A cross between the classic curmudgeon and Yoda, the much respected Russell Oettel - fine arts Professor Emeritus at IPFW, former head of the Fort Wayne Art School and forever a painter - sits in his familiar place at the kitchen table. A pair of docile cats alternately nap, stretch and seek his affection.
From his straight back wooden chair Oettel commands unobstructed views of a poster-size map of Iraq affixed to the refrigerator door and the television set perched atop the appliance. A window on the world, albeit an electronic one, as it were. The true portal though exists as the window on his left through which he can monitor the comings and goings of the wildlife drawn to the sanctuary of his sculpture garden and array of bird feeders that form the southeast corner of West Berry and Rockhill streets.
The rest of his restored, vintage 19th century home for the last decade looks and acts like an art gallery. On it's walls hang his paintings along with works of students and friends, and on the exposed, polished wooden floors sits furniture, ceramic pieces and sculpture also crafted by former students who studied across the street at the building complex which once housed the Art School where Oettel first landed in 1954.
Before the recent proliferation of a number of smaller galleries Oettel produced showings for some of his favorite local talent which gave the space the unofficial name of the "Floating Gallery" . These days his permanent collection features works by Dale Enochs, Betty Fishman, Michael Poorman, Diane Groenert, Bill Morningstar, George McCullough, Don Kruse and David Krouse among others.
Through these surroundings pass dozens of old friends and acquaintances who come to share in the gossip of the art scene, drink a beer or pay homage. The near continuous stream is interrupted only when Oettel heads downstairs to his garret where he works on his naturalist still lifes and soft impressionist canvases. He shows annually at the Artlink members' exhibition along with other local events and recently completed a piece for the upcoming exhibit at the University of Saint Francis.
His vitae fills a couple of pages of showings including exhibitions at the New York Metropolitan, the St. Louis, and Illinois State Museums along with numerous other awards and prizes and was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Arts United.
"Art is escapism," says Oettel (his name is German for 'noble'). "In one way or another. It is created to go and enter another reality with the hope that the viewer will be taken to another place too. In many ways it's very simple, but it - the creative process - doesn't happen in a vacuum.
"It's always in a state of flux. The final product also changes and grows over time. But there is a continuum, and the artist is connected to what has come before. As a teacher I've always been a stickler for academics. It is hard to see the present without acknowledging the past.
"Don't misunderstand me, I don't advocate looking ahead through the rear-view mirror, but without a solid background in all the arts: literature, cinema, theater, dance and music you're just not going to get there from here."
Diversity and exposure to all sorts of ideas is fundamental to Oettel's theories of teaching and practicing art, but intellectualism isn't a prerequisite for doing or viewing. A short hit list of his eclectic favorites and influences includes Monet, Cezanne, Picasso and Van Gogh in painting; Steinbeck, Thomas Mann and Proust in literature; Fellini and other Italian neo-realism directors plus Franz Peter Wirth in film; Bach, Mozart, Miles Davis, Bela Fleck and the Dixie Chicks in music.
"I probably upset a lot of my students when I insisted on reading the classics," recalled Oettel. "Where they might have wanted to listen to the latest popular music during our 'brown bag' lunches, I'd make them turn it off and instead pick up a book.
"We incorporated films in the curriculum, first for the students, then we opened it up for the general public. I think that gave impetus for the Cinema Center which came later. Later, too, we gave a home to Terry Doran and his "Theater for Ideas" forum which explored various topics and promoted debate and discussion. It's through creating such open environments, setting the context, that we learn.
"When I took over (the Art School directorship) there were something like 1,600 books in the school's library, and within a few years I was able to increase it to more than 6,000 volumes, The same increase occurred with the school's slide holdings."
Oettel's own formal studies began after WWII and through the GI Bill when he first earned a BS in Chemical Engineering at Millikin State in 1947 and which he later followed up with a MFA from the University of Iowa. After school Oettel eked out a living as a painter, but things got tight with the birth of a child, and he was forced to take a job with the Wabash Railroad for a couple of years before he secured the job as a teacher at the Art School.
Jestingly referring to himself as part of that "Greatest Generation," Oettel spent his earliest years in the Southern Illinois basin coal town of Glen Carbon, population 1,800 and a stone's throw east of St. Louis where his father left the mines to open and run a general store.
During the depression Oettel and his family suffered along with Czechs, Poles, Italians, Welch and other German families for a daily existence. Hardened by the experiences he also remembers the good times of community sharing and support.
"We never suffered for fuel with the Peabody mine nearby, but with so many out of work we often ate communally when people brought whatever they could and threw it into a huge cast iron pot for stew. Who knew exactly what was in it?"
With the outbreak of the war Oettel found himself like thousands of others wearing drab olive green and khaki. He was trained and later served in a chemical weapons mortar battalion where he participated in the allied landings in southern Italy. He played a role in the liberation of Rome, then was sent as part of the landings in Southern France. From there his unit was attached to Patton's and later Clark's forces and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge and ended up at the Elbe when the war in Europe finally ended.
Like many of his peers, Oettel never flaunted his beginnings or his years of rugged service in the war. In fact, most of his students, even today, are unfamiliar with the background that so shaped his personality.
"I knew he was in the service, but never understood it to that extent," says Dale Enochs, the accomplished sculptor now living in Bloomington who first encountered Oettel at the Art School in the early 70s.
"Though I never had him as an instructor he was my 'art Dad.' He let me know and made it possible for me to become an artist. He has the ability to see into people, recognize in them things that even I was unaware of. He empowered me with a confidence and I'm certain I wasn't the only one. He challenged us and those who never pursued art as a life's work and I think we're all indebted to him."
There were for sure some disappointments in Oettel's illustrious career. The way in which an "art school" became an "art department" within IPFW and with it the sacrifice of the unique community that it created and nurtured. As director he tried to engineer a merger that retained the element of a commune, but it became lost in the bureaucracy, although the gains to faculty and staff in terms of pay and benefits were considerable. It was a trade-off that ensured continuity but signaled a changed flavor and loss of autonomy.
Oettel also bemoans the setback when after months of work the Louis Kahn-designed building which was to house a new art school in an art village at what is now the Performing Arts Center at Freiman square was changed to accommodate the Civic Theater and the art school facilities were incorporated into the site at IPFW.
Lastly, he's disappointed that the staid art museum still retains its 'exclusive' attitude toward the artists of the community. "It always had the tint that it was for the 'white collars' who wanted to appeal to the 'blue collars,' but somewhere in there they forgot about the 'dirty collars' ... us."
In closing, let the writer report that he was offered a bribe in conjunction with this article.
Oettel proposed that for $10 more than my usual renumeration I should submit the following:
"Russell and David spent a wonderful afternoon discussing art. The following blank space should be used by the reader to express him or herself with whatever medium handy: ____________________________________ Stay within the lines!"
Forever the artist, administrator and source of inspiration, Oettel stands as a caustic and enduring art treasure, maybe even the irreplaceable, patron saint of the arts. Were I an artist I would cast his likeness in the form of a dashboard icon and market them to all on-the-road travelers.
by David Tanner
Friday, April 28
Click on the headings below for full calendars
Click header for complete Things To Do calendar
Concordia Comedy Festival — Concordia Lutheran High School presents a showing of comedy films from middle and high school students, 7 p.m. Friday, April 28, Room 101, Neff Hall, IPFW, Fort Wayne, free, 483-1102
Tapestry: A Day for You — Day of inspiration, renewal and education for women in all stages of life with keynote speaker Ann Curry, 7:30 a.m. Friday, April 28, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, $75, 483-1111
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Click header for complete Music & Comedy calendar
Blooze Faktor — Blues at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., cover, 483-1311
Chris Worth & Company — Variety at Arena Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 557-1563
Classic Voice — Variety at The Venice Restaurant, Fort Wayne, 7-10 p.m., no cover, (260) 482-1618
Cougar Hunter — 80s glam rock at The Venue, Angola, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, 665-3922
Expanding Man — Variety at Club Soda, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 426-3442
G-Money Band — Blues at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Hubie Ashcraft & Travis Gow — Country at Billy's Downtown Zulu, Monroeville, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 623-3583
The Illegals — Rock at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., no cover, 483-5526
IPFW Bands & Choirs w/Fort Wayne Children's Choir — Classical at Auer Performance Hall, Rhinehart Music Center, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 7:30 p.m., $4-$7, 481-6555
Joe Stabelli — Jazz at Don Hall's Gas House, Fort Wayne, 5:45-9 p.m., no cover, 426-3411
John Curran & Renegade — Country at American Legion Post 241, Waynedale, 8:30-11:30 p.m., no cover, 747-7851
Kat Bowser — Variety at Don Hall's Guesthouse, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 489-2524
Rebecca Rego — Americana/country at Two-EE's Winery, Huntington, 7:30-9:30 p.m., no cover, 672-2000
Secret Mezzanine — Variety at Deer Park Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 432-8966
String Theory — Acoustic variety at Friendly Fox, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 260-745-3369
Todd Harrold & Nick Bobay Duo — R&B/blues/variety at O'Sullivan's Italian Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 422-5896
Trichotomous Hippopotamus w/Trackless, John Fishell — Rock at Brass Rail, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., cover, 267-5303
The Why Store — Rock at Mitchell's Sports Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, (260) 387-5063
Click header for complete Karaoke & DJs calendar
Big Dawg Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Bucca Karaoke w/Ashley — Variety at Tower Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-6310
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Pine Valley Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 490-9464
Dance Party w/DJ Rich — Variety at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 10:30 p.m., cover, 422-5055
DJ dance party — at Rum Runners, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., ,
DJ Shawn — Karaoke/variety at Club Paradise, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 833-7082
Fort Wayne Karaoke — Variety at Tap Haus, New Haven, 9 p.m., no cover, 493-6622
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Jay — Variety at Coconutz @ Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Scott — Variety at JR's Pub, Leo, 9 p.m., no cover, 627-2500
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., ,
House DJ — Variety at Early Bird's Ultra Lounge, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 483-1979
House DJ — Variety at Flashback on the Landing, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., cover, 422-5292
Karaoke w/DJ Chuck — Variety at DW Bar & Grill, Churubusco, 10 p.m., no cover, 693-8172
Karaoke with Rooster — Variety at Portside Pizza, Columbia City, 9 p.m., no cover, 691-3333
Karaoke — Variety at Coconutz @ Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 9-11 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Karaoke — Variety at Hamilton House, Hamilton, 9 p.m., no cover, 488-3344
Karaoke — Variety at Beamer's Sports Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 625-1002
Karaoke — Karaoke at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Karaoke — Variety at Crooner's Karaoke Bar, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., no cover, 486-1979
Rockstar Karaoke & DJ w/Scotty — Karaoke at Backway Lounge, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 665-5081
Shooting Star Prod. w/Barbie — Variety at Uncle Lou's Steel Mill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-5787
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ — Karaoke at 4 Crowns, Auburn, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., no cover, 925-9805
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ w/Kevin — Variety at Danny's Italian Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 484-4444
SureShot Karaoke w/David — Variety at The Green Frog Inn, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m., no cover, 426-1088
Three Rivers Karaoke — at Bottle and Bottega, Fort Wayne, 8:30-10:30 p.m., no cover, 494-1020
Click header for complete Stage & Dance calendar
Funny Little Thing Called Love — Romantic comedy by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Home and Jamie Wooten, 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Friday-Saturday, April 28-29 and May 5-6 and May 12-13, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622
The Little Mermaid — Fort Wayne Civic Theatre musical based on the Disney movie, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 8 p.m. Friday, May 5; 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday, May 6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7, Arts United Center, Fort Wayne, $17-$29, 424-5220
Little Shop of Horrors — IPFW Department of Theatre performance of Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical comedy, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29, Williams Theatre, IPFW, Fort Wayne, $5-$18, 481-6555
Next to Normal — Tony Award- and Pulitzer-winning musical about coping with mental illness, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 4-6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7, Three Rivers Music Theatre, Fort Wayne, $10-$20, 498-2270
The Taming of the Shrew — William Shakespeare’s now somewhat controversial comedy about the battle between the sexes, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29 and Friday-Saturday, May 5-6; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 7; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 12-13, First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne, $12-$20, 426-7421 ext. 121
A Wrinkle in Time — all for One productions’ adaptation of Madeline L’Engle’s young adult science fiction novel, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 28-29; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 30; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 5-6; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 7, PPG ArtsLab, Auer Center for Arts & Culture, Fort Wayne, $11-20, 422-4226
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Click header for complete Art calendar
37th National Print Exhibition — Juried exhibition featuring contemporary printmakers from around the nation, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
41st SOCA Student Exhibition — Works from students currently enrolled at USF’s School of Creative Arts, daily thru April 30, Weatherhead Gallery, USF Rolland Art Center, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
Jan Krist-Finkbeiner — Exhibition of ceramic reliefs, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
Juxtapoz Magazine: 25 Years Under the Influence — A chronicle of the iconic magazine’s evolution into one of the most influential magazines of art of the counterculture, Tuesday-Sunday thru July 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Kathy Funderburg & Diane Schafer-King — Acrylic paintings (Funderburg) and works in marbled paper and fabric (Schaefer-King), Monday-Saturday thru April 29, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Norman Bradley and Friends — Exhibition of works by friends and colleagues of the late Fort Wayne artist, Tuesday-Saturday thru May 20 , Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, Roanoke, 672-2080
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Perspectives Live Butterfly Display — Up close and personal perspectives of the Conservatory’s newest collection of live butterflies, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 25, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Rhoda Gerig: The Hope of Eagles — Photographic images of eagles, daily thru June 4, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102
Robert Williams: SLANG Aesthetics! — An exhibition of new work by the artist considered the godfather of the lowbrow, pop surrealist and colloquial realism art movements, Tuesday-Sunday thru July 23, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
SOCA Graduate Program: Student Highlights — Juried exhibition of works by students enrolled in USF’s School of Creative Arts graduate program, Monday-Friday thru April 30, Lupke Gallery, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Exhibition of works by IPFW graduation seniors, daily thru May 3, Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery, Main Library, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Senior thesis projects from Bachelor of Fine Arts candidates Brenda Drayer (sculpture), Derek Hibbs (printmaking), Ellen Mensch (painting), Nathaniel Morris (sculpture) and Kyle Snodgrass (sculpture), daily thru May 7, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring Palette — New original works by more than 50 nationally recognized artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru May 20 (Cinco de Mayo Fiesta featuring mariachi music by Mark Meussling 6-10 p.m. Friday, May 5), Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568