May 29, 2003
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.