Art Talks with Louis Zona

By Billy Ludt

Louis Zona, director of The Butler Institute of American Art, gave the first of five guided art talks this past Sunday at The Butler.

The five lectures will cover two centuries of artistic movements and a range of topics, including neo-classicism, post-modernism, cubism, surrealism and abstract expressionism.

The next art talk with Zona is on Sept. 13. Zona said the next lecture will examine impressionism and how the movement came into existence.

Zona has been the director of The Butler for 34 years and has been a native to New Castle, Pennsylvania for the entirety of his life.

“It’s amazing how quickly it goes,” Zona said. “I still think of myself as a young person. I know I’m not.”

Zona began his career in the classroom as an art teacher at a public school. He immediately realized that speaking in front of students was a difficult task.

“You know, it’s interesting, “Zona said. “I’m a very shy person — extremely shy.”

An adversity to public speaking dates back to Zona’s time in grade school. He reflected on the time he had to speak in front of his peers and nearly collapsing due to nervousness.

“If I’m talking about art — if I’m talking about what I really love, I could stand up for two or three hours without a note and talk about it. That’s what I do,” Zona said. “That’s where it all began. To think that I would choose a life where I’ve been in the classroom this many decades. I met my class on Thursday and I told them that I have been in a classroom every year, without miss in the fall — every year since 1950.”

Zona earned his bachelor’s degree in education from Youngstown State University, a master’s degree in education from the University of Pittsburgh and his doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University.

The museology course he began teaching at YSU and his doctorate dissertation — a textbook on the operation of art museums — were essential for him to take on the job as The Butler’s director.

“Somehow I managed to fight off my fears of standing in front of people,” Zona said. “Heck, I make a living now at it.”

When he’s not lecturing in a classroom, or talking to Butler patrons, Zona still prefers to be in the back of the room.

“This’ll be my last year of university teaching, so I feel badly about it,” Zona said. “Fortunately, I’m able to continue to educate people in the visual arts from my position as the director of Butler.”

In his tenure at The Butler, Zona has earned numerous honors, including the Gari Melchers Medal. The medal is issued by the Artists’ Fellowship of New York City and is given to Americans who leave a lasting impact on American culture.

When asked if he was ready to leave the classroom, Zona said no.

“You know, when you love something it’s not a job,” Zona said. “I love teaching. I love sharing what I know, especially with young people. If you choose something that you love, it’s not a job. I’d do it for nothing. I always tell people that. If you would do something for nothing, that’s what you want.”

Zona is a major contributor to cataloguing works of art, and recently wrote essays for an exhibition for contemporary artist Joseph Raffael.

But Zona’s interests stretch beyond the arts.

“I just love baseball,” Zona said. “I was never real good at it, but it was the one thing that I could do OK in terms of sports.”

Zona recently published a story in the Youngstown Business Journal in reaction to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison returning his sons’ participation trophies.

Zona never received a trophy for any of his athletic exploits.

“But I would trade all [my arts honors] for just one sports award,” Zona said.

The remainder of the art talks with director Zona are on Sept. 27 and Oct. 11 and 18. The programs start at 2 p.m. and are free and open to the public, but on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“Art always reflect its time,” Zona said. “Whatever is going to be happening in your future is going to be reflected in the art. Whether it’s technological advancements, whether it’s theological statements, morality … it’s going to be interesting.”