Finding a new ‘Pulse’ Halsey show by Don ZanFagna a reimagining of how we live

Don ZanFagna sits in front of "The Last Grass Installation" at the New Jersey State Museum in 1970.

Don ZanFagna is an adventurer, a climber of the mind’s mountain peaks, a man who skydives through the imagination.

He is the inventor of the “Dome of Ultimate Possibilities,” the “Echo-Locator of Splendor,” the “Pillar of Life Retro-Erecto.”

He is more than an artist, said Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. He’s a visionary whose work pushes boundaries and probes big questions. It’s not meant to serve as an explicit blueprint for a sane new world, Sloan said. It is ZanFagna’s way of channeling profound concerns.

“I would say it’s metaphorical,” Sloan said.

It’s also beautiful. Big ideas might be embedded throughout, but many of the works stand on their own aesthetically as well-composed expressions of color and form. They can be appreciated individually as well as collectively.

A portion of ZanFagna’s massive output, the “Pulse Dome” series, is on display at the Halsey through Dec. 8.

The story of ZanFagna’s life and work — as told by his wife, his niece, his art advocate and his local curator — is astonishing in its scope and achievement. It began in athletic glory, reached the pinnacle of academic success, then subsided into the confusion and darkness of dementia.

Along the way, art (collages, prints, paintings, drawings) was made and sometimes displayed at institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

By the late 1960s, ZanFagna was growing especially concerned about society’s trajectory. It was clear to him that radical change was needed if the human species was going to live in harmony with nature.

So he applied his formidable mind to the invention of a new social landscape, a conceptual expanse occupied by “pulse domes” that emerged from the Earth, informed by ancient structures and lost ideas.

He kept filling his large notebooks with ideas expressed visually. He drew sketches, assembled collages, created long lists. His beautiful mind processed information, categorized it, labeled it and invented whole dimensions and domains in which nature provided the ingredients for every solution and human invention the formula.

It seemed his mind went a mile a minute. He stayed up late at night creating visual representations of these fantastical ideas, signed them with a degree of pride, then tucked them away, with little sense that they might have commercial value.

The Pulse Dome series was exhibited a year ago at the Aspen Art Museum, and the Cyborg series had a showing at the Tampa Museum of Art the first part of this year. After more than two years of consultation, the Halsey is ready to introduce its patrons to these imaginative renderings of the world. The rediscovery of ZanFagna is under way.

Today, ZanFagna, 83, his mind dimmed by dementia, still spends hours among his thousands of books, continues to make long to-do lists and enjoys the company of those close to him, said his wife, Joyce ZanFagna.

The couple, married 55 years, live in Mount Pleasant now and soon will move to Summerville. They followed their nephew, Everett White, and his wife, Joanna, to the Lowcountry after the younger couple came in 2005 and opened an art gallery on Sullivan’s Island.

ZanFagna’s immense body of work, mostly intact after all these decades, is being cataloged and evaluated by his family and Allison Williamson, founder and director of the Charleston Artist Collective and curator at the recently formed ZanFagna Foundation.

Hundreds of notebooks, intricately filled with complex visual ideas, and hundreds of sketches, prints, paintings and collages, part of various series of thematic works, are being prepared for posterity.

It all began in Rhode Island. Don ZanFagna was born in Providence and grew up in Saunderstown, not far from Newport, part of a sizable Italian-American community. His family hails from the hills north of Naples in the Campania region, their home a hamlet called Vairano Patenora, famous for its medieval Norman fortress, which juts from the hill overlooking the town.

The young ZanFagna oriented himself to the sea from an early age, his wife said. “He grew up on the water, he loved everything about the water. He was definitely an ocean dweller.”

He was also an ambitious, precocious young person of little means. He enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., in 1947, when he was 17, because tuition was paid for and because it could put him on a fast track to a salaried position. After a year, though, the cadet left for the University of Michigan. Following other people’s rules had proven to be a little tough.

Don and Joyce met at 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 met and spoke and 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.)

Meanwhile, his athletic prowess caught the attention of the scouts. The San Francisco 49ers wanted to sign him. The Brooklyn Dodgers invited him to join the team. The Boston Red Sox wooed him. The New York Yankees reached out to him.

But before he launched a baseball career, he had a change of heart. The Korean War was on, and he wanted to go as a commissioned officer, not a grunt, and he wanted to be a fighter pilot. To achieve that, he had to have at least three years of college under his belt.

A football teammate and artist at Michigan familiar with ZanFagna’s visual and mathematical inclinations encouraged his friend to hone his skills, so the quarterback signed up for a course meant for amateur artists. His teachers “were just blown away by him,” Joyce ZanFagna said.

His family was disappointed. They had hoped to ride the coattails of a baseball star. They didn’t understand Don’s obsessions with geometry and design or appreciate his fanciful efforts to calculate nature’s phenomena.

When he was 9, he was briefly fixated on the undulation of ocean waves in which he discerned patterns. But when he tried to share his enthusiasm with his family at the dinner table, he was met with blank stares. “Eat,” they responded.

In 1953, ZanFagna finished at Michigan and joined the service. The war was winding down and fighter pilots were not in high demand, so he trained radar technicians. While he was in the service, stationed in Columbus, Miss., his career as an artist officially started. He had a solo show in a gallery, displaying woodcuts and other pictures that reflected the terrible poverty and oppression of the Deep South.

Always a moral and honest person, his sense of justice was challenged by his experiences in Mississippi, his wife said. “Whatever he’s been exposed to, he’s going to tell you about it,” Joyce ZanFagna said.

The artwork is about observation and feeling, not political messages, she said. And it’s just one way — the main way — he expresses his swirling ideas. “He always says, ‘I’m an artist in spite of myself.’ ”

Don ZanFagna is also a musician. He played the 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.

After Don and Joyce married in 1957, they traveled to Italy. Don had received a Fulbright grant and backing from the Italian government to study art. They spent a year marveling at the works in Florence’s Uffizi galleries and at the user-friendly density of Tuscany’s urban centers.

They procured a little Fiat convertible and drove it across Europe, stopping to visit Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, France, and making a point of seeing El Greco’s works in Spain.

They loved Europe and didn’t want to return, Joyce ZanFagna said. But duty called.

Don ZanFagna enrolled at the University of Illinois, but felt out of place, too old compared with the inexperienced teenagers who populated his courses. So after a semester, he transferred to the University of California-Los Angeles.

There the iconoclast thrived. The couple’s only child, Robert, was born.

Passing the famed Comara Gallery one day, ZanFagna entered on a whim and invited the owner to have a look at some of his artwork, which happened to be in the car. On the spot he was invited to join the gallery.

His collectors and admirers included entertainers Carol Channing, Vincent Price, Jane Wyatt, Edward G. Robinson, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, Joyce ZanFagna said. He began to make some money.

But the commercial art world did nothing to attract him, and soon he was theorizing on paper with no serious intention of selling his works.

Notebooks of ideas filled up one after another. ZanFagna became increasingly concerned about environmental degradation and soon was researching ancient structures such as Stonehenge, Mesopotamian ziggurats, Carnac stones, insect colonies, natural shelters such as caves and earth mounds.

His interests in mythology, human behavior, design and science converged in his art. He started the Pulse Dome series, and then the Cyborg series. He pursued many projects, some simultaneously. He was searching, questioning.

At the start of the 1970s, ZanFagna’s father fell ill, and the family 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.

Meanwhile, the Pulse Domes piled up. ZanFagna was interested in discovering ways to build sustainable living environments that leveraged nature without exploiting it. Membranes could be grown from brain coral or clam shell enzymes. Power could be derived from trees. This was heady stuff, much of it theoretical, much of it artistic. And it was all informed by a refined aesthetic sensibility, a penchant for sublime beauty.

In 1989, the ZanFagnas lost Robert to Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blow that shook them to the core and reprioritized their lives. Nephew Everett White, with whom they had always been close, became like a son.

Two years later, Don and Joyce ZanFagna left the Northeast for Marietta, Ga., to be near Everett and Joyce’s family. They remained there for 15 years. Don ZanFagna continued his visual experiments, turning from Pulse Domes and Cyborgs to a series called “Waiting for Memory,” which explored dreams, myth and death.

By 2009, the ZanFagnas had relocated to the Lowcountry. In recent years, Everett has spent hours talking to his uncle about all these years of making art, only to discover amazing things, Joanna said. Don ZanFagna never was one to boast, and the work he created — the sketches and collages in those hundreds of notebooks — often disappeared from view.

Now a foundation has been created, a few works sold, and the family, with help from Allison Williamson, is working hard to introduce Don ZanFagna to new audiences.

Mark Sloan of the Halsey Institute said the Pulse Dome series in particular captured his imagination.

“When I first saw this work I was gob smacked,” he said. “I was like, this is it.”

This is environmentalism fueled by concern mixed with fantasy; this is nothing like what we think of as “green building,” Sloan said. ZanFagna isn’t interested in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, recycling and conservation. “That’s just making a bad idea slightly less bad.” It’s better to start over.

“In a way, he is looking for a wholesale overhaul of the architectural enterprise itself,” Sloan said.

And not only that.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at writer.