Don ZanFagna, an artist and teacher whose imagination led to fantastical designs and ruminations on how architecture and nature can better coexist, died last week after years of declining health, including dementia, according to his family. He was 84.
ZanFagna’s “Pulse Dome” series of pictures and notebook sketches was presented as a major exhibition at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in September last year.
The artist was born in Providence and grew up in Saunderstown, not far from Newport, part of a sizable Italian-American community. The young ZanFagna oriented himself to the sea from an early age, his wife Joyce ZanFagna said. “He grew up on the water, he loved everything about the water.”
The ZanFagnas met at the University of Michigan in 1951. He was an engineering student and the star quarterback of the football team. He also played baseball (which he liked best). She studied art.
While he was there, he met the iconic designer-theorist Buckminster Fuller, who was visiting campus to give a lecture. The famous futurist and the future futurist began an occasional correspondence.
Fuller would remain an influence on ZanFagna throughout his career. The younger thinker was especially taken by Fuller’s idea of tensegrity (a contraction of tensional integrity), which is the engineering principle of tension and compression among polyhedrons that create self-supporting structures. (It was this concept and other related ideas that led Fuller to perfect the design of the geodesic dome.)
ZanFagna’s athletic prowess nearly landed him a position with the San Francisco 49ers. The Brooklyn Dodgers invited him to join the team. The Boston Red Sox wooed him. The New York Yankees reached out to him.
Instead he pursued art, first as a member of the U.S. military, then as an academic.
ZanFagna also was a musician who played trombone well enough to sit in Al Green’s band back in the day when they both were stationed at Webb Air Force Base in Texas. And he became a respected teacher and outspoken environmentalist.
His interests in mythology, human behavior, design and science converged in his art. He started the Pulse Dome series, and then the Cyborg series, both of which propose solutions to difficult environmental problems. He was interested in discovering ways to build sustainable living environments that leveraged nature without exploiting it, his wife said.
At the start of the 1970s, the ZanFagnas moved to the New York City area. ZanFagna taught art at Rutgers University and was visiting eco-architecture professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
He started a new company called CEASE (Center for Ecological Action to Save the Environment), which provided consulting services to numerous individual and institutional clients.
He was a speaker at the first Earth Day in 1970, a wildly popular mass demonstration that reached millions of Americans and played a role in the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts.
ZanFagna’s work considers real social and environmental problems then throws in a big dose of fantasy, resulting in ideas that may have little practical application but surely get people thinking, Halsey director Mark Sloan has said.
“In a way, he is looking for a wholesale overhaul of the architectural enterprise itself,” Sloan said.
His work is represented in private collections and has been exhibited in over 200 galleries and museums in the U.S. and Europe, including the White Gallery on Sullivan’s Island, owned by his great-nephew and great-niece, Everett and Joanna White.
No services are planned at this time. In memoriam donations can be sent to The Don ZanFagna Foundation, 201 Central Avenue, Summerville, S.C. 29483, to enable the team to perpetuate the legacy of his ideas and work through museum and gallery exhibitions, books, seminars, environmental architectural projects and more.