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Big Pictures

by Judy Purdy


Intro/Epic Stories  |  Anatomy of style   |  An artist's life

Painting "The World at Large"

Folk Music & Culture

"McIntosh County Shouters," oil on canvas, 1983, 68" x 78" from the University of Georgia Sea Grant Collection, Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia

"Granny Thacker Dancing," charcoal, 1982, 30" x 32"


Art Rosenbaum scales ladders, climbs scaffolding and paints from a cherry picker to get just the right effect for his over-sized paintings and enormous murals.

To paint a large outdoor mural in Dothan, Ala., for example, Rosenbaum waited until nightfall to project his sketch onto a downtown building’s east wall.

“I went up in a bucket truck and traced the lines. When I painted the contour for the line on the tree trunks, I would tell the bucket truck operator to go down real slowly. It was like a 30-foot arm with me at the end of it,” said the University of Georgia Wheatley Professor of Art.

Art Rosenbaum paints large, multilayered narratives of everyday life that express personal and universal themes. (left to right oils on canvas): "Tendai and Hoa," 2002; "Double Self-Portrait with Mr. Rembrandt, the World's Most Unusual Artist," 1972; "Charlie Rakestraw," 2003.

The commissioned mural depicts Rosenbaum’s interpretation of the encounter between American Indians and Hernando de Soto’s explorers in the wiregrass country.

“We should have started on the top and worked down, but we didn’t have enough scaffolding,” he said.

One afternoon, the artist and his assistant worked on the landscape above a Spanish explorer mounted on a white horse and quit for the day.

That night it rained.

“The next morning that beautiful white horse was all brown,” Rosenbaum said. “The sun was coming up so we ran to the nearest store and bought mops and detergent and scrub brushes and we just scrubbed it off. If that paint had had time to dry — like another hour — I would have had to repaint the whole thing.”

Epic stories

While his murals are public art, Rosenbaum’s paintings are personal and subjective.

“He paints very multilayered narratives that deal with humanity, with some aspect of each celebrating a creative, full life,” said printmaker and painter Carmon Colangelo.

You could step into just about any rural community or big-city neighborhood and find Rosenbaum-like characters and scenes. With calculated brush strokes Rosenbaum explores, probes and interprets stories of people’s everyday lives. The themes are personal and universal: love and the struggle for intimacy, a desire to belong and the pain of alienation. Sometimes his figures are juxtaposed against an unsettling backdrop of national and international events.

Often described as epic narratives and allegories, the paintings flow from his keen observation of life in the rural South, his vast knowledge of traditional folk music and folk culture, and his experiences living and working in the South, the Midwest, New York City and Europe.

The role of art is to inspire the soul and the role of the artist is to elevate the aspirations of a society, said Colangelo, who directs UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art. Art, like science, is fueled by the need “to experiment, to search, to find some truth, to deal with the world and discover something new.”

Rosenbaum said he wants people to interact with his paintings and find a deeper understanding of time, place and culture.

Painter and muralist Art Rosenbaum stands in front of his mural-in-progress in Dothan, Ala., in 1992. The commissioned mural depicts an early encounter between the Spanish explorers and American Indians.

“I would like painting to be viable as an expressive art form on the level of a novel or a film  the way it was in the 17th century, painting that is an experience,” he said. “While looking at a Rembrandt painting, Van Gogh said that he would be happy to sit there for weeks with just a crust of bread to eat.”

The authentic quality of Rosenbaum’s work reveals an intimate understanding of his characters on canvas — their humanity and the subtle nuances of their culture.

“If I had to sum up in one thought Art’s work and his life and his spirit, it would be his sense of ‘warmth for life,’” said James Herbert, a painter, filmmaker and UGA art professor.

Other studio artists might not describe their lifelong work as “research” but Rosenbaum finds it an apt description.

“For artists, our work is our research,” he said. “[My goal] is to get viewers involved, moved emotionally and visually, drawn into a more extended reading of the work. I like it when people come into the studio and say, ‘Wow!’ I want them to connect to the paintings.”

Rosenbaum’s paintings and drawings have been exhibited by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C, and galleries in New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans, Belgium and Switzerland. They also hang in museums as well as corporate and private collections from New York City to Los Angeles and from Stockholm, Sweden to Cortona, Italy.

In addition to huge paintings and murals, Rosenbaum creates smaller pastels, watercolors, drawings and illustrations that have found their way into books and onto book covers, such as the five-volume series Atlas of American Traditional Music published by the Smithsonian Institution in 2000. Large or small, Rosenbaum’s works are distinctive for their bright, bold colors, plentiful characters and multiple-layered effects.


Intro/Epic Stories  |  Anatomy of style   |  An artist's life


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