A man who has seen more than most could even imagine is now inviting others to describe what they see – in his artwork.
One of the most treasured former professors at County College of Morris may be a centenarian, but he certainly hasn’t missed a beat since he retired from teaching.
Dr. Endel Uiga was born over a hundred years ago in the small Northern European country of Estonia. He was born just after World War I in 1918, and struggled through several world conflicts before landing in the United States.
Uiga, 101, received his Diploma in engineering, the European equivalent of a master’s degree, from the Tallinn University of Technology at the age of 26. But he was forced to leave Estonia when the Russians broke through during World War II. He fled with his wife, Elise, and daughter to Germany.
There he began work on this doctorate at the University of Stuttgart. Uiga says the war complicated his ability to study at the university, and often, “professors would find space to work in villages or small towns, and do scientific work and research in small groups.”
Uiga worked on his doctoral thesis in a small German village called Eningen, and he and his wife had two sons.
He left Germany with his family when America opened its doors to refugees from the war in 1949. He settled in Saratoga, NY, where he took a job as a greenhouse helper to support his growing family. He and Elise soon welcomed twin girls.
After about a year of teaching himself English, Uiga felt he knew enough to apply for jobs in his field. He worked for 18 years at Ballantine Laboratories in Rockaway, a well-known electronic instrument maker.
He came to CCM in September of 1982 as an associate professor in the Electronic Engineering Technology department. After many years working behind the scenes, he looked at teaching as a new challenge.
“What I liked is that it required me to really learn about the subject,” he says. “I considered myself a pretty good engineer. When I started teaching, I realized I knew how it works, but I didn’t know why it works.”
He enjoyed the interaction with his students and challenged them not to let obstacles stand in the way of their education. “I taught my lectures this way,” he explains. “Well, I have an accent, you tell me you couldn’t understand it, and you failed it. Well that’s no excuse. You had to ask.”
Uiga retired from CCM in 1988 but still felt he had more to contribute to higher education. He began work on a college-level textbook on an emerging technology called Optoelctronics, which is a combination of optics, light and electronics.
But Uiga’s technical, yet creative, mind was not satisfied to sit back and retire. He was in his 70s when he discovered something that was just becoming popular at the time – digital photography.
He had a great love and appreciation for abstract art, and began to create his own work using Photoshop on the images he took. He taught himself to manipulate relatively simple subject matter with the computer-based editing tool.
Uiga refers to the results as “mindscapes.” He finds joy in watching others decide what they see in his work, and doesn’t like to reveal what the original subject was.
Elise, his wife of 68 years, passed away at the age of 95 in 2010. He enjoys showing off a portrait he took of her, one of the few subjects in his work that remains relatively true to its original form.
His imagery is expansive, ranging from the simple to the psychedelic, and he displays it at any opportunity. He carries a smart phone, easily flipping through to show his many photos, and his business cards that read, “Retired engineer and professor doing photography now.”
He’s especially proud of his family which includes six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. “I’ve been productive,” he says with a grin.
He often revisits the land of his birth. The nation has idolized him as well, inviting him to a recent centennial celebration. Estonian Independence was declared on February 24, 1918, just days before his birth. “Estonia celebrated their 100th anniversary,” he says, “and I happened to be 100.”