August 16, 2006
From Land to Sea: Life with Stephen Zaluski
Stephen Zaluski has always loved the ocean and seashore, but it wasn't until five years ago that this 53-year-old veteran landscaper found himself walking along the beach collecting driftwood, shells, dried crabs, dead dragon flies, bottles and rocks.
He started making sea montages from everything he found at the beach. Through trial and error, and much needed advice from his mother-in-law, Cutchogue artist Jacqueline Penney, he began making "driftwood art."
Within two years, Zaluski figured out how to paint beach sand onto a wooden panel and upon that, glue a swirl of shells, rocks, driftwood and small bottles, creating an original piece of hangable artwork. In the beginning, a signature bottle was glued to each piece containing a hand written note from the artist.
In 2003, Zaluski's unique work caught the eye of The New York Times after being displayed at an East End Arts Council members' show, "Yesterday's Memories," in Riverhead. He continues to show in galleries around Long Island.
Zaluski, a Southampton native residing in Mattituck, began working at age 14 for his uncle who owned Baywoods Landscaping in Water Mill.
"My art appears in my landscaping as it did when I was a kid," he said.
Now, 27 years later, he owns his own business and spends most of his time landscaping with his employees, dedicating just the early morning hours of each day to fashioning sea-inspired art.
"I walk along the beach in the break of dawn and whatever I find I take to the shop," he said. "Before the men come in I spend time working on my boards. I begin by just placing them on the board, until it's just right for my eye. And after a couple of days of looking at them I then glue everything down."
While he said he had a difficult childhood, he carries no regrets. When Zaluski was three years old, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The doctors removed his thyroid and lymphnodes, only to have it return as lung cancer when he turned 12. He underwent radiation treatments and spent a lot of time back and forth from the hospital.
"At 19, my doctor said it was a miracle that I was cured for I wasn't supposed to survive. I missed the seventh grade and all my friends. When I was a teenager I remember people saying, 'You're still here?' So the thought was always out there . . . it never bothered me though. I never saw it as a handicap. I just forged ahead. It made me who I am today," he said.
The time spent at the beach has always been a peaceful one for Zaluski, and landscaping provides him with the outlet to create and be with nature — although it is the weather and Mother Nature he finds foe to his outdoor art, as it kills the plants and shrubs he manicures and destroys his creations in minutes. With his sea montage art, at least he can preserve what the outdoor elements destroy by bringing nature inside and freezing a moment in time by adhering his finds to a wood board.
"I have no expectations with my driftwood art . . . I just enjoy making it and get totally lost in them. When I start one I love it and can't stop . . . I feel compelled to finish it. At times it almost brings me back to the beach. As a kid, I loved collecting shells. Sometimes it transports me back to my childhood. But the end product that makes people happy is the best part," Zaluski said.
He has instilled in his two sons the drive to do only what they love as well. "I can see how precious their lives are and I'm not going to stop them from their dreams . . . it's important they live their dreams," he said.
He has also passed on the gift he learned while skydiving. "While skydiving you're so scared you pass through the fear factor. As with life, you have to get past your fears and just do it. Even with death and dying. When you see a friend die it's a lesson for us, not for them. And it teaches us to treat our friends and loved ones with love and compassion," he said.
Besides skydiving and spending time with his kids, Zaluski is passionate about scuba diving and being on the water with his wife. "I've always loved catching food in the water," he said. "People set out to work and make money to enjoy themselves but end up forgetting what they started out to do . . . which is to have fun and live life."
Stephen Zaluski is available for custom-made pieces in unlimited sizes. His work is on display at his Water Mill shop at 820 B Deerfield Road or at the Jacqueline Penney Gallery in Cutchogue on North Street.