IONEL TALPAZAN was almost sixty when he became an American citizen and changed his name to Adrian da Vinci. This optional self-creation while ceremonially assuming a new national identity has few parallels in the nonimmigrant experience, except in religious practices. To name is to order, to gather. To be named is to belong; the power rests with the namer. Talpazan had many names; born Ionel Pârvu in Romania, he assumed the name of one of his foster parents. At the end of his life—a life that included serial abandonment and physical abuse, state oppression, a March night swim across the Danube in 1987 (during which he nearly drowned), several months in a UN refugee camp in Belgrade, a hand-to-mouth existence in New York, and the creation of over one thousand works depicting annotated blueprints, diagrams, and models of UFOs—Talpazan named himself Adrian (after the man who sponsored his emigration from Europe) and da Vinci (presumably, after that other artist obsessed with flying machines).
Even the received category of Talpazan’s art underscores the power of naming: “outsider art,” in its inclusive efforts, cannot help but preserve the boundaries it seeks to dissolve. But perhaps the catalogue for “Alternative Guide to the Universe,” a 2013 exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery in which Talpazan’s work appeared, gives a better sense of the term’s spirit. That show celebrated “self-taught artists and architects, fringe physicists and visionary inventors . . . a kind of parallel universe where ingenuity and inventiveness trump common sense and received wisdom.” Self-taught (but aware of Leonardo, at the very least), fringe (where many a trained artist resides), and visionary (as trained artists may also be), this outsider artist was as complicated as his unsolicited category. That Talpazan, once in New York, chose to sell his bright cross-sectional paintings and sculptures of UFOs on the street in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (how he was discovered) shows nothing but common sense. Meanwhile, the formal elegance, technical detail, and totemic power of his works may represent “received wisdom” at its most literal.
Talpazan’s report of the UFO encounter that launched his art is already mythologized but worth recounting. After a terrible beating from his foster mother at the age of eight, he ran away and huddled overnight in a ditch, from where, following a downpour, he watched an immense blue light appear and hover overhead. “The light was a beautiful color and moved in circles,” he told the scholar Daniel Wojcik. “There was no noise.” Without any context for the experience, he began to draw flying saucers.
“The problem of the UFOs,” Carl Jung wrote in a letter in 1957, is not whether they definitely exist, but that “the psychological aspect is so impressive . . . one almost must regret that [they] seem to be real after all.” Jung emphasized the prevalence of reported UFO sightings in the 1950s and ’60s in the context of modernity’s diminished access to the unconscious. In the 2003 book UFO Religions, Robert A. Segal further extrapolates, “Psychologically, UFOs represent an attempt by one domain to establish contact with another—not, however, an attempt by some civilization in outer space to visit earth but an attempt by one part of the mind to visit another.” There’s hardly a more concise description of the fragmented ego using the imagination’s technology in an attempt to integrate, heal, and salvage itself, or its selves.
Leonardo himself bears witness to the long history shared by trauma, art and invention. In a passage made famous by Freud, he recounts, “When I was in the cradle . . . a kite came to me and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips,” citing the memory as the source of his preoccupation with flight. Leonardo’s encounter with the bird was traumatic, terrifying; given the brutality of the event preceding Talpazan’s encounter, his experience was salvific. Significantly in both cases, the psychological impact was one that ordered the artists’ creative impulses. Taking the combined names of the man who came to his aid and another who shared in the spirit of his vision was just one more way in which Talpazan exercised the artist’s penchant for self-creation.
Oana Sanziana Marian is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut.