Recollections of My Father: Eugene Andrew Zaikine
Lying in a crib in Rego Park, Long Island, New York in the borough of Queens, I seem to remember a giant rabbit eating a carrot over my bed. This would be the first of many murals my dad would do that I was part of. Whether the recollection is true or seeing photographs of me as a baby with the grand and wise rabbit triggered those early memories, I cannot say for sure.
At about the age of three we moved to Saunders Street in Elmhurst, where my dad was already a sought after painter (surrealist) and muralist. He had worked on many restaurants, theater lobbies and churches throughout the country. He had worked on such famous places as the half Moon Hotel in Brooklyn, New York, The Mayflower Hotel in Plymouth, Massachusetts, The Russian Greek Catholic Cathedral of Transfiguration in Brooklyn, and the Russian Orthodox Church in Nashua, New Hampshire.
My memories of the church in Pottstown, Pennsylvania are the clearest to me since at the age of six I helped him, by bringing him lunch. He would let down a rope from the high copula of the church, where he would erect scaffolding and then paint for hours. I would tie his lunch and sometimes brushes onto the rope and he would pull it up to where he was working.
Walking down the hallways of our small one and a half bedroom apartment on Saunders Street was sometimes difficult, as my father’s personal surrealist paintings depicting war atrocities, inhumane treatment of prisoners, brutal and very invasive hospital surgeries that reflected life in those days, covered the walls. Walter Winchell, the news reporter, would broadcast Hitler and Mussolini’s advances in the background as World War II was at the height of its insanity in 1943-44. These images and what was shared at the dinner table (beyond the glaring radio) gave us all nightmares.
Now, as an artist of 47 years myself, I have experienced similar painful situations in my own life, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the crisis in the middle East, as well as many personal and emotional experiences. I think my dad, through his art work, purged those feelings, emotions and sufferings of humanity by painting them. Like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who painted and reflected their lives, the heroism, my father was able to sustain by expressing how and what he felt and saw, giving him the ability to create deeply cleansing work. Thus the art that he produced acted as deep therapy and healing on many levels, which the work continues to reflect.
Working on the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in Flushing at Flushing Meadow Park was a high point. We went on walking trips on the formal grounds, which were torn down after the fair. Only a handful of buildings remained: The Pylon and Giant Globe Sphere in the New York City Building, which is a museum now. The land was also temporarily used as barracks for returning military personnel and their families. These buildings were also taken down by the early 1950’s.
Then there was his humorous side. An active magician in the Black Stone Fellowship of Magic, he had this uncanny ability to pull rabbits out of hats at a moment’s notice. So metaphorically speaking, with pencil and brush or pen, Surrealism would give way to humor, black humor at its highest form.
One such commission still exists and has become a world class attraction, aside from being featured in major motion pictures and television sitcoms. Housed in the Hotel Elleyse, the Monkey Bar has been a landmark since he painted it in the mid 1940’s. Leon Quain, partner and eventual owner of the hotel commissioned my dad to do the murals. I recall stepping around them as a kid in our apartment as my father painted them on canvas and later affixing them to the walls of the bar.
Seeing silly monkeys making drinks, highballs and cavorting with other jungle creatures gave all who viewed the pieces a sense of joy, whimsy and put a smile on their faces; even without another shot of vodka from the bartender!
All through my childhood, from the age of seven on, my mother took me to the Monkey Bar on my birthday. Leon Quain would fill my head with stories about my dad and the bartender would also tell me about his interactions with Eugene and the painters who would come to the bar.
I lost him early, he was not yet forty when he died in 1949, but his memory lives in the work that he did. Eugene Dunkel, the scenic designer also employed my dad for his murals and was a great supporter of my dad's. Dunkel gave my father high praise and many commissions that still exist in someone’s house, restaurant, church or building today, bringing joy and pleasure to their viewers.
Blessings on my dad,
Victor Eugene Zaikine
25th of September, 2008
It was my mother Valentina who not only encouraged my father to continue his work but also could have been one of the first people displaying his art and selling outdoors. She would carry her husband’s art on the subway and display it in Washington Square on the park benches, whenever the weather was good. I recall one incident as a young child of about five when my mother asked my dad if after several weeks of working on a metropolitan church, he had gotten paid. He told her that the priest said he needed to buy fixtures for the church instead of paying him and that in time he would. Without missing a beat, my mother put on a scarf and coat and was gone. Several hours later she returned with the payment in her hands. My mother had the priest open the collection box, where funds were kept in case of emergencies, to pay my father. My father had worked tirelessly, decorating this church for hours, which was now complete, in order to support his young family. This is just one example of the great valor of my mother.