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
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Art on Broadway — Tours of 5 downtown venues featuring art from Alexandra Hall, Julie Wall, Peter Lupkin, Daniel Dienelt, Knotodday, Kay Gregg, Terry Ratliff and St. Monci, 5 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Broadway Street, Fort Wayne, free, 417-5925
Beer, Bourbon, Bacon Festival — Unlimited beer sampling from national and regional craft breweries, fine bourbon sampling and bacon inspired treats, 6-9 p.m. Saturday, March 25 (5-9 p.m. VIP), Marquis and Three Rivers Ballrooms, Hotel Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, $35-$75, 484-0411
An Evening with Author Tom Frank — Author of What’s the Matter with Kansas talks about his new book; hors d’oeuvres, lecture and book signing included in admission, 6 p.m. Saturday, March 25, CS3 Hideaway, Fort Wayne, $15 plus donation, 602-1008
Puttin’ on the Ritz —Active 20-30 club fundraiser with live music from Chris Worth and Company, gourmet edibles, wine and beer, live and silent auctions; black tie optional, 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, $50-$90, 450-2844
Shipshewana on the Road — Food, craft and primitives show and sale, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, March 25 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, $4, 483-1111
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Big Dick and the Penetrators — Classic rock at Navy Club, Ship 245, New Haven, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 493-4044
Brat Pack — Rat Pack/variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Cougar Hunter — 80s glam rock at Vinnie's Bar, Decatur, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $5, 729-2225
Ellsworth Sharp — Neofolk at Friendly Fox, Fort Wayne, 6:30-8:30 p.m., no cover, 745-3369
FBC Band w/Sheba — Variety/Music and Memories benefit at C2G Music Hall, Fort Wayne , 8 p.m., $7-$15, 426-6434
Fireball Matinee — Rock at Hideaway Lounge, Bluffton, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 824-0455
Fleshwounds — Rock at Hamilton House, Hamilton, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 488-3344
Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra — Funk at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., cover, 483-1311
Fu5ion — Variety at Mitchell's Sports Bar & Neighborhood Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-2 a.m., $3, (260) 387-5063
The Illegals — Rock at O'Sullivan's Italian Irish Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 422-5896
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 Alley Sports Bar, Pro Bowl West, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-4421
Johnny Freakin' Xcitor — Country rock at Beamer's Sports Grill, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m., no cover, 625-1002
Kat Bowser — Variety at Don Hall's Guesthouse, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 489-2524
The Orange Opera w/Mickyle James — Rock at Brass Rail, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., $5, 267-5303
Prime Suspects — Variety at American Legion Post 499, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 483-1368
Quincy and the Q-Tet feat. Phil Potts — Rock/variety at Downtown Eatery & Spirits, Warsaw, 10 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, (574) 267-6000
Second Nature — Pop at Crazy Pinz, Fort Wayne, 8-11 p.m., no cover, 490-2695
Shannon Persinger Quartet — Jazz/variety at Club Soda, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 426-3442
Todd Harrold & Nick Bobay Duo — R&B/blues/variety at American Legion Post 148, Fort Wayne, 7 p.m., no cover, 423-4751
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Ambitious Blondes Karaoke — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Beat Karaoke & DJ — Variety at American Legion Post 296, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m. , no cover, 456-2988
Bucca Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Tower Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-6310
Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Corner Pocket Tavern, Fremont, 10 p.m., no cover, 495-9255
Classic City Karaoke w/Tobin — Karaoke at Toad's Tavern, Monroeville, 10 p.m., no cover, 623-6226
DJ Shawn — Karaoke/variety at Club Paradise, Angola, 10 p.m., no cover, 833-7082
Fort Wayne Karaoke — Karaoke at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10:30 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., , 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Variety at Arena Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 557-1563
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-4748
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 — Variety at Crooner's Karaoke Bar, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., no cover, 486-1979
Live DJ — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Shooting Star Prod. w/Barbie — Variety at Uncle Lou's Steel Mill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 436-5787
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Pike's Pub, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 478-6200
Sidecar Gary's Karaoke & DJ — Karaoke at Kville Pub, Kendallville, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 348-1677
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The Children’s Hour — Lillian Hellman’s seminal drama about bigotry perpetuated against the LGBT community and how easily a lie can spread, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, First Presbyterian Theater, Fort Wayne, $12-$20, 426-7421 ext. 121
Getting Sara Married — Comedy about an unmarried lawyer in need of a husband (according to her aunt), 7 p.m. dinner, 8 p.m. curtain, Saturday, March 25, Arena Dinner Theatre, Fort Wayne, $40 (includes dinner & show), 424-5622
One Foot in the Gravy — Howard Kingkade’s comedy and winner of Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s Northeast Indiana Playwright Festival, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25; 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26, Arts United Center, Fort Wayne, $10-$20, 422-4226
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22nd Annual Valentine’s Invitational — Works from local and national artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru March 31, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568
2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards — Award-winning works from northern Indiana and northwest Ohio middle and high school students, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Afros: A Celebration of African Hair by Michael July — Contemporary photography exhibit by Brooklyn author/photographer, daily thru April 14, D’Agostino Art Gallery, Indiana Tech, Fort Wayne, 399-8626
An Artful Spring — Works by Gwen Gutwein, Patricia Weiss, Austin Cartwright and more, Tuesday-Saturday thru March 31, Crestwoods Frame Shop & Gallery, Roanoke, 672-2080
Decatur Sculpture Tour — 31 original sculptures and 15 permanent exhibits on display, walking tour maps available, thru April 1, Decatur, free, 724-2605
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Entropy — Daniel Swartz solo exhibition explores relationship between death and mourning through combinations of mythology, mathematics, multi-dimensional physics and pop culture, Monday-Saturday thru April 1, Jennifer Ford Art, Fort Wayne, 740-1309
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
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, $5-$7 (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
Garden Party — Garden-themed works in a variety of mediums from over 30 local artists, Monday-Saturday thru March 31, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Generations: A View of Who Was Who — Works by Romare Bearden, Kara Walker, Alma Thomas, Jacob Lawrence and other African-American artists, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 9, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
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
A Mary Poppins Garden Party — Child-oriented garden exhibit, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 1, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Moments in Time: Reflecting on the Human Spirit — Elizabeth Opalenik photographs from her recent Amish series A Journey Home and her Reflecting on the Edge exhibition, daily thru March 26, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
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
RAW. Untamed. Unashamed. Visions of Freedom. — Abstract romanticist works in acrylics and epoxy from Kristy Jahn, Fridays and Saturday-Thursday by appointment thru March 25, The Gallery at Pranayoga, Fort Wayne, 423-9642
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, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467
Wabash County Schools Exhibition — Works by high school art students, daily thru April 16, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102