Dorel Zaica uses his artistic talent to inspire young minds with the gift of learning

Professor of Imagination

/ March 6, 2017
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Every ten minutes, the screeching sound of the cable car rings through the open window of Dorel Zaica’s workshop. Undisturbed and gesticulating grandly, the Professor recounts the details of his life’s passion.

“We have no idea how to educate our children. We completely underestimate them. Ever since I began applying this exercise in the classroom, the students have surpassed all the expectations for their grade level. It’s unreal! I have learned right alongside them. Soon, I’ll be celebrating half a century of practicing this form of mental gymnastics.”

Dorel Zaica turned 77 this year. Considered the father of creative learning in Romania, Zaica has been stimulating the imagination of children since the 1970’s.

He has published a number of books: The Zaica Experiment, Involuntarily Chronic: Confessions at the Childhood Age and The Childhood of Poetry.

“For many years Dorel Zaica has been the most prominent and original figure of artistic pedagogy in Romania. Specializing in the education of elementary aged children, he seeks to stimulate the creativity of students by appealing to their ludic instinct, as well as to their innocent courage and the freshness of their life experience,” writes Andrei Pleșu in the preface of the book The Zaica Experiment, published in 2001.

At Dorel Zaica’s workshop, I found a man who has never stopped playing or feeling joy. A man who allows himself to imagine a better world.

Remarkably energetic, the professor greeted us at the lobby of a neglected building and led us to a tiny forged iron elevator. On the fifth floor, he opens the door to a crowded apartment and jumps right into his stories.

“I became an art teacher against my will. I started teaching in the neighborhood school against my will. And, also against my will, I discovered these exercises in creativity.”

“When I was little, I passed the time by pretending my fingers were playmates. I drew a face on one finger. On another finger, I’d draw feathers around my nails. I’d draw fat people, skinny people, all kinds of fun characters.“

Then, it crossed my mind to invent a little story and my classmates keeled over with laughter. Soon after, I had an audience in the schoolyard. With extraordinary ease, I invented story after new story.”

The finger puppet show, improvised by Dorel Zaica, wasn’t only a game for children in 1940’s Bucharest. It was a refuge in the face of a harsh reality that was hostile to innocence.

“My childhood was sad; the poverty was sinister. A bomb was dropped right on our own home. Almost everyone outside in our yard died, except for myself. My mother was inside. She escaped with her life, sandwiched in a pile of debris from the fallen ceiling.”

What is time?

A beautiful horse that is spinning the earth. (Adrian, 5 years old)

What are weeds?

Weeds are plants that are useful only for themselves (Daniel, 12 years old).

What is betrayal?

Betrayal means a dead friendship (Adrian, 11 years old).

What is a home?

A home is where man shelters his life from natural phenomena.

Excerpt from The Zaica Experiment (questions and answers prior to 1989)

After the war, the Zaica family was moved to the Bucharestii Noi neighborhood. Dorel, entering the 6th grade, used his creativity to make new friends.

“My need to continuously improvise pushed me to make new friends in Bucureștii Noi with my puppet theater. It was hard since I had to start from scratch, using very simple movements so that they could get accustomed to my representations.”

What does being patriotic mean?

Patriotic means when the boss calls his employees to work. (Jeanina, 8)

What is thirst?

Thirst is when you see some cola while you’re out and you want to get some but mom doesn’t get it for you because then there won’t be money left for food. (Alexandru, 7)

What is a job?

A job is when a person signs a registry book or stays to have a coffee. (Florin, 7)

What is happiness?

Happiness is when a person is standing in line and tells the other person that the store is empty but then suddenly they see that there’s something there. (Niculina, 7)

What is a newspaper?

The newspaper is for us to know our comrade Ceaușescu’s whereabouts.

What are germs?

Germs are little bugs that are tiny and hidden around the same corner store. When they see that you’ve bought potatoes, they jump onto the potatoes and if you don’t wash them, you’ll die. (Dan Zaica, 7)

Excerpt from The Zaica Experiment (questions and answers prior to 1989)

Dorel Zaica’s parents didn’t care about an artistic future.

“My father put me in Saint Sava High School. It was ridiculous. The discrepancy between myself and the other students was so great that I didn’t understand anything. I drew non-stop to spite my father.

The teachers failed me at a surprising speed. I still didn’t do my work in the second year. I just kept drawing. After another trimester, to my good fortune, they kicked me out.”

Eventually, his father relented and enrolled him as a part-time student at the Visual Arts High School.

“I remember a math class with a Jewish teacher who was in love with symphonic music. This Jewish man taught math so beautifully that I never failed again. He showed me that mathematics is sublime, a blend, like architecture, with artistic and technical elements alike.”

Dorel likes to tell the story of how his lifelong friend, Ștefan Sileanu, made it to the Visual Arts High School. Two artists were painting a church in the village of Pătârlagele, near Buzău, when they discovered the boy who was destined to play the role of Vlad Țepes in the 1980’s film.

“While they were painting at the entrance of the church, a little shepherd boy stood watching them. I don’t know what he saw from the outside, but something lured him over. Afana (one of the painters) didn’t need too many hints. He went over to the boy and spoke to him warmly — in his usual manner: Tell me little boy, do you like what you see? Do you want to paint as well?” recounts Dorel Zaica in his book.

They were dumbfounded, when they saw how well the child drew, how could a little shepherd boy from a poor village school be so cultured?

“When they brought electricity to the villages, the communists put megaphones everywhere. You could even hear the propaganda in the field. So Sileanu would listen to radio programs while he was tending his sheep. Besides announcing the daily news, the radio also aired cultural and theatrical performances. Sileanu remembered everything, information stuck to him like a magnet.”

The painters were able to persuade Stefan’s parents to register him in the Visual Arts High School. Dorel Zaica and Ștefan Sileanu were inseparable in high school and went on to study together in the Faculty for Visual Arts at the local university.

In their second year, a scenography student asked Sileanu to take a role in a theatrical performance for the school, which greatly impressed his professors. They convinced him to transfer to the National University of Theatrical Art and Cinematography (UNATC), previously known as IATC Theatre and Film Art Institute.

The life of Dorel Zaica, on the other hand, seemed to take a 180-degree turn after completing his art studies. Although he dreamed of becoming a painter, the communist regime made him become a drawing teacher. It seemed as if anonymity, not fame, was his destiny.

In 1965, I was assigned to a school with many poor, needy children in the Dudești neighborhood on the south side of Bucharest. It was clear that the school had no money for drawing blocks or colored pencils. I had two brothers in my class that shared one pair of shoes. So I asked them: “If we were to occupy ourselves with intriguing and amusing activities, would you be interested?”

“Yes, of course, but we don’t know how to do anything like that.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.”

Dorel Zaica recounts how he first became aware of his students’ artistic potential while wearing a Santa Claus costume at a Christmas party.

When I saw their little eyes fixed on me, their emotions moved me in a strong way. A mother tried to fix her child’s collar but he wouldn’t let her because he was transfixed on my every move.

I kept asking them trivial questions. What are your names, how old are you, where do you live. A little girl responded by saying:

“ I live in the puddle, beside the elevator”.

Her answer penetrated me. God, she wasn’t joking!

That neighborhood was like a military camp. Building after building after building. It had become Romania’s biggest city with 600,000 dwellers, without any sort of urban plan. It never occurred to them to build a store or cinema. The kids would play in the alley in front of their buildings.”

After that Christmas celebration, the young teacher Dorel Zaica started asking more questions. The responses impressed him so much that he started to write them down.

He learned there is no such thing as a wrong answer, just a badly formulated question.

I perfected my ability to ask questions, slowly but surely. I became a writer. I developed the capacity to ask questions in rhymes. Children are very receptive to question styles and respond in the same way.

“Why does blood run through our bodies? Can’t it do its work while standing still?

“Blood doesn’t stand still, because it constantly goes to work.”

Dorel Zaica tells us that he was a lenient teacher. He came to the conclusion that it was the only way he could help his students relax and allow their imagination to run free.

He learned this through his own mistakes and those of others.

“I taught drawing lessons while their primary teacher was in the classroom. Once, I asked one of the children a question and heard a deadening noise behind me.

Their teacher had jumped out from the back of the classroom and smacked the child on the head. The child became paralyzed and his eyes glazed over as if he had gone mad. The woman was yelling in his ear that he had forgotten yesterday’s lesson about spring: how the sun starts to smile, snowdrops appear as the snow melts and birds begin to travel. She was pouring onto him all these clichés.

For my entire life, I’ve regretted that I didn’t intervene.”

As a result, Zaica was determined to never burden a child with someone else’s template and to transform his classes into an environment in which everything became possible.

I taught them to value other people’s opinions, not to laugh or judge. I told them,“This isn’t a lesson I expect you to learn by heart. We are playing a game here. This is a serious game. Don’t you see that we’re constantly progressing in the ideas you are coming up with and performances you are giving?”

In 1979, Zaica was invited to the Institute of Pedagogy where researchers asked him to be part of a scientific study.

There had been a demand from UNESCO to create a method for applied creativity. The people from the ministry had no idea what that was. They told me that I was the only person in Romania who practiced applied creativity.

Zaica discovered that empathy is a good means for stimulating creativity. The greater the emotional build-up, the more spectacular the results.

One time I told them:

“ Yesterday it snowed, did you build a snowman?”

“Yes!! “

“But did you ever think that after the joy of daytime, your snowman is alone and abandoned in the night?”

Suddenly, all of their expressions became very serious and their minds jumped to life. I took the thought further.

“How can we surprise the snowman when you play with him tomorrow?”

The first response came from a little girl who drew herself standing on her tiptoes as she reached to put a heart on the snowman’s chest. I asked her:

”Why did you give him a heart? “

“Now, he can come with me to school.”

Then a classmate asked

“How can the snowman go to school with you if he doesn’t have legs?”

As the classmate drew, you could see everything that went on in his mind. First he drew a snowman with legs standing next to a road. Then drew himself in a sled racing down the road toward the snowman. Eventually, he crashed into the snowman, making a hole in the snowman’s torso and leaving him bow-legged.

Zaica remembers how he made use of humor to win a contest organized by CEC Bank. The theme was fairy-tale characters with bank accounts.

It was the biggest competition in Romania, with real prizes. I got the kids going by posting large images from three black and white movies on the school board. I asked them to write all the characters they knew on a piece of paper and a joke from each of the characters.

That’s all it took. The speed at which they worked was awe-inspiring and the results were incredible. And the jokes were hilarious.

The minister, CEC BANK and the Union of Visual Artists, gave out the award. We won a free summer camp that year for the all the children in our group.

After a life spent dedicated to the creativity of others, Dorel Zaica feels that he has finally found the freedom for his own talent.

“I have begun to reach my artistic potential in the last few years. During Communism art was used exclusively for propaganda and I never wanted to compromise. So I used my artistic talent for the best purpose I could find – to inspire young minds with the gift of learning.”

What is a secret?

A secret is when the militia can’t find out. (6-year-old child)

A secret is a man who they call the secretary of the party. (6-year-old child)

What is a ministry?

A ministry means you go there to take revenge. (Constantin Păun, 9)

The ministry is big, kind of like a type of police, but at the top, it says Ministry (Victoria, 7)

A minister means when someone writes something then goes to another person and that person sends him to another person. (Aurelia, 8)

What does it mean to be eternal?

Eternal is when there are two thieves and shots are fired, one dies and the other stays standing, eternal. (Victorița, 7)