To Grandmother’s House We’ll Go!

Actually, this holiday season, it’s to Grandson’s House we’ll go, bearing hand-made gifts in baskets, trudging through the snows of Maine in the snowshoes I’m hoping Santa will give me for Solstice.

This painting, “Folk Couple” by Evelyn Domjan, is in the collection of the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick. Although the 1940s tempera painting appears to depict a couple enroute to delivering holiday gifts, one can’t help but think of Ms. Domjan’s exodus from Hungary during the 1956 revolution.

Evelyn Domjan passed away this past summer, after an active life devoted to art, reading, and travel. She was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1922, and was brought up in the European intellectual middle-class tradition of music, literature, foreign languages, and the arts. She was just 6 years old when she won a drawing competition. Upon graduating from Mária Terézia Latin School, she won the first prize among graduating students in a nation-wide competition of drawing and painting.

After graduating from Latin School, Evelyn attended the Jassik Álmos school of design and the Hungarian Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, where she studied graphic arts. Her illustrations were published in books and her paintings of flowers appeared as picture postcards. However, her most formative encounter at the Academy was not with her instructors but with József Domján, who was to become her husband and life-long collaborator.

During a break at the Academy, while students relaxed on the grass, conversation turned to an exhibition they had seen at the Nemzeti Szalon called Spiritual Arts. While Evelyn was describing the pictures (dark blue-black clouds, pale white and rose flowering trees, and clouds at sunrise), the artist who created the paintings was just behind her. Recounting the episode many years later, she said, “I remembered the exhibition, I kept the catalogue, but I never thought to see the artist: Domján. I turned around- a man, blue eyes, smiling. It was like lightning from the clear sky. That second my life turned around. There was no question, it was a clear picture of my destiny. Like a tower of cards, my whole life collapsed. Friends, parties, dance, coffee houses, theater, high fashion, all blown away; nothing left but the arts… and the arts filled up every hour, every minute of my life and all my thoughts and desires.” She became the wife of József Domján, mother of their three children, and life-long collaborator. During the 1956 Hungarian revolution, Evelyn escorted her children on an overnight treck across the Hungarian-Austrian border, and in 1957 the family moved to the United States.

For more than 30 years, Evelyn and József worked side by side creating the colored woodcuts that have become the signature of Domján art and which are now in the permanent collections of 150 museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London. József would outline the basic organization of a new picture and fit it into the size required by the woodblocks that were to be used. Evelyn would then add the numerous fine details that filled out the design. Although József helped, many of the design blocks were carved by Evelyn, especially in the later years. József would prepare the color blocks, design the color scheme for each picture, and then make the colored woodcut prints. The color schemes were vintage József Domján creations, in the tradition of his early Spiritual Arts paintings. However, the details of the design elements, which often employed Hungarian folk motives, were Evelyn’s. The collaborative nature of their work went unrecognized during the first 20 years of József Domján’s career. However, during the last 10 years, they carved both ED and SD into each woodcut design, indicating their joint efforts, which ended with József’s death in 1992.

Although Evelyn devoted most of her artistic energies to helping József with the colored woodcuts, she also found time to pursue her own independent work, which embraced a wide range of techniques: paintings, drawings, etchings, woodcuts, wall hangings, painted furniture art, painted room walls, wood sculpture, bead embroidery, mirror embroidery (shisha) of India, and the creation of exquisite Hungarian headdresses (Párta).

Evelyn Domján is the author of several books, which she designed and illustrated with her woodcuts or drawings. Her books include Eternal Wool, the history of spinning, weaving, and tapestry; Edge of Paradise, the story of a lost folk-art motif; Faragott képek, a set of wood-carved images of the life of József Domján; and Pavologia, a celebration of peacocks in the history of arts, culture and nature.

Evelyn’s beaded head dresses were exhibited in a major PÁRTA exhibition at the American Hungarian Museum of Passaic (New Jersey) made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her illustrated book, PÁRTA: The Crown Jewels of the Village, complemented this unique exhibit. Evelyn’s pained furniture (rich with Hungarian folk motifs) was exhibited at the Museum of American Folk Art, New York City, as well as the Mingei Museum in San Diego. Her last major exhibition, Garden Woodlands and the Wide World Beyond, was held at the Museum of the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick, from September 25, 2003, to February 12, 2006.

During her later years, Evelyn traveled extensively, to Italy, Greece, India, Turkey, Burma, Siam, Java, Bali, Tahiti, Australia, New Guinea, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Mexico. But, she always returned to Tuxedo Park, where she and József had their art studio since 1968. She loved her garden, the numerous birds that visited her feeders, the lakes down the hill from the studio, and walks in the forest above the studio. Evelyn is survived by her daughter, Alma Melbourne, and sons Daniel and Michael Domjan and their growing families.

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