Emeritus professor of art Stephen Poleskie dies at 81

Stephen Poleskie, professor emeritus of art, died Dec. 21, 2019, at the Nina K. Miller Hospicare Center Residence in Ithaca. He was 81.

Poleskie was an internationally known artist and writer who taught screen printing and studio art classes at Cornell for 32 years.

Stephen Poleskie in his Tjaden Hall studio on campus.

Stephen Francis Poleskie Jr. was born June 3, 1938, in Pringle, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Wilkes University in 1959 with a degree in economics. A largely self-taught artist, he had his first solo show of abstract expressionist work in 1958 at the Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

After college, he worked as a commercial artist and as a designer in a print shop, and was an art teacher at Gettysburg High School. He traveled and exhibited his work before establishing a studio on New York City’s Lower East Side in 1962, and enrolling in art classes with figurative painter Raphael Soyer at The New School.

In 1963 Poleskie opened the city’s first fine art screen-printing studio on East 11th Street. The shop became Chiron Press, whose clients included pop artists Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Motherwell.

“Where did I learn how to screen print?” he said in a 2014 interview. “Certainly not in a classroom, but from reading a book, a technical reference manual I got free at my local Sherwin-Williams paint store.”

Poleskie sold Chiron Press in 1968 to devote more time to his art, took a teaching job at Cornell that year and learned to fly after he moved to Ithaca. He had an Air Transport Pilot rating and was active in stunt flying as an aerobatic pilot. He appeared at the Pittsburgh Air Show and won many competitions, including the 1977 Canadian Open Aerobatic Championship.

A skilled pilot, he developed his own art form, Aerial Theater, making designs in the sky in performances often accompanied by musicians, dancers and parachutists. An exhibition at the Louis K. Meisel Gallery in New York in 1978-79 featured his biplane and drawings for various aerial performances. He stopped flying in 1998.

Over an artistic career spanning more than a half-century, Poleskie exhibited around the world. His diverse output included landscapes, figurative and abstract painting, printmaking and photography.

His artwork is in the collections of several museums, including the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Morgan Library in New York City; The National Collection in Washington, D.C.; The Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis; the Milwaukee Art Museum; the Detroit Institute of Art; The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery in London; Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City; and museums in Italy and in Lodz, Poland. The State Museum in Lodz has 55 Poleskie prints in its collection; the Hobart College Art Gallery in Geneva, New York, has 33.

Stephen Poleskie was a prolific writer and artist who taught and exhibited internationally, staged aerial performances and published seven volumes of fiction.

His fiction, nonfiction, art criticism and poetry appeared in more than 50 literary journals in the United States, Mexico, Australia, Germany, Italy, India, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg. Most recently, he wrote a column, “Then & Now,” for Ragazine.

Poleskie was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, and his short fiction is included in the anthologies “Dove Tales,” “Being Human: Call of the Wild,” “From the Finger Lakes” and “The Book of Love.” A handmade book of his poetry, “Sky,” is included in the Rare Book Collection at MoMA.

Poleskie retired from Cornell in 2000 and was named professor emeritus. In retirement, he devoted his time to writing and photography. In 2007, he published the biographical novel “The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe, Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force.” His subsequent novels and fiction collections were “The Third Candidate,” “Grater Life,” “Vigilia’s Tempest,” “Acorn’s Card,” “Sconto Walaa” and “Foozler Runs.”

He also was a visiting artist and visiting professor at colleges, universities and art schools around the world. He did an artist residency at the American Academy in Rome, and as a guest artist he toured the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, as well as Honduras for the United States Information Agency.

He is survived by his wife, the novelist Jeanne Mackin.

Media Contact

Gillian Smith