Faculty Hall of Fame: Richard Zakin

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Professor emeritus Richard Zakin’s home in Oswego reflects a life immersed in art.

Walls and shelves display artwork both collected and made; Zakin’s own hand-built clay pieces capture his formidable skill at a variety of ceramic techniques.

“I always liked art that forced me to use my brain,” Zakin said, as he showed how adding an underlying structural foundation to one of his pieces prevented it from cracking in the kiln.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2015, Zakin has integrated his diagnosis into his life’s pursuit of art and knowledge. His recent projects range from digital art to hand-sketching to writing. His writing fuses his research of the disease with his own experiences, expanding his love of visual art to the imagery of words. The project is both a quest for understanding and a desire to share his observations on the inner workings of Alzheimer’s.

“We as humans, as artists, we are always capable of change,” he said. And Alzheimer’s is no different—it’s a change, a challenge to meet.

Zakin, who graduated from Syracuse University and the Brooklyn Museum School and earned a Master of Fine Arts in ceramics from Alfred University, taught art at SUNY Oswego from 1967 until his retirement in 2008. He has authored many books and articles on the subjects of pottery form, clays, glazes and kilns. He has exhibited his work at colleges and galleries, and led workshops across the U.S.

Zakin was honored with the SUNY Oswego President’s Award for Creative Research in 1994.

In October 2015, the Central New York chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association asked Zakin to be the keynote speaker at the beginning of its 25th Annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s. He attends meetings with the chapter regularly, finding kinship and encouragement among its membership.

Zakin adds what he refers to as “Zakinian” pencil sketches to the pages of his written works; he avidly discusses angles, lighting and contrast in photography with SUNY Oswego campus photographer Jim Russell ’83, who refers to Zakin as one of his lifelong mentors. Zakin is quick to point out pieces of art given to him by his students.

“They inspired me,” he said, pausing to share stories of students who are attached to particular pieces of art in his collection. His own story, he keeps in a black binder from which he reads excerpts—stopping to contemplate word choices, message, and the artistic limitations and freedoms of the medium.

“That happens with art, it leads you down many paths,” said Zakin, who lives with his wife of more than 40 years, Professor Emerita of Art Helen Zakin. Helen retired from SUNY Oswego in 2009.

“Life leads you down so many paths, too,” he said.

Zakin plans to continue his research and document his personal knowledge of Alzheimer’s. To get it down on paper. To reveal its impact on an artist’s mind. To learn what he can from it.

“An artist never stops learning,” he said.

—Eileen Crandall

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