SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Ionel Talpazan thought he saw a UFO when he was a boy and never stopped seeing them. Of course, he created them. Ionel Talpazan was 60 years old when he died this week of diabetes and stroke. He was a boy in a small village in Romania, given up by his parents and raised by a succession of foster parents. He told interviewers he escaped into the woods one night because he thought he would be beaten. He saw a blue, beating light in the sky above and was sure it was a spacecraft. Ionel began to draw spacecraft. I'm not sure you can call them UFOs when an artist gives them such a vivid, colorful identity.
It's hard not to think that a lost, frightened little boy in the woods would dream and draw pictures of amazing machines to swoop down from the heavens and take him away. But Ionel Talpazan had to make his own escape. As a young adult, he swam across the Danube River and into Yugoslavia, where he lived in a refugee camp before he could get to New York in the 1980s. He had rough times in his new world, too. But Ionel continued to draw pictures of spacecraft he imagined, often thrown open to reveal innards as elaborate as schematics, but rarely people. He slept in a cardboard box near Columbus Circle and sold drawings, paintings and small flying saucers he made out of plaster and scavenged parts.
I don't know where life would have led Ionel Talpazan if he'd slept on a cardboard box on a corner of, say, Akron or Peoria. But in New York, a famous art figure named Henry Tobler saw an artist in his drawings and wrote about him in scholarly journals. His pictures were included in Manhattan art galleries, and from the 1990s on, Ionel made his way in the world by his art. By the time he died, his works had hung at the American Visionary Art Museum and museums in San Francisco, London, Berlin, Madrid and France. Talpazans were sold in fancy galleries from SoHo to Chelsea. The man who'd slept in a box moved to a New York apartment.
My art shows spiritual technology, something beautiful and beyond human imagination that comes from another galaxy, he once told the Western Folklore journal. So in a relative way, this is like the God. Ionel Talpazan imagined incredible things and made them alive in the eyes of others. In a way, he did escape on his UFO.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE SEEN THE SAUCERS")
ELTON JOHN: (Singing) I wouldn't fool you, but I - I've seen the saucers so many times, I'm almost...
SIMON: Elton John. You're listening to NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.