For John J. Zolomij, American curator, director, author and historian, freedom was the word set in his mind since childhood.
Born in 1947 in Pennsylvania, he received a US Navy Science Cruiser Award for science when he graduated high school in 1965. College summers were spent as an associate scientist at Smith, Kline and French Laboratories, working with infectious viruses and high-functioning primates. In 1981, the PA Department of Education honored him with an Environment Education award. Zolomij earned a BA and MA in History, Anthropology and Social Sciences. Graduate work included Penn State and Villanova universities. He worked as an educator for the PA Dept. of Environmental Resources; Executive Director of the Pratt Environmental Education Center in Connecticut; Assistant to Superintendent of Northern Lehigh School District; and Executive Director of United Cerebral Palsy of Lehigh Valley. His late mother once asked him “what do you do for a living? I can’t keep up with it!” He responded “Mom, there is so much to learn in a lifetime, I try to keep my freedom so I can discover what’s in the world?”
In the mid-eighties Zolomij became Director of the Raymond E. Holland Automotive Art Collection in Allentown, PA. Over a million dollars was spent over the course of a year on restoring a 27 room Victorian built in 1874. Holland and Zolomij then focused on bringing the highest quality automotive art paintings and object’s de art into the home for display. Holland told Zolomij “make it known and get it shown!” For Zolomij, more freedom and a new learning experience. He travelled with noted experts throughout the United States and Europe researching every item in Holland’s collection, which by 1988 exceeded 6,000 works of art. After five years of research and writing, Zolomij penned THE MOTOR CAR IN ART in 1990, to this day considered the benchmark on this genre of art. In the following seven years, Zolomij would write more than 200 articles for national and international magazines such as Mercedes Star, Automobile Quarterly, the Journal of the Automotive Fine Art Society Magazine and Mobilia.
Zolomij once asked Ken Behring and Don Williams if he could drive the Aston-Martin at a private opening of “Goldeneye” in Calfornia. Behring said yes and “I can get models to sit on the cars with you” to which Zolomij responded “How would I explain my consulting trips out here to my wife Caroline if she saw that image?!”
He also lectured and designed exhibits in more than thirty states, aboard the Queen Elizabeth II, Meadowbrook Hall, Pebble Beach, Henry Ford Museum, Blackhawk Museum and such. Back in Allentown, Holland opened the Victorian for social, political, non-profit and community fund-raising events which Zolomij oversaw and nearly $2,000,000 was raised over the next decade. “Working for Ray Holland, and his trust for me to take his interests and turn them into his desired realities, was critical to our successes." says Zolomij, "He gave me the freedom to travel the world researching artwork in more than 40 countries. Doors were opened in public and private collections in Paris, London, Brussels, Moscow, Rome, Munich and Budapest."
Between the automotive art world and activities held at the Victorian, I met and had the opportunity to spend hours in conversations with VIPs such as Jay Leno, George Plimpton, JFK, Jr., and Washington types such as Jack Kemp, the Clintons and the Bush White House staff, Bill Colby, CIA Director under Nixon, and other persons who are living history to events of our times. Zolomij spent hours in conversation with all of them. By this time, four decades into his career, he understood the gift of freedom stating “Freedom draws knowledge; knowledge produces change. “
Holland’s collection was sold to Kenneth Behring, real estate developer and then owner of the Seattle Seahawks in 1995. Zolomij went for two years to support Behring’s associates set up a 27,000-sf exhibit at the Blackhawk Automotive Museum in Danville, California. He worked closely with Behring’s colleague Don Williams, who owned the Blackhawk Automotive Collection. “Behring, who passed away in the summer of 2019, was very kind to me. Beyond any doubt, his partner, Don Williams - was the most colorful role model to me. "In just a few years, he triplicated my understanding of presentation, sales and finesse. To this day, we share a special friendship filled with laughter and reflection.”
After the sale of the automotive art collection, Holland decided in the late 1990s to develop an assemblage of art concerning to the American Presidency. Zolomij again researched the artwork, and with the leadership of Erin Firestone, currently associated with Lehigh University, presented the FINE ART OF BEING PRESIDENT in 2004 for the University of California at Berkley. In 2005, he wrote with internationally renowned automotive photographer Michael Furman, a treatise on Rene Lalique, French designer of exquisite jewelry and glass automotive mascots.
When asked about favorite works amidst the countless paintings and sculptures he has viewed in his career... explicitly in the genre of automotive art... Zolomij has favorites. “The first image using a simple automobile was by Toulouse Lautrec around the mid-1809s. It was a caricature of his cousin, a doctor who treated Lautrec’s ailments, driving a “contraption” in goggles, fur coat and passing a woman walking with her dog. Lautrec portrayed the future moving forward beyond the past in this work. Many of the contemporary automotive artists are outstanding, but I enjoy and greatly respect the following artists as exceptional in their perspectives of capturing energy, speed and motion – and most importantly, beauty of design and composition of their work. My eye enjoys viewing two-dimensional works by George Angelini, Tom Hale, Jay Koka (CA), Alfredo de la Maria (AR) and Vaclav Zapadlik (CZ). In the field of sculpture, Stan Wanlass for his nostalgic historical interpretations and Emmanuel Zurrini for his futurist style embraces the best of the genre.”
Over his four-decade career, Zolomij collected over 140 dossiers of automotive artists. Several years ago, he placed his files into the permanent collection of the Watkins Glen International Racing Museum in New York. “Each of the men and women I worked with is there for future generations. Perhaps someday, a comprehensive book will be written about their work in this period of automotive art history.”
Zolomij continues to write, appraise, advise private collectors and museums in his semi-retirement phase. “My wife Caroline and I had three wonderful children, Jessica, Stephanie and Jonathan who have blessed us with five male grandsons over a period of the last two years. When they are all together, they are like frolicking lion cubs and I laugh inside – they have the gift. Freedom.”