apparent reason other than to describe an interaction between the two of us.
A few years back, Jon suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair in an adult care center. Jon had taught a course in modern art at YSU for many years. He enjoyed describing the works of Pablo Picasso and a protégé of Picasso by the name of Georges Braque. The two men were great innovators whose work around the year 1910 was so similar that it is nearly impossible to tell the difference.
But Jon would brag that he could distinguish their works. As much as we believed in the teachings of Jon Naberezny, none of his students, including me, believed that he could tell the difference in the work of the two great artists.
Now, let’s move the story along from the 1950s and 1960s to recent times. I went to see Jon in the nursing home toward his final days and was shocked that this brilliant man was no longer able to communicate. As I was walking out of the facility, I turned to Jon and asked “Jon, could you really tell the difference between the work of Picasso and Braque in 1910? Jon looked up at me and winked. I’ll never forget that moment.
Jon Naberezny was a student of Margaret Evans at the former Youngstown College and eventually chaired the art department that Margaret created. He would ultimately receive his graduate degree from the University of Iowa on the GI Bill.
Naberezny taught at The Rayen School after the service where he met a talented young African American student named Al Bright. “Nab” as he became known to us, became family to the young Bright, took Al under his wing and saw to it that Al would take his talent to Youngstown University to study painting.
Interestingly, the university enabling that friendship between Nab and Al to flourish would hire Jon Naberezny. When Nab retired from YSU, Al and his wife, Dee, traveled the world with Nab, who got to see so many of the great art treasures that he had lectured about in his classes. Nab was thrilled, as were Al and Dee.
Jon was one of those very rare artistic talents who was born with a gift. He could draw and paint as well as anyone in the country. His work was shown in a New York City gallery and sold out. But instead of becoming a famous New York artist, Jon decided to stay in Youngstown where he continued to teach at the university and above all else, play golf.
Nab was a great golfer and probably could have become a pro had he put his mind to it. But becoming a golf pro or a famous artist had no appeal. He would always rather drive to campus in his convertible and paint in the former West Hall office while advising students.
I took several of Jon’s classes and recall one of his painting classes. In that particular class he overheard one of the students saying, “The reason that certain so-called artists paint abstractly is because they have no talent to paint in a realistic mode.”
I could tell that Nab was bothered by the guy’s comments that could have been aimed directly at him since Jon Naberezny was an abstract painter.
The following week Nab began the class by telling us that he wished to do a painting demonstration. As we sat back, he began to paint. He painted with incredible speed. His brush seemed to fly above the canvas. It was a wonder to behold.
As if by magic, the head of a woman with long blonde hair blowing in the breeze appeared on Jon’s canvas. When he stopped and put his paintbrush down, the students broke into spontaneous applause.
Jon looked up at us for a few seconds before taking the painting, bent it on his knee, and threw it into the trash barrel. “You may continue painting,” he said. The fellow who had made the derogatory comment was quiet the rest of the semester.
Al Bright called me one day and asked if I could join him and Nab at Jon’s house that evening. Al had mentioned to Nab that Lou Zona would be a good addition to the art department. Nab’s response, “Who’s Lou Zona?”
Despite the fact that I had taken every class that he had taught, I obviously did not impress him in the least since he didn’t even know my name. But on Al Bright’s recommendation we went to see the dean and I was hired.
When I received my doctorate, Nab arranged to have the art department faculty celebrate with me at a South Avenue bar. Nab loved the occasional Manhattan. As I sat across from him, I saw something floating in his drink. I said, “Nab, don’t drink that. There’s something floating in your drink.”
Nab picked up the Manhattan and swallowed it. “Whatever it was, I didn’t want it to float to the bottom,” he said with one of his booming laughs.
Once, while I was teaching in the former Clingan Waddell hall, Nab’s secretary came to see me and interrupted my class. “Lou, Nab is angry that the president did not award a fellowship to a member of the art department and he’s heading toward the president’s office to give him a piece of his mind. You’ve got to stop him.”
I caught up with Nab on the corner of Wick and Rayen and asked him if he’d go to lunch with me after my class. “I’m really hungry,” I said. “And I hate to eat alone.”
“Sounds good,” Jon responded. “I’ll meet you in my office.”
We had a great lunch and to this day I think that I had saved Nab from a major headache. He would have done the same for me.
I miss him even though he probably still would not remember my name nor really know a Picasso from a Braque.