Life, death, & strange dreams

Aug 31, 18 • 5enses, FeatureNo Comments

Portrait of Joe Zajac (deceased) with a new painting, 1989. Photo by Dale O’Dell. (Scanned from 4×6 inch photo print.)

By Dale O’Dell

On April 12, 1992, Joe died. Actually, he’d been mostly dead for a couple of weeks, laying in a coma in a hospital. His injuries were the result of severe trauma, multiple skull fractures, and his brain was effectively disconnected from his spinal cord. Joe was in his mid-30s when he met his end at the hands of an angry teenager with a bad attitude and a 2×4, but this story isn’t about the senseless death and violence that is so common in America.

I met Joe in 1982 when he reluctantly hired me to be a computer artist and photographer at a company where he was the production manager. We didn’t exactly get along. He was playing the corporate game at the time, and I was a rather opinionated and arrogant young man fresh out of college. We had opposing views of the corporate world but similar artistic sensibilities. The difference between him and me, art-wise, was he was a trained artist working in a business environment and I was a practicing artist who worked to fund his art. After a year working in a field of cutting-edge art, but for a shortsighted and low-paying company, I bailed out and moved on to another job. Joe stayed and played the corporate game until the company went bankrupt and he found himself in the market for a new job. We went our separate ways but occasionally we’d run into each other and chat.

Eventually Joe came around. He admitted to me that I’d been right about a lot of things I said to him back in the computer-graphic days when he was my boss. While he was living in the fast lane, I was working, photographing, producing a body of work and exhibiting. Joe always came to my gallery openings alone, was always sincerely complimentary about my work, and usually left with a beautiful woman in a little black dress. This went on for a number of years. We were friends but we really weren’t tight and we didn’t hang out together. He did his thing and was happy, I happily did my thing, and when our paths crossed we connected on many levels.

I hadn’t seen Joe for a while when he called me up one day. I was quite surprised to hear from him, since we usually only talked when our paths happened to cross. He was very excited when he called. He’d been painting and wanted me to come over and see his new work. He wanted my opinions about it and, if I thought it was good, he wanted me to photograph some slides of it. I was skeptical — he’d always talked about painting but he never got around to it — but I agreed to come by anyway. Joe had always had talent, I’d seen that from the time I first met him. But Joe was like a lot of talented artists I’ve known: distracted, undisciplined, prone to excesses of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, and artistically unproductive. When I showed up at his place the next day, I met a new guy, an evolved guy. He had his act together. He’d also been painting. He’d really been painting. He showed me canvas after canvas after canvas. I was absolutely dumbfounded: The work was amazing and very spiritual. In the span of a month or so, he’d produced a body of work that was beautiful, intelligent, coherent, and mature. I was moved, and the mere fact that he’d done the work was astonishing. Not only had he done it, but it was good, really good, and there was a lot of it. I came back later with my lights and camera and we photographed every piece he’d done. As I looked at the paintings through the viewfinder of the camera I found myself glancing over at him when he wasn’t looking. Where did this work suddenly come from, I wondered? Here was a guy who was sort of a screw-up, who had talent but hadn’t used it, and all of a sudden, bang!, out comes all this beautiful work. I could never have predicted that he’d had this in him, but there it was, abruptly realized, seemingly out of the blue. After I photographed his paintings and we discussed them I felt quite honored that he’d chosen me to show them to first. It meant that he valued my opinions despite our not getting along in the professional world. He took the slides I’d shot of his paintings and was going to send them to galleries and get his new work out there for everybody to see. He was even going to send a set of slides to his college art professor to show him that he’d finally done it. Despite the odds and his own personal obstacles and demons, suddenly he’d produced an incredible body of art.

And just as suddenly he was dead.

The only exhibition of Joe’s work was at his memorial service. His paintings were on easels lining the aisles of the chapel. We all fought back tears as we looked at those paintings and listened to the service. After the memorial my girlfriend and I looked at each other and said, “Heck, we’re all dressed up, let’s go to a nice restaurant and have a quiet dinner. Joe would have wanted that.” We had a very nice evening and discussed all the things that might have been if Joe had lived. The conversation kept coming back to the same point: Isn’t it strange that he did all those paintings, which were rather spiritual in content, and then died? It was like he had to do it before he died.

A few weeks after his funeral, Joe came to me in a dream. This wasn’t one of those normal, fuzzy, edge-of-perception kind of dreams, either. It was one of those incredibly lucid, in-color, check-the-house-when-you-wake-up dreams. I don’t know if it was dream, hallucination, altered state, or visitation by the dead, but this is how it went:

I was working in a big darkroom with about a dozen enlargers in it. I was alone and I was using more than one enlarger at a time to make prints. It wasn’t my darkroom, I’d never seen it before, but I seemed to belong there and I was comfortable. I had just exposed a sheet of paper and turned around to put it in the developer tray when I saw Joe sitting on the floor, leaning against the opposite wall. He was just sitting there watching me, drinking one of those giant 44-ounce sodas like you get at 7-Eleven. A number of times in the past, when I’d run into him somewhere, he’d been drinking one of those huge drinks. His presence caught me off guard. That’s to be expected. After all, he was dead. I looked at him in my dream for a moment and then said, “You’re not really here, are you?” He laughed and said, “No, not really.” We just kind of looked at each other for a few moments until I asked him what he was doing here. His reply was, “Just checking on you.” (I felt the need to ask him questions but it was important that I asked the right questions.) Finally, I asked, “Why did you die when you did?” With no hesitation at all he responded, “Because I was done.” I immediately thought of his paintings, produced suddenly before his untimely death. Was that what he was done with? He smiled and told me, “You’ve got a lot of work to do, so you better keep busy.” I looked away for an instant, to check the print in the tray or the enlarger or something. When I looked back he was gone. I woke up shortly after that and went to my darkroom. Of course he wasn’t there; it wasn’t even the right darkroom.

That dream has stuck in my memory, just like a real event. Maybe it was real on some level. I’ve thought about it a lot and tried to interpret its message; I’ll never forget that dream.

A few months later I was offered a teaching job at a college where a friend of mine was head of the photography program. When I accepted the position he took me on a tour of the facilities where I’d be teaching. It was a very well-equipped photography department, complete with two studios, and color and black-and-white labs. When he took me into the large black and white darkroom I almost had a heart attack. It was the exact darkroom from Joe’s dream!

As it turned out I did spend a lot of time in that darkroom. We had classes Monday through Thursday and the labs were closed on Fridays. I became involved in a personal project where I needed multiple enlargers to create composite prints from many negatives, and I spent every Friday alone in that darkroom for almost a year.

I always worked alone, and I always kept an eye out for Joe.

When I completed my new body of work it was exhibited in a local gallery, where we had quite a crowd at the opening reception. It was the first opening that Joe didn’t attend. But I think he was there.

As for me, I know I’m not done. I realize that every time I look at Joe’s paintings, one of which is on permanent exhibition in my living room.

Joe Zajac’s last painting (1989). From the personal collection of Dale O’Dell. Fine art photography by Dale O’Dell.


See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.

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