Of all the things scientists, artists, and mystics have in common—and they have more in common than meets the eye—the most obvious might be their desire to gaze into the heart of mystery, to look closely and intently at whatever they’re observing: the way a paramecium wriggles on a slide; the play of light and shadow across a familiar face; the constellations wheeling overhead. Whether they’re peering into a microscope, studying a subject to be painted, or staring up at the stars, scientists, artists, and mystics possess a uniquely intense way of apprehending the world.
David Luzgin, faculty member and AIC alum (’02, MEd ’10), looks at life through just such a trifocal lens. He is an instructor of biology, a visual artist of extraordinary talent, and a person of deep faith, whose contemplative nature draws him outside to behold the heavens for an hour or two every night, a silent and solitary ritual he practices without fail, no matter the weather. One might say he has been triply blessed.
Luzgin’s artistic gift came to light as a young child when his father provided him and his siblings with pencils and paper and encouraged them to draw. “It started by accident,” said Luzgin. “My father was a minister in a place where Christian art was illegal, so he was desperately looking for a talented artist. He basically gave us a bunch of pens and pencils and said, ‘Here are the tools, see what you can produce,’ and we started drawing. I was about five or six, and it became clear that my brothers and I had a talent. I had always loved art, but never knew I had any talent until my father discovered it.”
At 12, Luzgin won a contest sponsored by the mayor of Chicopee, Massachusetts, for best Christmas card design, and by the time he was in middle school, Luzgin’s prodigious talent had come to the attention of art teacher Lorraine Roussi-Liden. From seventh grade on, “she pushed me and told me I had to continue, I had to be an artist. She was my teacher all through high school and she promoted my work, pushed me to enter competitions, and she made my work known.”
In high school, Luzgin was taught by a university professor the school brought in to provide one-on-one, individualized instruction. “He would guide me by standing next to me and tell me how to improve this or that, how to achieve a certain effect. I was always afraid to mess up, but he was very considerate and respectful of that sensitivity.”
As a college student, Luzgin studied with Richard Doyle, the famous “twig artist,” whose signature technique involved using a sharpened stick in lieu of a pen, pencil or paintbrush. “I saw that when he painted the sky with twigs, it took forever and it looked choppy,” said Luzgin, “so I took a cotton swab, dipped it in the ink, and used that instead. He [Doyle] agreed that it was better, so in that small way, I helped to improve his style.”
And speaking of style, Luzgin is a realist, artistically, professionally and personally. His artwork is so exquisitely detailed, one could mistake many of his drawings and paintings for photographs. “The artist I most aspire to is Leonardo da Vinci,” he said. “Da Vinci was an engineer as well as an artist, and a perfectionist. I am very meticulous, but I’m not there yet. I strive for that level of excellence.”
Though Luzgin was offered a full scholarship to an art school on the West Coast, he made the surprising but pragmatic decision to major in science. “Most artists struggle to make a living,” he noted, “but science is very stable. It’s a reliable career.”
Luzgin chose to attend AIC for a variety of reasons, including location, small class size, quality of the faculty, and the College’s embrace of international students. “English is my second language and I’m not a great test taker, but my AIC professors were very understanding, very encouraging. The late Dr. Mary Baker would explain the subject from beyond the textbooks. She worked in industry and then got her PhD in organic chemistry, so she could teach us from her own experience. Dr. Augustus Pesce was an inspiration to me in graduate school. He’s in his 80s now and still teaching.”
Combining science and art comes naturally to Luzgin, whose talent as an artist informs his teaching and helps him bring lessons to life. “A big misconception is that science and art are opposed. All scientists have talent; they are curious; they investigate. I use my art all the time in the classroom. Explaining mitosis or the development of an embryo, you have to draw pictures. When I draw it on the board, I explain every detail.”
But Luzgin’s talent for teaching came as a complete surprise to him. “I never thought about becoming a teacher,” he said. “I always wanted to be a biochemist. I figured I would do research and work under some doctor in a corporate lab.”
Life had other ideas, however. “I got a call from Dr. (Amelia) Janeczek, chair of the biology department, and she asked if I would be interested in teaching a lab.” Since Luzgin hadn’t yet found a corporate position, he agreed, though he admits he had a few misgivings. “I was never comfortable being in front of people. I asked another professor to help me with the first lab, and he did. Then once I saw what I was supposed to do, it was fine.”
Luzgin’s students thought it was more than just fine, and responded with an enthusiasm he never anticipated. And that pedagogical chemistry has only intensified over the years. “I had one student who came in with his earphones on, not really paying attention. I said to him, ‘Look in the microscope. Look at the paramecium.’ The next semester, he had only one earphone on and he paid more attention. Then he passed with flying colors.
“I saw him a few years later and I almost didn’t recognize him. He told me he was going for his PhD in psychology. He said, ‘It was because you inspired me to look into the microscope, to enjoy the lab, to actually learn something.’”
Despite his talent as a teacher and an artist, Luzgin is quick to point out that he accepts no credit for what he believes are gifts from God, especially when it comes to his art. “I truly believe that it is a God-given talent, through which I can help other people and make them happy. My father also had a lot to do with this, since he was the one who encouraged me to do good work.”
Luzgin is especially devoted to his father, taking him to all of his dialysis appointments and attending to his needs as he ages, while also helping to care for a brother, who is paralyzed. His responsibilities are daunting, but for Luzgin, they are a labor of love, and he finds strength in his faith. “Faith gives me hope,” he said. “Faith keeps me going.”
Friends, too, keep him going, and he remains close to those who have played an important part in his life, showing his affection and appreciation through gifts of his art. “When I was in high school, I worked at Bernardino’s, a Portuguese bakery in Chicopee close to where we lived. Victor Augusto and Manuel Silva, along with Mr. Cunha, all owners of the bakery, gave me a job where I had to pack bread. I worked 16 hours sometimes with a 30-minute break. It taught me discipline and time management. I also realized how hard these people worked and they never complained. Manny became my friend and I started buying flour from him. This is a special organic flour, and I felt I was always nagging him, so I drew him three pictures. It was my way of saying ‘thank you.’”
Luzgin also speaks fondly of Pauline Tran, a former work-study in his department and fellow AIC alum, who now teaches at Springfield High School of Science and Technology. “Pauline got interested in my artwork, so I drew a couple of pictures for her and her husband. Since she also knew my sisters, we became friends with her family.”
When Luzgin isn’t teaching or drawing or caring for others, he enjoys learning about new scientific discoveries. “I love reading science articles about NASA and medicine,” he said. Luzgin also plays piano and accordion and spends as much time as he can outdoors. “I love working outside, chopping wood, building a stone wall. I’m always doing things like that. My favorite pastime is just enjoying nature. If people did that more, they would be so much more relaxed and productive. You need time to be yourself.”
-By Ellen Dooley
Featured Photo Credit: Seth Kaye