Romas Viesulas: A Life of Art, Education, Self-Determination

This winter, Philadelphia and its Lithuanian community are marking the centenary of Romas Viesulas, a visionary Lithuanian-American artist who taught printmaking at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art for more than 25 years.

Born in Lithuania in 1918, Viesulas was forced to leave his homeland because of Soviet occupation following the Second World War. After studying art in Germany on a scholarship for displaced persons from Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts, he decided to emigrate to the United States in the 1950s. He settled in Philadelphia and built a brilliant career in his new homeland as an artist and as a teacher – receiving three Guggenheim Fellowships and representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1970. The experience of displacement continued to inform his artistic output.

His work frequently empathized with the marginalized and overlooked. For example, he dedicated his 1960 piece, Toro Desconcido, to "all who give their lives in obscurity" and created his final cycle, R30 Useless Things, "in tribute to the useless, the forgotten and the lost." He felt that experiences of loss and injustice went beyond all national, ethnic and political differences, and sought to make art that also transcended these divisions.

In his teaching, Viesulas encouraged his students at the Tyler School of Art to look at America’s diversity as something to be celebrated, something that made American culture unique. He valued their individual experiences and outlooks. In 1973, he wrote that he wanted their “young creative minds” to “grow like plants” and not to be overshadowed by their teacher’s personality.  He wanted to recognize and support young talents, no matter who they were or where they came from.

A series of events across Philadelphia are looking at Viesulas’ legacy over the coming months. On November 14, 2018, the Tyler School of Art will use his art as a starting point for a panel discussion on the impact of immigration on arts and culture in the U.S.

Brandywine Workshop and Archives’ Printed Image Gallery is also hosting a survey of some of Viesulas’ most innovative pieces. Open now and running until December 29, the exhibition celebrates Viesulas’ creative talent, sensitivity to the disadvantaged, and experimental approaches to printmaking.

100 years since Viesulas’ birth, the mindset he demonstrated is more relevant than ever. War, violence, and poverty have seen more people displaced than at any other time since the Second World War. Even in economically developed and politically stable countries, social inequality and polarization continue to grow. Now is an ideal time to explore what we can learn from Viesulas’ empathy and inclusivity in his art and teaching.


Article written by Alice Krainock on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association. All images sourced from