Honors | Zigmunds Priede: From Refugee to Master Printer

The Veteran Kansas City Artist and Educator Shared His Memories and Uplifting World View in a Recent Exhibition at the Kansas City Artists Coalition

For one of the final shows in its River Market space before relocating in Tower East, the Kansas City Artists Coalition chose to honor distinguished artist and educator Zigmunds Priede. Priede, a master printer who honed his craft at Universal Limited Art Editions in New York, where he worked alongside high-profile artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Helen Frankenthaler, was also a major presence in the art department at Johnson County Community College, where he taught for more than 20 years before retiring in 2013.

Priede’s work is in the collections of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and others.

He holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Minnesota and a master’s from the University of California, Berkeley. Following his stint at ULAE, Priede held teaching posts in Minnesota and Virginia before making his way to JCCC in 1983.

Part memoir and part philosophical manifesto, his exhibit, “Signifiers of Memory,” was a consummation of his personal and professional adventures, showcasing both his impeccable visual instinct and his ability to distill the emotional energy of an experience into something coherent.

The show’s mixed-media pieces encompass inputs and processes going back decades. Priede likes to describe them as “aggregate time works,” representing moments and techniques from his own life that remain open to interpretation. In building these images, he emphasizes, “it’s about the visuals and color. The story is secondary. It could be mine or somebody else’s.”

But while the works’ emotional impact is universal, their catalysts clearly have a place in Priede’s childhood.

Like many aspiring artists, Priede made his first foray into creative expression using whatever medium was close at hand. At the age of 4 or 5, “I got hold of my mother’s lipstick and drew on the walls,” he recounted. “It was such a fun time.”

Several pieces shown in “Signifiers of Memory” center around his youth in Latvia, depicting images of animals, a boy playing a flute, and Easter iconography. “That is my childhood,” he says, “That is what I remember.”

Priede’s memories hold great value for him, like morsels of magical fruit that buoyed his spirits against whatever evil the universe had devised. And growing up in Latvia during World War II, Priede was no stranger to humanity’s most sinister and destructive proclivities. The small Baltic nation was in the unenviable position of having been annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, invaded by Nazi Germany in 1941, and retaken again by the Soviets in 1944; the latter occupation would not end until 1991.

As Germany and the Soviet Union fought one another for control of Eastern Europe, they turned the region into a killing field, unleashing massacres, ethnic cleansing, slave labor and deportations against the civilian populations. Like everyone else in Latvia, Priede’s family was forced to choose a side, and in 1945 his father joined the German Army hoping to help expel the Soviets and achieve independence for the country after the war. Meanwhile, Priede explained, “I, my mom and my 2-year-old sister left everything we had and started walking.”

The trio joined millions of other refugees desperately fleeing the vengeful Red Army and made their way west to catch a ship out of Latvia and then endured a dangerous journey through Poland. Priede recalled “lots of close calls” during his family’s exodus and attributes their safe arrival in the German port city of Lübeck to documents his mother was carrying that attested to her husband’s military service and granted them assistance from the German authorities.

After their arrival, the war in Europe ended, and Priede, his sister and their mother were safely in the Anglo-American zone of occupation. “We were secure,” he said, but “by this time it was clear that Latvia was not going to be free.” With his homeland again under Soviet domination, his family spent six years in an Allied Displaced Persons Camp in West Germany. He remembers there being plenty of food and opportunities for recreation, but his mother’s ultimate ambition was to raise her children in the United States to ensure them a good education.

Priede described how, with the aid of a Lutheran pastor, his mother found a farmer in rural Minnesota willing to sponsor their immigration. The family eventually settled in Minneapolis, where his mother worked in a dress factory while her children attended school. Priede drew illustrations for his high school yearbook and contemplated a career in commercial art. He credits their success in Minneapolis to “lucky connections” and the goodwill of other people. But above all, he remains thankful for his “absolutely fantastic mother. The difficulties she had to deal with . . . she did them and got us to America, and we got our educations.”

These early experiences remain an inextricable component of his work. The tranquility of his childhood-inspired scenes is disturbed by stark visual interruptions like a spinning saw “that represents the war.” Many pieces include symbols intended to honor his mother. In an interview at the exhibit, he singled out a handsome portrait of four finches that was based on a drawing in the “Kansas City Star” from many years ago. “It reminded me of my family,” he explained. “My father, mother, my sister and me.”

While Priede does not shy from the impact his family’s adversity has had on his work, neither does he belabor it. “What I do here is make reference to certain negative situations, but you can’t dwell on them,” he said. A genesis of tragedy, tenacity and whimsy, Priede’s unique creative dialect speaks to the artist’s belief in the importance of human connections and empathy.

“Signifiers of Memory” gave people a glimpse at the peaceful equilibrium that he has achieved between himself and the world.

“Life is too short to dwell on difficult things. You’ve got to take advantage of the time you’ve got and do the best you can with the time you have left.”

Few living artists have put this mantra into practice as genuinely and passionately as Zigmunds Priede.

Matthew Thompson

Matthew Thompson is an educator, historian, and writer who has lived in Kansas since 2005. His research interests include Progressivism and the Socialist Party of America, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. He enjoys studying visual arts to help make the world and its history accessible and exciting to others.

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