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obit: Theresa Pollak

1899 - 2002

"She was tough, but very fair," says Bruce Koplin, a longtime VCU faculty member who had studied painting and drawing with Pollak in the 1950s. "She expected her students to be prepared," he says. "When she entered the studio you had to be ready to go. And critiques could be rough — rough. She would tear into a piece of work, analyze it, but always end on a positive note so you weren't completely devastated."

"She was Captain Bligh," says another former student, VCU faculty member Milo Russell, affectionately. "She was completely honest but aware of the fact that she didn't possess a lot of tact. She once told me: 'You have to stand up and let people know exactly how you feel. If you don't, you're not being honest with yourself or with others.'"

Pollak was interested in the structure of an artwork, possessed a keen sense of color and believed that without knowing the fundamentals, creative efforts amounted to little.

Although she had left provincial Richmond in the 1920s to study at New York's highly respected Art Students' League, she was a lifelong learner, continuing her studies there off and on into the 1940s. In the 1950s, when her students would return from Manhattan, aglow with tales of summer studies with noted abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann, she decided to find out what all of the excitement was about. Initially, Hofmann resisted teaching the 65-year-old lady from Richmond. She persisted — and prevailed.

Pollak championed artists and artistic freedom. "She was an icon," says Richmond artist Bea Klein. "She has stood up for the arts at times when many people didn't know that there was a world of art in Richmond."

Once, in the early 1960s, when a dean at Richmond Professional Institute [predecessor to VCU] demanded that a student collage he found highly offensive be removed from a campus exhibition, Pollak marched into the office of RPI founder Henry Hibbs. The work stayed on the wall.

In a life that bridged three centuries, Pollak changed with the times. Born in the horse-and-buggy era, she got her driver's license at age 65 (after failing the test on her first attempt). She wasted no time in paying cash for a new station wagon and motored to New England to visit relatives. The car was cerulean blue, her favorite color.

Pollak, who never married, was a longtime and devoted caretaker for her mother who had some old-fashioned ways. The elder Pollak steadfastly refused to allow vacuums in the house — she liked the carpets broom-swept in a particular way.

A few days after Pollak's mother died, a close friend called Pollak to inquire sympathetically about how she was holding up in her grief. She replied: "Fine. I've just gone downtown to Miller & Rhoads and bought a vacuum cleaner."

— Edwin Slipek Jr.

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