Her career took her to the soaring cathedrals of Europe in search of medieval stained glass windows, but as a teacher, Professor Emerita of Art Helen Zakin was always more comfortable in the intimate seminar rooms of Tyler Hall.
“I always enjoyed working with students in small classes,” said Zakin, who especially liked teaching interdisciplinary courses in medieval studies for the Honors Program.
“In order to teach large classes, you have to be a bit of an actor or actress, a real performer,” Zakin said. She preferred the interaction of working with students one-on-one, where she could see who needed extra help, or draw in those whose attention wandered.
It’s a type of care she experienced from her dissertation adviser at Syracuse University, medieval art historian Meredith Lillich. Although there was no e-mail in the mid-1970s, Lillich would send copious handwritten notes by post while traveling all over the world. Since joining the Oswego faculty in 1970, Zakin had many female role models, ranging from Presidents Virginia L. Radley and Deborah F. Stanley to former Vice President Patti Peterson and Professors Marilynn Smiley and Rosemarie Imhoff. She tried to pass that mentorship on to students and to other faculty members in her work as department chair from 2002 to 2007.
While she doesn’t enjoy the impersonal nature of teaching online, Zakin says the Internet has opened a world of possibilities for the art historian. “At the Pierrepont Morgan Library online, you can get into the manuscripts, page after page,” she says. “You can see the [stained] glass in Shropshire Cathedral, panel by panel.”
But for Zakin, nothing compares to traveling the world, studying art in its own setting. A noted expert on medieval stained glass, she is a member of the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, a prestigious international organization that catalogs stained glass. Throughout her 40-year career, she visited hundreds of cathedrals and museums, and attended conferences or presented papers
in most countries in Europe. Her 2001 book catalogued French stained glass in American Midwestern collections. In 1992, she spent six weeks researching the stained glass holdings of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. With her husband of 40 years, ceramicist and Oswego Art Professor Emeritus Richard Zakin, she has traveled to Turkey, Spain, Italy, Poland and France among other European nations, as well as the United States.
While traveling, she took photos to share with her Oswego classes. In Pisa, Italy, she photographed underdrawings for frescoes, revealed by World War II bomb damage.
For all her globe hopping, the St. Louis native has no desire to make her home anywhere but in Oswego, thanks to the area’s rich heritage. “There are layers and layers of history in this town that one could peel away, and that fascinates me,” she said, pointing to the city’s role in major historical movements like abolitionism and the Underground Railroad.
Since her retirement from the college in 2009, Zakin has kept busy exercising her mind and body with Spanish classes, reading, yoga and jogging. She volunteers for political campaigns and the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music. Her newest passion is gardening. Zakin, who received her bachelor of fine arts degree in studio art, still enjoys painting and photography.
She remains grateful for the opportunities she received at Oswego, her first and only faculty post, which she held for four decades. “There’s a certain intimacy about this place, I know I wouldn’t find anywhere else,” she said.
— Michele Reed