The first time you meet Donald Zolan, you have the feeling of meeting an old friend whom you just haven’t seen for awhile. His warmth, candor and interest in others can disguise the fact that he’s one of our nation’s most talented and popular children’s artists. The love and joy you see in his paintings are a sincere expression of himself.
John Hugunin Sr., former President of Pemberton & Oakes
Donald James Zolan was born on August 11, 1937 in a little bungalow on Prairie Avenue in the small village of Brookfield, Illinois a working class suburb near Chicago. He was the youngest child of James and Margaret Zolan. Donald came from very humble beginnings sharing a bedroom in the attic with his brother and his Uncle Lester.
In greeting someone for the first time, Donald always started by saying, “Hi, I am Donald Zolan, an Artist, a humble Artist from Illinois.” The greatness of this man was his simplicity. A positive and forward-looking man, he saw the good in everyone and never spoke unkindly of anyone.
A fifth generation artist, he came from a family of sculptors, painters, engravers, and wood carvers from Germany and the Czech Republic. He started painting at the age of three and it was this burning passion that stayed with him all his life. He would often say, “if something happened to me that I could not paint and create again, I wouldn’t be able to live anymore.” His creativity and painting would remain his first love throughout his life.
A true Mid-western man to the core, his Word was his Word. A very friendly man with a smile for all and always ready to give a helping hand to anyone in need. A soft-spoken man, he was spiritual and profound. He was not a man of many words but great words. And in spite of his many life challenges and crisis, he was a man never to think of himself but always of others.
His favorite President was Abraham Lincoln, his favorite ice cream was vanilla, his favorite dessert was a root beer float, his favorite foods were roast pork with dumplings and sauerkraut and white castle hamburgers. He was a family man, a sensitive man, a man with only one passion in life to create great art that would last many lifetimes after him.
He started his day in meditation and painted until the nighttime listening to opera and classical music. He loved nature and the countryside. He was an excellent photographer and computer expert and he was passionate about art, antique cars, opera, and sharing intimate dinners with friends at home.
A profound man guided by a great faith in God, he came from a wonderful loving family who nurtured and supported his deep desire to be an artist.
This is the man that more of the world will come to know in the years ahead as America’s Beloved Painter of Children.
This site is dedicated to Donald James Zolan, a Great American Painter, who will be forever remembered as the Humble Artist from Brookfield, Illinois. Requiescat in Pace. The legacy continues forward.
Donald James Zolan’s comfort with himself and his paintings can be attributed to the fact that he dedicated 69 years of his life to the arts, creativity and painting. His art was his passion, his life, his soul. Regarded as America’s beloved children’s artist, he left a legacy to the world of 300 oil paintings of children that continue to touch the hearts of millions.
Born into a family legacy of five generations of artists and sculptors, Zolan's oil paintings spanned the world of both fine art and commercial licensing. With original oil paintings selling in the five digits, and collectibles and licensed products selling worldwide, his art continues to speak to millions of collectors.
A child prodigy, Zolan began drawing and painting at the age of three winning his first scholarship in oils to the Art Institute of Chicago at the age of thirteen. Upon graduation from high school, he won a full scholarship to the American Academy of Fine Art in Chicago completing the Academy’s four-year program in just two years. He apprenticed under Haddon Sundblom, the well-known illustrator of the Coca Cola Santa Claus and later attended the Arts Students League in New York City.
Upon graduation from the Academy, Zolan pursued a fine arts career exhibiting and selling his oil paintings at shows and museums throughout North America, Europe, United Kingdom and Japan winning numerous fine art awards including best of show by the Salmagundi Club in New York. His successful fine art career led to the opening of the Zolan Gallery on Nantucket Island. By the mid 1970’s, as Zolan’s name and reputation in the fine art world flourished, his portrait commissions expanded to include political leaders, writers, religious figures, astronauts and industrialists from around the world.
By 1978, Zolan’s fresh new style of children paintings launched his career in the collectibles and licensing world. His incredible talent to portray the joyfulness, innocence, tenderness and wide eyed wonder of early childhood propelled him to the top of the collectibles industry while his works commanded some of the highest secondary market values.
Voted America’s Favorite Living Plate Artist for seven consecutive years, Zolan also won more individual artist’s awards in the annual Collector Editions Magazine’s Awards of Excellence than any another artist. Ross Anderson, former director of the Riverside Art Museum and former senior lecturer at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., described Zolan’s paintings of children as having “an unmistakable energy and uninhibited naturalness that clearly belongs to our own time. Zolan can be seen as carrying John Singer Sargent’s legacy of American Impressionism into the late 20th century.”
Zolan had the exceptional ability to adapt his artwork to the changing times while maintaining his classical unique style known today as the Zolan brand. The wholesomeness of his subject matter combined with his Americana style became an ideal partnership with some of America’s iconic corporate brands. In the last decade, co brand partnerships have included Collegiate, John Deere, International Harvester, New York Yankees, Radio Flyer, and Shirley Temple. Today, Zolan’s artwork continues to be licensed worldwide on a wide range of licensed products.
Born in Brookfield, IL in 1937 to middle class parents, Zolan embodied the values of the Heartland of honesty, humility, and straightforwardness. What he captured in his oil paintings was the pure, honest, and open expression of his heart. A compassionate and kind man, an insightful and positive man, and a dedicated artist his entire life, there was no distance between what he portrayed and how he lived his life. “The love and joy you see in his paintings are a sincere expression of the man himself,” as written by John Hugunin Sr., former President of Pemberton & Oakes.
A writer once described a Zolan painting, “There is something very American about his independent little spirits. They seem to be constantly exploring the frontiers of their small worlds.” The profundity of a Zolan painting asks us to not just see the child but it asks us to be one and to find that child inside of each of us.
Donald Zolan’s vision for his art was that one day it could make a positive change in the lives of children. This art is a reflection of the life we can all strive to create again for our children. It is a dream that can one day be a possible reality for so many. Let’s give hope to a dream.
“All my paintings reawaken moments of my own wonderful childhood in the small mid western town of Brookfield, Illinois that I never want to forget.” Donald Zolan
One of my great joys is attending various collector shows and gallery exhibitions throughout the country. It's always a thrill to meet the people who have so enthusiastically supported my art over the years.
When did you begin painting?
I started drawing when I was three years old. I still have my first "original” in a baby book from that age. At age four, I created my first watercolor which I copied from the cover of a favorite Walt Disney comic book. I fondly remember Mother thinking I'd torn the cover off the book. I was indeed fortunate to come from a family of artists (spanning five generations). My parents always supported and encouraged my work throughout my life.
When did you decide that painting would be your life's work and what inspired you?
At the age of four, I was sitting on a large rock behind our house in Brookfield, Illinois one beautiful fall day. And as many children do, I was wondering what I would be when I grew up. As I sat there, I heard a quiet and beautiful inner voice. It clearly told me that I would be an artist, a very famous artist. At that early age, it was very natural for me to create and this inner voice gave me a direction that I have followed to this day.
Where do you get your ideas?
Most of my ideas come from memories of growing up in the quintessential Midwestern town of Brookfield, Illinois. It was a happy and wonderful childhood and in each of my paintings, I always include some aspect of my own experiences. By the 1970's, I was watching my young son playing in a field of dandelions. Afterwards, I started my painting Erik and the Dandelion, my first work which launched my career in the collectibles industry. Capturing the wonder and innocence of early childhood is always an endless source of inspiration and great joy.
Is this what prompted you to begin painting children in the heartland?
Absolutely. Reflecting on my childhood, rekindled the nostalgic feeling of rural life as I saw it as a child. The paintings depict America’s rich heritage, strong family values, and a time when life seemed so simple.
How did you start doing commissioned portraits for ethnic groups, industrialists, and political and religious leaders?
I exhibited paintings of children, Native Americans, religious leaders, etc. at art fairs in Illinois for about 20 years. People would ask me to paint their children or spouse and eventually I was asked to paint more prominent people. Commissioned work is still a challenge I enjoy. I examine a person’s gestures, the way they sit and speak. I take extensive photographs and do lots of sketches before I pull out my brushes to interpret and paint.
What did you learn under the apprenticeship of Haddon Sundblom, the creator of the Coca-Cola Santa Claus?
Haddon Sundblom, a famous American illustrator from Chicago, was a big Swedish man with a twinkle in his eye, beautiful white hair, and large full cheeks. During my interview with him, he asked if I played chess. I answered certainly and he said let’s play a game. I won the first round and Haddon won the successive rounds. He looked at my work, said you play a good game of chess, and you have the apprenticeship. It paid only $27 a week, but Haddon provided art supplies and canvases and critiqued my work. I cleaned up the studios, delivered paintings, and was able to study and work on my own paintings as well. I was also able to watch Haddon and learn his painting techniques like the split brush which I use to this day in my paintings.
How did you begin painting children?
From the days at the Chicago Art Institute to the American Academy of Fine Art, I spent most of my time drawing and painting from live models establishing the foundation to interpret the human form. It has been a fascination since I can remember painting the stages and faces of human life from childhood to philosophers, rabbis, and artisans. It is very fulfilling for me to capture children discovering the precious gifts of life for the first time with sheer joy, wonder and innocence, and on the other end of life’s spectrum to portray philosophers writing what they have learned from their life.
By the time I opened my first gallery, children and Native American Indian Chiefs were the most sought after works. After painting a wide array of subjects throughout my life, my first love is still children.
What do you remember and cherish from your early days?
When I was eight years old, I set-up my first "studio." It was in my grandmother's attic…hot in the summer and cold in the winter! I didn't have a real easel, so I fastened my canvases to the wall to paint. I can remember painting in gloves, two pairs of stockings and galoshes! Later on, my parents sold our dining room furniture and gave me the room as my new studio. Was I excited!
Who are the people who have had a major influence on your life?
There are so many people that it's hard to name them all. Certainly my parents gave me the love and support which enabled me to be a serious artist. They created such a wonderful and idyllic family life providing the inspiration for many of my paintings today.
Artists who were very important in my life were Rembrandt, John Singer Sargent and Haddon Sundblom. As part of my formal art education in my early years, I copied the works of Rembrandt and Sargent. Following their techniques and understanding their painting procedures certainly influenced the development of my own painting style. Apprenticing under Haddon Sundblom, a living master, he encouraged and supported my established style of painting giving me the confidence to excel and achieve as an artist. And, always, my wife Jennifer who works side-by-side with me to make my dreams a reality.
Where do you get your models?
Some of my work is done without models. I may be walking or driving and see a child at play and the scene stays in my mind. I might see an old baseball field and it brings back a childhood memory. Many times, I simply reflect upon my own happy childhood for my inspiration. Once the image is in my mind, I begin work on sketching it out, then creating the actual oil painting.
And over the last 28 years, collectors have sent pictures of their children, and grandchildren which are a great inspiration.
Do you create other paintings beside children?
In my earlier years, I had an extensive repertoire of painting subjects, particularly philosophers, rabbis, and artisans. I was gaining an international reputation for my portraits of famous people. While I now focus primarily on painting children, I will occasionally accept portrait commissions or work on my religious paintings. I still have many of my early paintings on display at home.
Your work is featured on licensed products such as plates, giftware, and dozens of other items. How did you launch a career in the collectibles industry?
In 1977, John Hugunin, then the President of the Bradford Exchange saw my children’s paintings in a Chicago gallery and commissioned a painting for collector plates. By the time we met to review the project, he had formed his own company, Pemberton & Oakes. The painting created for the plate was of my son Erik playing in a field of dandelions. This painting launched my career and Pemberton & Oakes into a successful collaboration for 15 years. My first painting won Plate of the Year. The second painting was of my daughter which I named “Sabine in the Grass”. This plate also won Plate of the Year the following year.
Do you have a favorite painting?
My favorite has always been the one I'm working on now. Even after all these years, I receive great joy from my work and strive to make each new painting my best ever. I believe there's always room for improvement and I constantly strive for it.
How did you and your wife meet?
Jennifer and I met in Russia in Moscow. She was working abroad for a New York company and I was traveling throughout Europe photographing interesting sites and places for new paintings.
Where else have your travels taken you?
Jennifer and I have had the most wonderful opportunity to see most of the United States, Canada, and Mexico and we have traveled extensively throughout Europe, South America, and Japan.
When you travel, what do you seek out?
Both Jennifer and I love to visit museums, homes of the famous artists, historical buildings, gardens, and parks. We visit the Opera houses, attend concerts, find out of the way and unique cafes and trattorias, meet local artists, and I love to visit art supply stores. Jennifer loves art and sports and is always looking to learn more about her Italian heritage.
You've had a long career. What do you consider your highlights and what would you like to achieve in the future?
I've been fortunate enough to win a number of competitions and awards for my artwork. While I'm thankful for these awards and very proud of them, they aren't the highlights of my career as an artist. My validation as an artist is when I finish a painting that can bring joy and a smile to people’s hearts impacting their life forever in a positive way. It’s a highlight when I meet a collector who tells me how my work has changed their life. It’s a highlight knowing that my collector plates have touched the hearts of America for over twenty two years, seeing a Donald Zolan puzzle in the local store or receiving a letter with my artwork on the return address label. I know then that people enjoy what I do and are getting pleasure from it.
For the future, I'd like to continue bringing joy and happiness to people around the world through my art and to widen the exposure of my art to those people who have not had the opportunity to experience it yet. I'm truly blessed in that I love what I do and that burning passion has been inside of me all of my life.
What have been some of the most touching and memorable things collectors have told you over the years?
I've heard literally hundreds of heart-warming stories from collectors through the years and it's difficult to single one out. There are a couple that immediately come to mind.
Several years ago, I created three angel paintings of children. At one of the shows, a woman shared her story with me about the tragic death of her very young daughter. When she saw my angel paintings, they gave her comfort and inner peace and a will to triumph over adversities.
At another show, there was a long line of collectors waiting to have their collectibles autographed. A woman reached the front of the line with a single plate for me to sign. We started talking and she shared with me how very difficult her life was and how my art filled her with so much joy and hope. When she heard about the show, she started collecting tin cans and bottles turning them in for the deposit money to buy a bus ticket so she could meet me and have her plate signed. Five years later, this same woman came back to the show again as her life had turned around. She told me she still keeps her signed plate on her desk at work… it reminds her of where she was and where she is now.
As you can imagine, I'm very honored when I hear stories like this and also very humbled. I think about these people and others like them when I am creating and always recognize my responsibility as an artist.
by Donald Zolan (recorded by Zolan in 2007)
Don is a man of unusual talent, however, I am impressed by his excellent personal character.
Haddon Sundblom, Chicago, 1957
"While studying at Chicago’s American Academy of Art in 1957, I had a wonderful opportunity to interview for an apprenticeship with one of America’s greatest Illustrators, Haddon Sundblom. Haddon was famous for his Coca Cola Santa paintings. I was selected as one of the top three finalists for the position and was asked to drop by the studio again for a final interview.
I fondly remember walking down Michigan Avenue entering the Fine Arts Building and pressing open the glass door that had Sundblom’s name painted across it. I heard this booming voice that hollered, “Come on in!” I walked in not knowing what to expect but only to find this 6’3” tall Swedish American man with a big smile on his face who looked just like Santa Claus. I sat nervously waiting as Haddon poured over my portfolio.
Finally, he looked up and smiled: “Very nice work young man and I see you play chess too. Let’s play a few rounds.”
After two games of chess, Sundblom offered me the job. He paid $25 a week and I felt so rich in those days.
I apprenticed under Sundblom for two years one of the greatest influences and inspiration on my artistic career. Then one day came a notice from the Draft Board for the Vietnam War and it brought an end to my halcyon days in the Sundblom studio changing the course of my life.”
Fifty years later, Zolan continued to be inspired and influenced by his apprenticeship. Zolan recalled years later, “ Haddon inspired me to create and to think big and to believe in my work. That was his greatest gift to me the rest of my life.”
In 2007, Zolan created his own Santa Claus collection.
“There is only one way to do something and that is the Right way.”
Donald Zolan, everyday life
“I continually rediscover the innocent and curious child inside me. And, I find that I never stop discovering the joys of life.”
“I am a humble artist with a burning passion to create day and night. I recognize my responsibility as an artist to Society to create works that can profoundly impact a person’s daily life but most importantly the life of a child.”
“I am guided by Faith and inspired by Creativity and I have always known that God has blessed me with this wonderful gift therefore Faith and Spirituality are synonymous with my work.”
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