Mazza Museum’s Curator is a Master Storyteller
by Joy Brown
The disembodied head hung in a dark hallway. It was covered in jet-black fur and topped with tusks. Dan Chudzinski and his cousins, carrying flashlights, cautiously approached it. Shining the beams at the fierce monster, they screamed and ran. Uncle Mike was right – “The eyes will follow you!”
Chudzinski, the University of Findlay Mazza Museum curator, was raised on vivid tales such as “The Haunted Boar,” a treasured childhood memory from his visits to family in northern Michigan that still looms large. He now brings his own narratives to life with imaginative wit and artistic two- and three-dimensional masterpieces. Influenced by folklore, fantasy and the natural world, Chudzinski, who has deservedly earned a reputation as the consummate storyteller on campus, uses these talents to inspire a love of learning and curiosity about the unknown.
For Chudzinski, Uncle Mike’s scary stories were just the start of lifelong adventures. He has worked with animals at the Toledo Zoo and learned taxidermy, which was partly inspired by his uncle’s boar head. He studied marble carving in the same Italian valley where Michelangelo honed his craftsmanship. He has worked in Los Angeles, California for a special effects studio. For the past three summers, he has lived with the Tlingit clan in southeastern Alaska, learning their rich oral traditions and apprenticing under their master carvers.
“I travel the world looking for good stories,” Chudzinski said, particularly those tinged with imagination, and harboring magic. He emphasized he is “interested in that gray area, right between what we know for certain and what we don’t, and the possibilities that exist there.”
“It’s OK that mythology and legend blend with the truth, because that’s heritage. History is the stone cold facts, but also the legends become part of the history too, and the folklore, and the tradition,” he said.
Lately, Chudzinski’s home studio has been housing proprietary work he is creating for Hollywood studios. He is developing a name for himself in the film industry, thanks in part to his earning the Stan Winston School of Character Arts’ 2018 Monster Making Contest grand prize. His mixed-media sculpture, “The Ripper,” has hints of all of Chudzinski’s favorite movie creatures that the studio, under the direction of his idol, the late Stan Winston, developed, ranging from the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” to the Terminator.
The polar bear sculpture was commissioned by renowned illustrator Greg Manchess and the Norman Rockwell Museum for an exhibition featuring works for Manchess’ novel, “Above the Timberline.” Dan Chudzinski’s work, comprised of foam, epoxy, steel, mounting hardware and acrylic paint, is a life-sized rendering of “Grim,” the lead polar bear in the story. Chudzinski’s artistic interpretation was partly inspired by Marty, the Toledo Zoo’s enormous male polar bear, whom Chudzinski felt “provoked the same imposing presence as Grim does in the book.” The exhibition, taking place at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, will run through Feb. 24, 2019.
At Mazza, some of Chudzinski’s creations are there too, hanging high overhead as “Bessie” the mythical Lake Erie monster, and throughout his backroom office adjacent to the Museum’s art vault, via the conjured “Vifflegriffe” and real crocodile hide, the latter of which is used to entice younger visitors to read “Peter Pan,” a classic tale that features a crocodile as Captain Hook’s nemesis. It’s the stories behind the artistic renderings, and the historical facts, that breathe life into an otherwise antiseptic informational encounter, says Chudzinski.
What, according to Chudzinski, makes a really good story? The following are what he believes are the necessary elements:
• Proper Timing. It contributes to the ambiance and the mood, sets aside everyday attributes, and removes the audience from the familiar for fuller immersion.
• Resonance. There must be something that most people can relate to and see a part of themselves in. That’s why people travel to historic places, Chudzinski said – “Because you’re there. It’s sacred ground. You have a reliquary of the event and that makes it even more poignant.”
• Credibility. “In order for the audience to accept it, there has to be elements of the familiar,” he said.
“Good art is storytelling,” Chudzinski pointed out. “It’s a form of visual communication that transcends language and cultural barriers.” Therefore, the Mazza Museum, he said, “is all about celebrating storytellers historically and continuing that tradition.”
With children, he hopes to draw the attention of the ambivalent student who otherwise doesn’t care. With adults, he’d like to remind them that their childhood dreams are always still percolating, and that it’s OK, if not fundamental, to be inquisitive. At the Mazza Museum, Chudzinski seeks to inspire curiosity and creativity in people of all ages.
“The literal translation in Latin for ‘curator’ means ‘to care for.’ I take that a step farther than just looking after the art that’s in the collection. It’s my goal to give you a reason to care for it,” he said, and to “be an advocate for other artists and other storytellers.”