Story and Photos by Alice Gerard
Senior Contributing Writer
Lenore Tetkowski said that her love of art started when she was very young.
“As long as I can remember, I liked to draw,” she said. “I was a child of the Depression. We didn’t have anything like toys. What I had was a hand-me-down child’s rolltop desk that had belonged to my sister and brother. I had a pencil and a notebook with a blue watercolor box with a lousy paintbrush that didn’t produce much color. I discovered paper dolls in the Sunday newspaper. I made outfits with little tabs.
“I lived in Newark, New Jersey. It was all cemented. There were no kids my age in my neighborhood. It encouraged artwork and doing things alone that I liked to do. When I was a teenager, I asked my mother to teach me to knit. Mama knitted left-handed. I could not work that way. When I was 16 or 17, after I graduated from high school, I had a Saturday job. I saved my money and went to Bamberger’s Department Store. They provided free instruction with a yarn purchase. My first project was a beige, button-down, short-sleeved little sweater.”
As a high school student, Tetkowski loved two subjects: mathematics and art. She was one of only two girls on her high school math team. She said she considered becoming a math teacher.
“If I were in high school making that decision now, I would consider becoming an engineer,” Tetkowski noted.
“One day, I had an important session with my Uncle Meyer in his Packard. I asked him, what should I major in: math education or art education? He said that my math ability is very good but added, ‘Your art ability is more unique.’ He urged me to major in art education. So, I majored in art, and that’s where I met my future husband.
“I married Clem in 1944 during the war. I met him in 1940, when he was a junior and I was a freshman. A year before I met Clem, he hitchhiked all over the United States and in Mexico, where he met Diego Rivera. He had wanderlust. We began to be friends. I wanted to go to Mexico to see the artwork, the textiles, the ceramics, and the jewelry. We married on the weekend that I graduated. It was considered to be a rebellious act because of our different religious backgrounds. After the war, we both worked as art teachers. I ordered three things for our home: a Singer sewing machine, a Studebaker, and a refrigerator.
“We had to wait to get these things until the factories shifted from war production to civilian production. We saved up the cash to pay for the car. We drove to Mexico. We had put a bed in the car. We got a gas stove, and I made curtains. We lived in the car all summer. We found trailer courts to accept us in Mexico. We were able to use the shower facilities there.”
A few years later, Clem got a job at Buffalo State College, in the art education department.
“He had heard about an older professor who led graduate students to Mexico to study Mexican history. Clem wanted to go with him to teach art,” Tetkowski said. “Clem and Dr. Peterson did the program together once. After that, Clem offered a six-week art education program for graduate students during the summer. I went to Mexico, along with the children. We got to love Mexico dearly.
“After that, we took a group of undergraduates to learn about the Renaissance in Italy. They were able to see and learn the culture and the language.”
In September of 1961, the Siena semester, the oldest study abroad program at the SUNY College at Buffalo, was established. Tetkowski said she prepared by listening to records and studying Italian: “It changed our lives. I fell in love with everything about Italy: the people, the language, the culture, and the air.”
“The first 20 students in the program raved about it, as did the second 20,” she said. “By the third year, we were asked to return with another teacher, who would teach something other than art (education). It became an annual program. The children were eager to go back to Italy. We still have those Italian friends. By 1974, Diane was married, Neil was in school in Alfred State, and Mira was a first-year teacher.”
Back on Grand Island, Tetkowski worked as an art teacher in Grand Island High School, where she developed an extensive craft program, including ceramics, jewelry and fiber art. She also led an art club, where she encouraged students to create artwork outside of class.
When the college asked the Tetkowskis to return to Italy, she applied for a sabbatical from her high school teaching job, but she was denied.
“We still went to Italy,” she said. “My golden time was from 1974 until 1976. We had a little Fiat. We spoke the language. I drew and painted. I met weavers. I had a great and enriching time in my development as an artist. We visited museums and galleries.
“A big part of our family has been the Italian connection. We went many times, sometimes for a month, sometimes for a couple of weeks. In 1985, I retired. Clem had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Clem said, ‘Let’s go to Italy.’ We went in October, and we came home for Thanksgiving.”
Clem Tetkowski died in 1991.
Lenore Tetkowski’s most recent visit to Siena, Italy, was in the summer of 2015.
In 2019, she produced a work titled “Mount Diversity,” which was displayed in a Weavers Guild of Buffalo display in Fox Run, Orchard Park. It won the People’s Choice award, as well as an award for best wall hung fiber art and the award for best handwoven clothing and yardage. She said, “It (‘Mount Diversity’) really began with a challenge from the Weavers Guild of Buffalo. The challenge was to create a weaving that was inspired by a national park. That really got me thinking. How can I do something like that? Almost right away, this came to me, to do a parody of Mount Rushmore.”
Early in 2020, Tetkowski entered “Mount Diversity” into the “20/20 Vision: Women Artists in Western New York” exhibit, along with nearly 200 other women artists from Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties, at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University. The show was scheduled to run from Feb. 20 to Aug. 16, 2020.
“And as soon as it opened there, COVID hit. I just made it before COVID,” Tetkowski said.
In 2021, she said she read about the application to enter the show at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.
“I had always known about it, but I never felt that I had something good enough or important enough to enter it,” Tetkowski said. “It’s a juried exhibit. It’s very hard to get into, and it’s held every two years at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center. It makes me feel very proud and humble, because of some of the other work there that’s spectacular.”
In 2022, Tetkowski donated the wall hanging to the Burchfield-Penny Art Center in memory of Sylvia L. Rosen.
Currently on display at the Unity Church of Buffalo is “Lenore and More,” a retrospective of Tetkowski’s work, along with the weavings of some other Weavers Guild members.
•Read part I of this story: