From Montgomery Memories Magazine
Written by Kelly O’Dell Stanley
Montgomery County isn’t necessarily known for its natural beauty. There are no mountains whose ice-topped peaks glitter in the sunlight. No oceans roaring onto jagged cliffs below. But if you look at it from the right viewpoint, there is beauty all around. Battered barns still standing proudly, fields of bountiful crops, no city high-rises to block the view of the magnificently beautiful sunsets. Purple-blue shadows cast by the corn stalks left in the drifting snow. Creeks gurgling, winding, meandering gently between sturdy trees, with the light and shadow playing beneath them. Hollyhocks bursting with color, lining the ditches and fence rows. Beautiful but humble. Full of spirit and peace, exuding a timeless sense of belonging. Subtle, and content.
Kind of like my dad. I’m biased, of course, but even so, Rob O’Dell has made a career of painting the rural Indiana landscapes we see every day. He is much like the subject matter he surrounds himself with: Tried and true. Content. For the past 43 years, he has crafted scenes in watercolor that have been exhibited and shown all over the world. Even with such success elsewhere, my dad knows he owes a lot to Montgomery County.
After training at the American Academy of Art in Chicago as a commercial artist, he was hired to do Sears catalog layouts. On weekends and evenings, he painted, exploring techniques he’d learned from Irving Shapiro at the Academy, and then exhibiting his work at weekend art fairs. “I was insatiable,” he said. “After work I’d come home and paint.” His work was being noticed and he had discovered something he loved. It was a dream, and for most people, that’s what it remains.
While he was working, Mom would take me for walks in my baby buggy, and we’d return covered in soot. She and Dad (and their parents) wanted them to get out of Chicago. Dad’s boss, Barney Donnelley, was a frustrated artist himself, and he gave Dad the security he needed. He assured Dad that he had nothing to lose — his job would be there waiting for him if and when he needed to come back.
So when I was 11 months old (in 1968), they made the leap. “What a chance we took,” Dad said. They had a new car and didn’t owe anyone anything. We moved in with Mom’s grandparents, Glenn (“Lop”) and Ann Walsh, in Ladoga while they cleaned up an abandoned family farmhouse five miles east of town. (My mom later got it certified as a Hoosier Homestead Farm, meaning it was owned by the same family for over 100 years.) Mom was thrilled to be moving into a house built by her great-grandfather, George Otterman, and making it a place for someone to live again. In the attic, she found journals he’d written about how he built the barns and house, and the more she read and learned and researched, the more she loved it there.
On weekends, we traveled to about 15 art fairs a year. Dad tells stories about some of the early years of selling his work in his hometown of Decatur, IL. He’d pull up in his van, and people would be standing there waiting, buying paintings as he pulled them out of the back. One year, he sold out completely before he was even unloaded. Many times he would sell out on the first day and go home and paint all night to have work for the next day’s show.
My mom stayed home with us for many years (really, Dad did, too, walking out to the studio building behind the house every morning after breakfast but having lunch and dinner with us). In 1985, the same year I graduated from Southmont, Mom graduated from IU Nursing School. Once she started working (first at R.R. Donnelly’s and then as the Southmont school nurse), and my sister Kerry and I were in college, Dad got bored being home all by himself. He bought the studio in downtown Ladoga in 1990, both as a way to have more contact with people and as a place to host workshops. His workshops quickly outgrew the space, so he moved them to the Old Normal but still paints and exhibits downtown.
His love of painting has never faded. After all these years, he still looks forward to going in to work, to having a customer stop by unexpectedly, to trying new techniques and further perfecting old ones. He loves to draw, to photograph possible subject matter, to teach workshops, to talk about his techniques, and — of course — to paint.
I’ve always said my sister and I got the best of both worlds growing up — daily life in a close-knit community paired with this whole other world consisting of art gallery openings in Saugatuck, MI (or Indianapolis or Springfield, IL or…); seeing Dad accept an award from the Hoosier Salon or Indiana Watercolor Society; and listening to local news stations interviewing him for his contributions to their art communities.
Dad says there was always quite a contrast between his professional and his daily life, and he’s met amazing people through both. One example is Lyman Ayres, who owned LS Ayres in Indianapolis. For a couple years in the early ‘70s, he drove out every other month or so in his Cadillac convertible. He had a different fashion model with him every time, plenty of money, and he loved to buy Dad’s paintings. Many of Dad’s customers are long-time collectors whose paintings are now being handed down to their children and grandchildren.
People who see Dad’s art often ask me, “Aren’t you proud?” Well, of course I am. But Dad’s abilities as an artist are only part of what makes me proud. He showed me that a parent can attain success working from home. He showed me it’s possible to have a successful career and still put family first. He showed me that you don’t have to be pushy to have people notice your work. In fact, he doesn’t do what he does to impress other people; he does it because he loves it. It fulfills him, and when he is away or busy and can’t paint, he misses it. He enjoys people and treats them well, and people show him the same respect. He likes to teach workshops and nurture abilities in others, and he holds nothing back. There are no secrets, just techniques, and he’s not threatened by giving those tools to others. Galleries still sell his work, and he still attends a couple weekend art fairs a year. He has a career that allows him to travel or to golf a couple days a week (and when the weather is especially nice or he’s playing especially well, maybe three or four). He has had a great life, and at 74, he sees no need to retire. I guess that’s because what he does is not just a job, it’s an extension of who he is and how he sees the world around him.
The Terre Haute Tribune, many years ago, wrote something that still embodies his work today. “O’Dell’s work is a new dimension of reality. It is more than real. It is art. He has looked around him, he has remembered, and he has recorded. He has put it down with great beauty.” And I’m so glad that he does.