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Buffalo teacher who gave students sanctuary finally displays his own art

Victor Shanchuk was one of those high school teachers whose classroom was a sanctuary from the daily grind of teenage life.

The art teacher pushed, encouraged and inspired a good number of students who went on to pursue their own careers in the arts.

That’s what makes Shanchuk’s exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Art Center so special. The exhibit, “Chemical Light,” a display of Shanchuk’s experimental photography, was curated by John Opera, one of his former students at City Honors School.

Opera, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, wanted to recognize Shanchuk’s contributions as an artist, but in many ways, the exhibit pays tribute to Shanchuk – the teacher.

“In essence, I think that’s the way he feels about it,” said Shanchuk, 78. “It’s not that he says, ‘I owe you.’ It’s more like, ‘I really want to do something for you – for what you did for me.’ ”

The exhibit continues through July 28.

Shanchuk graduated from the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan and came to Western New York for his formal art training at the State University College for Teachers at Buffalo – now known as SUNY Buffalo State. He would spend 36 years as a teacher for Buffalo Public Schools.

The early years of his career were at Bennett High School, where he helped put together an incubator program that would become City Honors.

For 20 years, Shanchuk taught studio art to students at the East North Street school.

“I wanted them to see life differently,” Shanchuk said. “That’s what I was trying to achieve – make them think differently, apply their life differently.”

All of Victor Shanchuk's pieces are untitled. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

He always referred to his art room as a sanctuary, a place with an open-door policy, where classical music often played in the background and where the topic of art led to broader discussions on life. Above one of his chalkboards was a hand-painted sign bearing his mantra: “Life is art and art is life.”

“His art room was a destination where we all went just to feel better about ourselves, especially as a teen struggling with who you are or who you want to be,” said Renata Toney, one of Shanchuk’s former students who works in public relations at Burchfield Penney.

“It was such a creative environment," Toney said. "It was warm. It was cozy. You just walked into color – and you felt it.”

And Shanchuk had a remarkable ability to nurture and encourage his students regardless the project, Opera said, but the Army veteran was also structured and disciplined.

“If you were good, he was pretty demanding,” Opera recalled. “He really pushed students who had the ability to be pushed.”

All the while, Shanchuk was learning alongside them.

“Victor is an artist himself, and that’s the key difference in teaching a lot of times in high school or elementary,” Opera said. “There are good art teachers, but Victor always gave off that impression he was out there doing it.”

Shanchuk, who taught part-time at D'Youville College and Buffalo State, retired from City Honors in 1997. A number of his students would go on to their own careers as artists. One became a film theorist, another a documentary photographer, another teaches art history.

Opera, a 1993 graduate of City Honors, went on to make a name for himself as a photographer whose work has been displayed in galleries throughout the United States. Opera kept in touch with his mentor over the years.

"Untitled" by Victor Shanchuk. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

About five or six years ago, Opera and Scott Propeack, Burchfield Penney’s chief curator, talked about how Shanchuk’s experimental photography had been seen in bits and pieces, but never received the attention it deserved.

Opera explained:

Shanchuk cuts, stretches and twists small fragments of clear plastic – plastic bags, plastic packaging – then uses needles or tweezers to meticulously arrange tiny compositions.

The plastic is then carefully sandwiched between two layers of polarizing film and sealed in 35 mm slide mounts. The result is a photo with abstract form and a color that Opera compares to the appearance of stained glass.

“It’s photography that is difficult to determine exactly what the subject is,” Opera said. “The subject is lights and color and how it’s achieved through very innovative and experimental materials and how these materials interact with lights. It’s abstract. They aren’t pictures of anything. They’re pictures of plastic.”

“I think it’s an incredibly innovative approach to photography, and I really don’t know anyone else who has done what Victor did,” Opera said. “It’s kind of amazing this high school teacher in Buffalo, N.Y., has made this underrecognized, but pretty significant contribution to experimental photography.”

On a recent morning, Shanchuk and his wife, Deborah, were at the exhibit and provided a personal description of his art for a handful of connoisseurs.

“People like to find things in the images,” said Shanchuk, as he stared at one of his pieces on the wall.

“I look at them more from the spiritual point of view – taking you to a different place,” Shanchuk said. “It’s like a window, like an icon, that you can lose yourself in.”

While there, a woman approached Shanchuk to say hello and give him a kiss.

She was a former student.

“It happens all of the time,” said his wife, Deborah.

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