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Reece Museum features Art Rosenbaum's 'tapestry of images woven from uncommon threads of his life’

Contributed • Updated Jan 17, 2020 at 10:52 PM

Over his 81 years of life, Art Rosenbaum has intermingled a palette of interests, passions and endeavors as broad as the spectrum of color and elements in his paintings.

“(Rosenbaum’s) investigations have resulted in a tapestry of images woven from the uncommon threads of his life’s pursuits,” says Dennis Harper, curator at Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Arts at Auburn University.

Rosenbaum’s tapestry of pursuits include painter, muralist, illustrator, educator and author, as well as collector, folk music recording documentarian, ethnographer and performer of traditional American folk music.

This month, East Tennessee State University begins an exhibition of the University of Georgia emeritus professor’s visual art. Reece Museum Exhibition Coordinator Spenser Brenner has transported from Georgia, curated and mounted the exhibition of paintings and drawings – 10 paintings in oil and one in casein and eight drawings in charcoal and/or a combination of charcoal and conté media – in Reece’s Galleries A&B.

“Like the artist himself, this work is vibrant, approachable and full of life,” Brenner says.

The exhibition continues through Feb. 21 with an artist talk by Rosenbaum on Thursday, Feb. 20, at 5 p.m., followed by a reception. The exhibit, talk and reception are free and open to the public.

Rosenbaum does not try to separate his variety of interests, because they merge in his visual and musical work so seamlessly. He started drawing as a young boy, he says, with instruction from his mother, a medical illustrator.

His grandmother sang Yiddish songs in their Indianapolis home, while his father, a doctor, liked “street songs” and an uncle played mandolin. His uncle, as one of the Monuments Men who recovered Nazi-confiscated artwork after World War II, and his mother, who loved the Metropolitan Museum of Art, introduced him to the masters.

He began playing guitar and banjo and recording folk musicians whose work he wanted to emulate and listen to, while earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in art history and painting from Columbia University in New York.

A documentarian and observer, as well as practitioner, Rosenbaum kept pursuing artists to make field recordings and illustrating the life surrounding these moments in time, while at the same time imagining other cultural and environmental connections.

“People could sense I was sharing interest and energy and spirit of the music and it just became a milieu that was of interest to me,” Rosenbaum says. “There was a kind of chemistry that happened.”

So many experiences go into his life’s work. Rosenbaum wryly remembers conversations with Bob Dylan, “an unknown kid guitar player” who was keenly interested in the recordings of guitarist Scrapper Blackwell. He also fondly reflects on collaborations in Georgia in the late 1970s with “kindred spirit” Rev. Howard Finster, musician and folk artist.

That chemistry and clash of cultures and arts often inspire a wide range of vignettes in Rosenbaum’s paintings and drawings. While his wife, Margo Newmark, is a documentary photographer – and often works with Rosenbaum on projects, books and exhibitions – Rosenbaum considers these interactions, whether with musicians, youngsters or other folk, simply a jumping off point for his often complex pieces.

Inspiration for his 72-by-210-inch triptych “Hurricane Season” sprung from the bottom of a student’s tennis shoe. “The sole of Andy LeMaster’s shoe looked like a city from above with road patterns,” Rosenbaum says.

“The shoe led to a lot of other things, incremental associations that build up in allegorical works like that. There’s a young guy recording, gospel musicians, skateboarders, a banjo player, young lovers, globes with swirling weather patterns, a river. ... ”

And Rosenbaum prefers to let his viewers tell him what they see in these cultural tapestries, rather than telling his backstories.

Volcanoes, graveyards and funnel clouds may hide in the backgrounds, while lovers, youngsters and people from myriad eras of history are juxtaposed with contemporary characters and activities.

No matter how the contemporary and serendipitous intermingle in his visual art, Rosenbaum’s folk music field work – compiled in the South and Midwest since his teenage years – is indeed documentary and a true depiction of history.

His recordings have resulted in over 14 documentary recordings, several of which are on Smithsonian-Folkways. His boxed set, “Art of Field Recording Vol. I: Fifty Years of American Traditional Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum,” won a Grammy for Best Documentary Recording in 2008.

He has also written and illustrated two books and a study of Mary Lomax ballads, as well as performing at folk festivals and writing and illustrating three instruction books on traditional banjo styles.

Rosenbaum will meet and work with not only ETSU Art and Design students, but also those in Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies, while on campus for his Feb. 20 artist talk and reception at Reece Museum.

“It’s unique to have an artist working at this level in so many disciplines simultaneously,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, sponsor of the exhibition and artist talk. “He is quite an accomplished individual – a true Renaissance man.”

For more information on Rosenbaum, visit artrosenbaum.org.

Reece Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday. For information on the museum, visit www.etsu.edu/reece.

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