Retired State High art teacher Robert Placky gives voice to Mother Nature
Robert Placky was introduced to the world of art in his early teen years. Frequent visits to art galleries in New York’s Greenwich Village with his Aunt Irene opened the door to the idea of creating. Describing himself as a “closet artist” in the beginning, he didn’t fully embrace his interest until later in life.
Placky’s grandparents migrated from Slovakia to New York and his parents later moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Placky is a first-generation college graduate. He earned a degree in art education from Penn State and went on to teach art at State College Area High School for more than 40 years.
“I always approached teaching as if I’m making a work of art,” he says.
Placky focused on helping his students produce more than just pieces of art. For Placky, making a great work of art meant creating a good story and changing the context of the idea around the image.
Over the years, staying connected with his students and catching up with them from time to time has brought him much joy.
Many students taught by Placky have gone on to earn degrees in art, write books, work for companies such as Disney, and even become art teachers themselves. He encouraged students, including Brian Allen, who created Gritty, the mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, to bring their visions to life.
For Placky, it was about being not only a teacher, but a mentor.
Placky remains active in the local arts community. He’s currently the secretary on the Art of Alliance's board of directors and is the exhibition chair.
In August, he will showcase three new works at the Foxdale Village art gallery as a part of the Layers: Collage and Mixed Media show, which runs until August 12.
Additionally, as part of the Tribute exhibition this month at the Art Alliance Gallery Downtown, Placky and other artists will create works to pay tribute to an artist or piece that has inspired them. He will be showcasing a piece based on Arthur Dove’s River Bottom. The opening reception will be a part of First Friday, August 2, from 5 to 8 p.m. The show, open to all mediums, runs until August 25.
Placky considers himself “a mixed media artist,” using acrylic paints with the incorporation of real materials to bring land to life. Among his favorite materials are sand from Ayers Rock in Australia and Forester grass from the Appalachian Trail.
Placky spent a year in Australia studying and teaching art. During that time, he embraced the culture down under, which influenced his artistic style. One of his more notable pieces, Australis Maar, was based on the maar (a crater in a low-relief area often filled with water) surrounding Mount Schank Volcano in Australia.
“The Aboriginal style of mark-making and being an outsider in their own country gave me an insight into ‘making art that has a voice,’” says Placky.
One technique that he fell in love with was based on that of pop artist Jasper Johns, known for his unique collages and mixed-media pieces.
“His use and invention of strange juxtapositions and changing the context of the subject matter allowed [me] to ‘open’ to all the possibilities,” he says.
Placky says there are many artist he pays tribute to through his work, but in a subtle way. A vivid memory that stands out was being able to see Guernica by Pablo Picasso. As a 17-year-old, Placky was blown away by the complexity of the image and the powerful history behind it.
The best part of it all is the process of creating his pieces, applying different techniques and textures while connecting memories from his life on canvas.
“I paint a lot of images that relate to place, but I don’t paint representational images,” he says. “I paint images where you use the material. Like, if a place could talk to you, this is what it would talk to you about.”
For more information on Tribute, visit artallianceofcentralpa.org.