Zayac and Simon: Of Contemporary Art Treasures and Artistic Teeth

John Zayac (left) and Dr. Marie Simon

Marie Simon’s dental office in Avon Lake overflows with art. From a lamp crafted by Dana Depew in the lobby to the collection of Martha Cliffel sculpted dog heads entertaining patients from the hallway walls, every corner, every area is appointed with art.

“If there’s space on the wall, there should be art. That’s my theory,” states Simon, who obtained her Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from The Ohio State University College of Dentistry in 1988, then completed her post-graduate work in cosmetic dentistry in Cleveland.

Works of Loren Naji

While Simon’s first love is making her patients healthy, her second is returning a natural, cosmetic appearance to damaged or worn teeth. She explains that is why she treasures collecting and exhibiting jewelry so much: because she appreciates even the tiniest gemstone for its angles and colors. For Dr. Simon, each tooth represents a singular gem or miniature piece of art.

“With cosmetic dentistry, I do sculpturing, contouring, and bringing out the many colors in a tooth that I make look natural,” she says. “So to put my artistry into it and make it disappear in the patient’s mouth is probably even more rewarding for me than [for] the patient.”

Installation by Dana Depew

Simon credits her husband John Zayac’s renowned eye for art and color with opening hers to the wonders and pleasures of collecting. The two met more than 32 years ago when her first dental office was located next to his business office in Westlake.

“After I met and married John, we began collecting art together,” Simon recalls. “Then we incorporated that expertise into my office to create a great art experience for my patients.”

In addition to negating the cold, sterile feel of most medical offices, the abundant artwork surrounds patients with something engaging and enjoyable, relaxing them, elevating their spirits rather than heightening their anxiety. Of course, it also provides gallery space for Simon, creating an annex to the significant collection she and Zayac display in their Grove Court residence in downtown Cleveland.

Baila Litton

“I think she would say that I kind of drew the artistic side out of her,” Zayac boasts.

“It was John who allowed me to open my eyes to the rest of the world, because I could easily just stay in my office,” Simon confirms. “I’m a workaholic and love helping people and love the artistry of dentistry.”

Born and raised in Kamm’s Corners, Zayac graduated from John Marshall High School in 1969, then went on to complete his undergraduate degree at Ohio Northern University in 1974. A year later, he earned a master’s degree in civil engineering from Clemson University, and then a master’s degree in city planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1979. Next, he pursued some advanced studies at the Pentagon through Georgetown University and later studied construction management at Case Western Reserve University—“just enough to understand the language of the industry.”

Having returned home, he ran and won a Cleveland City Council seat representing Kamm’s Corners and served from 1981 to 1985 under then-mayor George Voinovich. Zayac has held several different positions since and remains so busy with varied enterprises that when people inquire if he’s retired, he tells them he has nothing from which to retire.

Raised in a family of Ukrainian heritage, Zayac attended a Ukrainian school to learn the language and a Ukrainian Orthodox Church: St. Nicholas on Quail Street in the Birdtown neighborhood of Lakewood. Throughout his childhood, he was completely immersed in and enthralled by Ukrainian dancing and art, including the iconic, brightly decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs.

Dr. Marie Simon with ceramic sculpture by Rob Romeo

“My love for the arts came out of the culture in which I was raised,” he says. “That’s where I gained my love for vibrant colors and vibrant music.”

Zayac has been collecting art since he was a boy, but once he and Simon got married in 1992, that triggered a new and more active phase of art collecting. “Our collection is almost extreme in its eclecticism, and for the last fifteen years, the pieces have predominantly come from Cleveland artists,” he says. “Marie and I have traveled a lot and purchased art wherever we went, but we have an extraordinary scene here with art that is equal to what you’re going to buy in San Francisco or Sedona or New York, but it’s also much less expensive.”

Calling what Simon and Zayac possess “a collection” is artful understatement. Fortunately, they own eight condominium spaces, including an approximately 5,000-square-foot residence formed by several combined units, an outdoor sculpture garden, several other properties, and Simon’s dental office to rotate their museum-grade pieces. Additionally, their collection of collections includes 65 stone sculptures by Fred Gearhart of Cleveland Heights, more than twenty found art pieces created by Dana Depew of Wellington, about ten fabric and ceramic figures from Medina artist Peggy Henzy’s “coven of handcrafted witches,” and approximately 75 of Dr. Seuss’ paintings of the wild creatures that populated his books.

“John and Marie prefer more contemporary stuff than I do,” admits master carpenter Steve Waite from Novelty, Zayac’s old fraternity brother and lifelong pal whom he refers to as a “hopeless Victorian.” But they do share a love of antiques such as “Bullwinkle,” a giant stuffed moose purchased in Europe and featured prominently in the elevator lobby of their condominium. Waite crafted the wooden frame on which it is mounted.

“They’re both wonderful people with a great taste for beauty, and John has an amazing eye for color,” Waite continues. “Everything they do is informed by a sense of fun, so I always enjoy collaborating with them on whatever they need me to make to display their artworks.”

On a trip to Vancouver, the couple spied two contemporary industrial-style chandeliers, crafted from simple light bulbs suspended on wires, that now hang above their dining room table. On a later trip to New York, they saw the exact same set dangling at MOMA.

“Everything has a story in the house,” Simon states. “Everything is a reflection of what we do together and where we’ve been, but a lot of it is by Cleveland artists.”

Depew, who owned the now-closed Asterisk Gallery in Tremont and befriended Zayac at IngenuityFest on East 4th Street in the early 2000s, says, “Just to see the eclectic mix of artwork at Marie’s dental office and their home is overwhelming. They really don’t fit the mold of art collectors. They’re just highly unique and interesting people.”

For art collecting neophytes, Zayac offers some simple advice: “Start by figuring out what you like and what you don’t like, what resonates with you, and then just start collecting.” He adds that while he never dickers with an artist over the price, he does ask if they offer payment plans for more expensive pieces.

In his rare free time when not managing their properties in Cleveland and Arizona, Zayac has been working diligently to complete a detailed digital catalogue of their expansive collection, including photos of each piece. Both are fully conscious of the responsibility of overseeing their art collection legacy.

“I hold my art very near and dear to me, and I want to keep it together and keep it living on after we no longer can,” says Simon, adding that they proactively foster a sense of art appreciation in young family members and gift pieces to them when they discern a connection.

Claiming to be “kind of nutso about Christmas,” Zayac says every Labor Day weekend they begin transforming their home into a winter wonderland of holiday art and ornaments. The North Pole enchantment starts with their famed collection of roughly seventy Christmas trees of all sizes, many of them made of Italian glass, and a magic menagerie of full-sized stuffed animals that they store downtown the rest of the year. Their Yuletide forest features a variety of themed trees, including their favorite: an upside-down tree.

When the time comes and all of the stairs in their current residence become more daunting, the couple plans to merely move down the hall into a smaller unit they own.

“Everything will stay in place, and we’ll be able to walk down and enjoy our gallery home,” Simon foresees. “Then we’ll walk back down the hallway to our retirement home, and we’ll have all of those walls to fill!”