At the age of 90, Henry Koffler, Ph.D., former University of Arizona president, embarked on a new career. Becoming an artist represented something good coming out of emergency surgery followed by a long recovery. That was five years ago. His exhibit, “95!,” celebrating his age and artwork, is now on display at the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s Fine Art Gallery through March 15. About 160 people attended the opening reception on Jan. 14.
“Dr. Koffler’s work reflects our values at the J: a lifelong love of learning, creativity, and cultural engagement,” says Barbara Fenig, the Tucson J’s director of arts and culture. “His exhibit also creates community connection through an arts lens.” She says it is part of their mission to showcase works of local artists, including many who are “engaging with their creative sides later in life.”
Koffler and his mother came to the United States from Austria in 1939 when Koffler was 17 years old. During his youth in Vienna, his mother made sure he was exposed to art and music and theater. As an adult he continued his interest in art by visiting galleries and collecting art.
He received a Bachelor of Science degree from the UA, and his M.S. and Ph.D. in microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin. His career includes a professorship of bacteriology at Purdue University, the Eli Lilly Award in Bacteriology and Immunology from the American Society of Bacteriology (now microbiology), and serving as head of biological sciences at Purdue. He also was vice-president for academic affairs at the University of Minnesota, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, and president of the UA from 1982 to 1991. He was the first UA alumnus to hold this position. He also was one of the founders of Academy Village in Vail, a retirement community for professionals who want to remain actively involved in their fields or other creative pursuits. Academy Village offers workshops and lectures throughout the year.
Five years ago, while he was recovering from surgery, a neighbor decided that Koffler needed something creative to occupy his time and mind and suggested he use his iPad to create art. He says his art is influenced by American abstract expressionism, especially the works of Mark Tobey, Jackson Pollack, Paul Jenkins, and Helen Frankenthaler.
“When I did science in my everyday life, it was exciting, but now, art is exciting,” Koffler says. “I start with an empty screen and then things evolve, and I create beauty and end up with something I like. I consider this a blessing to be able to do this.
“I have developed my own style, and I love working with color — I think that’s my strength,” he says. “People have told me that they are impressed by the uniqueness of the colors and forms in my paintings. I enjoy going to the shows and meeting people and seeing their responses.” Sometimes people see images of microorganisms in his paintings, but he says he doesn’t purposely create these images, although his background in microbiology might influence his imagination.
“It is remarkable to me that I can create art on an iPad. This art has been in my head — it is now coming out, and I didn’t have any formal training in art other than a little drawing in school when I was a child and a couple of short courses as an adult.” He adds that his mother was a docent at art museums and took up oil painting late in life.
Koffler says creating artwork involves learning new things. He had to learn how to use the iPad to master the Autodesk Sketchbook Pro program.
“It is nice to do artwork on a computer because you can erase what you don’t like,” he explains. “It is easier than painting on a canvas — there are no messy brushes, no chemicals, and you don’t need a studio.” However, he says printing can be expensive. So far he has finished about 250 paintings, and plans to keep on creating.
“Much of painting is seeing, and a good painter sees things that other people don’t see, just like a good scientist sees relationships other people don’t see,” Koffler says. He adds that the observer is part of the creative process, and it is important to have an emotional response to art.
“You can’t look at artwork passively, you need to get involved, and if you put some time in between viewing a piece of artwork, you gain a new appreciation when you look at it again,” says Koffler.
“I think Tucson as a community supports the arts, although I think that Tucson needs more art galleries and more offerings of art to young people,” says Koffler. “Art is important because it meets a lot of human needs.”
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.