An Inspiring Journey
University of Kansas City graduate and artist shares his story
Regardless of how many setbacks a person faces, Andy Saffas (B.A., Art, ’45) said it’s important to keep moving.
After all, that’s just what the University of Kansas City graduate did – and still does. At 86, he continues to paint, design jewelry and create sculptures. He and his wife, Nikie, also make regular trips to Greece and try to begin each day with a classic Greek dance.
“Keep learning. Keep painting, and you’ll never grow old,” Saffas told Assistant Professor Ricky Allman’s painting class during his November visit to the UMKC campus. “Be open to criticism. If you make a painting that doesn’t satisfy you, paint again. Keep at it, and tell yourself that along the line something’s going to click.”
Today, the Concord, Calif.-based artist is known for his Greek-inspired sculptures, photos, oil paintings, theater murals and ceramics.
Making An Impression
As a UKC student, Saffas enjoyed going on hayrides, serving as president of the Art Club, working as an on-campus calisthenics instructor for the Navy V5 and V12 cadets and living at Epperson House – a residence hall at that time. He took art classes from Luis Quintanilla, Joseph A. Fleck, Burnett H. Shryock and Wallace Rosenbauer.
One of Saffas’ favorite campus memories was winning a contest to paint a mural at the “Kangaroost” – a student recreation room later replaced by Royall Hall. After a few days of working on the mural, other responsibilities demanded his attention. University President Clarence Decker often asked Saffas when he would complete the mural, and even said he might have another student complete the job. In order to hold onto the opportunity, Saffas said he would complete the mural the following Saturday.
While he was sleeping that Saturday morning, Saffas felt someone tugging at his feet. Thinking it was another student, Saffas told him to “knock it off!” When the person didn’t stop tugging his feet, Saffas opened his eyes and saw President Decker standing there with a wide grin on his face.
Shortly after that encounter, Saffas completed the mural. Unfortunately, the recreation room was torn down in the late 1960s to make room for Royall Hall.
The UMKC campus has changed dramatically since he graduated with about 35 other students in 1945, Saffas said.
“When I went to school here, there were six buildings. I was bewildered,” Saffas said of the current campus. “I couldn’t believe what I saw. This is an entire city.”
Despite these changes, Saffas has left a lasting impression on the University. In November, he donated two of his Greek-inspired paintings. On the third floor of Haag Hall, he’s depicted in a mural – “Campus Scenes, 1943-1944” – painted by his former professor, Joseph A. Fleck.
He also left an impression on Assistant Professor Allman and his class.
“I’ve heard an artist speak, but I’ve never heard an artist who is 86 talk about how his career changed throughout his life,” Professor Allman said. “It was inspiring to see how he grabbed opportunities to work on murals and how he stepped out of his comfort zone.”
Breaking The Ice
When Saffas graduated in 1945, he did not know how artwork would fit into his life. Because his father was ill at the time, he turned down admission to the Chicago Art Institute. Instead, he moved to California where his parents had relocated from Kansas City.
Saffas’ first big break was a designer job at San Francisco-based R. Ashby Eckels Studio, which decorated theatres. The second day on the job, Saffas was painting a mural from the top of a 12-foot scaffolding. Suddenly, he heard someone at his feet. It surprised him, and he accidentally kicked the bucket of paint onto his new well-dressed boss. Fortunately, the boss was not angry, and the two bonded.
Saffas spent two years decorating theatres throughout California, including the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. On the evening of the world premiere of the movie, “Battleground,” Saffas waded past thousands of people who were waiting for the show to begin. He walked into the theatre before the show began, and started talking to actor Edward G. Robinson about the mural he had created. Saffas pointed to the 7x10-foot mural and asked Robinson to look closely. There – in Egyptian hieroglyphics – was his wife’s name, Nikie. As far as he knows, Saffas said his manager never found out about the romantic gesture.
Thinking Outside The Box
When television started stealing business from theatres in the 1950s, Saffas explored the insurance and financial industries. For 29 years, Saffas spent his days working at Wells Fargo & Company. Eventually, he became an assistant vice president.
While excelling in his day job, Saffas pursued art and photography in his spare time. In conjunction with another artist, he painted the apostles on the copper-tone dome of the Oakland, Calif.-based Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension.
In 1958, Saffas and his family even retreated to Morella, Mexico for an eight-month sabbatical. The family found a home on top of a hill called Santa Maria, and paid $30 a month in rent. During that time, Saffas could immerse himself in photography and painting.
In addition, Saffas has always drawn inspiration from his Greek heritage and his travels to Greece. To honor Greek-American volunteers who fought for the liberation of Greece in World War II, Saffas created a bronze soldier monument that sits in Athens, Greece. In 2007, the Hellenic Army General Staff honored Saffas for creating the monument and awarded him a bronze plaque.