A little after 3 p.m. on a bright and chilly Saturday, a group of Buffalo artists and art lovers huddled together in Allen Street’s pint-sized Indigo gallery to listen to a children’s story.
As local artist Deborah Abgott read the words to Hans Christian Andersen’s “A Leaf from Heaven,” the assembled listeners allowed their gazes to wander to the gallery’s walls, where a collection of watercolors and prints by the late painter and illustrator Olga Bajusova was on display. For some of those present, it was the first opportunity to consider the extraordinary career of Bajusova, who died in November after a long illness at 58.
In her home country of Slovakia, which she left in 2001 to come to the United States with her husband, the artist and Buffalo State College professor Jozef Bajus, Bajusova is extremely well-regarded as an illustrator of children’s books. Former Burchfield Penney Art Center Director Ted Pietrzek, in his eulogy for Bajusova, called her “a superstar in the field.” And with 30 children’s books on her resume, along with several prestigious illustration awards, she was. In Slovakia, Bajusova’s books remain extremely popular, and many of them are in their third or higher printings.
But in Buffalo, despite being shown in modest exhibitions at the Western New York Book Arts Center, the C.G. Jung Center and Buffalo State College, her work is less well-known. After attending this celebratory gathering of her friends and fans – and looking at least cursorily at the work that has brought her so much attention in her home country – I’m convinced Western New Yorkers should know much more about her.
The works Bajusova was proudest of, Jozef Bajus said, were the unpublished “A Leaf from Heaven” – a panel from which is in the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center – and “Owl Mountain,” her very first and favorite book illustration completed as a graduate project at the Academy of Arts and Design in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital.
In each of those projects, Bajusova’s work is at once precisely detailed and refreshingly freehanded. And the images – from a ship with sails unfurled floating through a cloudy sky to a bird peering out of a hole in an ancient wall – are clear evidence of a ranging and restless imagination.
In her career, Bajus said, she struggled with demands from publishers whose requests were sometimes too specific. But even in those projects, a kind of joyous spirit shines through.
For Bajus, whose own book-based artwork has frequently graced the walls of the same gallery his late wife’s work now adorns, the extraordinary sadness of her passing has been tempered by a new opportunity to pore over her work. As he examined her portfolio to put together the Indigo show, which ran only for a few days and closed on Saturday, he discovered mysteries about Bajusova that remain to be solved.
“It’s very interesting what’s happening right now. I am actually starting to read those stories again, just to understand Olga,” he said. “I am just amazed how precise she was with everything, how she captured a certain essence of the story for her illustration, and this is just amazing.”
It is an unfortunate but unavoidable fact that some artists do not receive their full due during the time they are on this earth. And Bajusova, beloved on both sides of the Atlantic, certainly earned plenty of praise and recognition during her life. Now that she is gone, we can only hope she gets much more.
“Hopefully Olga, she will be [seen] again in different shows,” Bajus said during his remarks to the crowd, pausing briefly to look out at his wife’s work. “I believe she is still here.”