Big Pictures
by Judy Bolyard Purdy

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.

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.

“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.

Anatomy of style

Rosenbaum’s complex, sometimes troubling, stories spring to life through his unique approach that incorporates a range of Western styles, traditions and techniques.

“His work has a craziness that I admire,” Herbert said. “His paintings have what I call ‘spaghetti space.’ He weaves background and figure together in a way that suggests the figures are enmeshed in unexpected and surprising ways. It’s an entirely original way of handling figure painting, one that I’ve never seen before.”

“He really mixes the present and the past in interesting ways,” Colangelo said.

Some compare Rosenbaum’s work with the 1930s American Scene or Regionalism style popularized by Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, who both captured scenes of Midwestern farm life as well as American social issues of the times. Atlanta Journal-Constitution art critic Catherine Fox has likened Rosenbaum’s work to an “Expressionist John Steuart Curry.”

Dennis Harper, who earned a master’s degree under Rosenbaum’s tutelage, sees his mentor’s style as more than narrative story telling. “It’s poetry, maybe even epic poetry,” he said.

Brilliant, scintillating colors are a hallmark of Rosenbaum’s work. In addition to squeezing color from tubes of paint and mixing them on a palette — what artists call direct painting — he layers colors on the canvas. He may paint blue over yellow to create a rich green. Called indirect painting, the technique was popular five centuries ago among Renaissance painters.

Indirect painting gives you “a visual perception of green, but you’re also aware of that yellow and that blue,” said Harper, now curator of exhibitions at the Georgia Museum of Art. Harper is organizing a retrospective exhibit of Rosenbaum’s work slated for November 2007.

In painting a sky, for example, “Rosenbaum will lay in spots of color and glaze over them with other colors. It might be a warm blue over a cool blue or a violet over a blue-green,” he said. Or it could be lots of different colors. Rosenbaum paints flesh tones using lavenders, grays, reds and greens, for example, the way Impressionists painted figures.

Rosenbaum begins by “underpainting” the canvas with ocher, umber or perhaps Venetian red. The ageless technique — popular centuries ago with Rembrandt and other Old Dutch Masters — gives intense, vibrant colors.

“The light reflected back to our eyes bounces off the various glaze layers. Some of the light penetrates one layer down and bounces back — let’s say a green. Some goes deeper and bounces back as pink, until you get all the way down to the underpainting that was Venetian red,” Harper said. “All the various layers of color coalesce to project a combined statement, while still maintaining their own distinct identities. It makes for a color effect that can’t be achieved by any other means.”

Pronounced brush strokes give his paintings rich texture.

“The way he scuffles and moves in choppy strokes — and how you feel about and move through the painting — becomes how he creates expressive movement,” Colangelo said. “There are so many brushstrokes in every painting. It’s not about being economical; it’s about expressing yourself.” Depth and perspective come from his use of line and shape, which makes some objects stand out in the foreground and others recede. Like 16th century Italian Mannerist artists, Rosenbaum plays with perspective; like Cubist artists, he fragments space, creating contradictions in perspective.

“Often he’ll paint multiple views of the same figure in motion, a Futurist idea,” Colangelo said.

“Art’s focus meanders all across the painting surface,” Harper said. “The viewpoints change all around; one image merges into another or is repeated.”

Rosenbaum draws inspiration from artists across the centuries, such as French artist Paul C���zanne, an early contributor to Cubism.

“C���zanne was among the greatest artists of the last 100 years. He had a lot of emotion and layers of human experience,” said Rosenbaum, who sometimes studies the French painter’s use of perspective.

Rosenbaum’s signature style — colors that dazzle, a surface of intricate brush strokes and distorted perspectives — add up to a multidimensional experience for viewers.

“His work has a presence that makes me feel good about it,” Herbert said. “He has a linear way of painting that exaggerates gnarly looks and crevices. There’s an organic, flowing quality to his work.”

Colangelo calls Rosenbaum “the quintessential artist, a Renaissance man well-versed in so many historic and modern techniques and styles.”

The painter also earns praise from art critics.

“Rosenbaum is very good at his game ���” wrote Aim���e Brown Price in the March 2000 issue of Art in America. “These are grand paintings of grand ambition, sometimes edgy and foreboding but loving riffs on and tributes to our country, nonetheless.”

An artist’s life

Rosenbaum’s creative spark ignited early.

“Art was really all I wanted to do,” he said. “When I was a little teeny kid I was drawing a fire truck and it was time to go to bed. And I said, ‘Mom, I’ve got to put the firemen on it.’

“She said, ‘OK, after you put the firemen on it you can go to bed.’ So I put one, two, three, four, five and then I ended up putting hundreds of firemen on top of the fire truck to forestall going to bed.”

Those multi-figured childhood drawings foreshadowed his adult style: paintings too large for ordinary easels and complex murals populated with dozens of characters.

By age 9, he was painting in oils; by high school he was earning first place at statewide competitions in his boyhood state of Indiana and competing against adults in juried art shows. He used the earnings from his first art prize to buy a banjo and taught himself to play and also mastered guitar and fiddle. (See story on opposite page.) In the mid 1960s he wrote his first book, Old-Time Mountain Banjo, which is still in print.

“There’s something similar between fiddling and wielding a paintbrush,” he said. “A bow is working in space, weaving a tune in space.”

In the late 1950s and early ’60s he studied art at Columbia University. After receiving his MFA, he stayed on in the city, living in a downtown loft and experimenting with Abstract Expressionism before heading off to Paris for a year on a Fulbright grant to paint and study.

Back in the States, he married photographer and artist Margo Newmark — with whom he collaborates on folklore books, projects and exhibitions — and embarked on a teaching career, first in New York City and then Iowa before settling at UGA in 1976.

Some say his teaching mirrors his painting.

“He reminds me of his artwork — the lines going this way and that,” said Shannon Riddle, an art major who graduated last May. “He’s able to see which direction is best for each student. Doing art is a constant struggle. If you were satisfied with your art I guess you’d quit.”

Last spring Riddle took Rosenbaum’s materials and painting class, learning to make egg tempera paints from egg yolk and paint frescoes on fresh plaster, just like the Medieval and Renaissance artists who decorated European churches. Students used classics such as 15th-century painter Cennino Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook in their application of traditional techniques to contemporary image making.

Class demonstrations included making pastel drawing sticks by mixing cerulean blue powder, chalk and a binder. The mixture resembles cookie-dough that is rolled into thick pencils.

“I’m trying to demystify the mediums that the Old Masters used. It’s exciting to share things with students and learn from them. We talk a lot about content and form. I tell students to look and feel, to work out their inspirations through the medium,” said Rosenbaum. He has been awarded a Fulbright Teaching Professorship in Germany, a UGA Senior Teaching Fellowship and a Sandy Beaver Teaching Professorship. He also has received a number of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2003 Governor’s Award in the Humanities, among others.

For years Rosenbaum has carried his old, beat-up Polaroid camera around campus, snapping multiple-exposure photos of students and colleagues engrossed in work and play. Friends know he’s collecting reference images for some future project.

“He brings a poetic humbleness to his work in the way that he approaches people. The portraits of their interior and exterior lives are monumental and they loom large to the subjective eye. This makes him one of the premier muralists of our time,” said Herbert, who has modeled for Rosenbaum’s paintings and murals.

Rosenbaum’s office is jammed with creative starting points for his projects. Visitors must dance past a human skeleton and shelves that spill an assortment of books on the floor. A large window overlooks South Jackson Street scenes and people.

“Creativity involves a synthesis of different elements — making connections that add up to more than the sum of their parts. Kandinsky said a creative mind can use anything, even a spent match stick,” Rosenbaum said. “You can take something from the everyday and start with that.”

A highly developed curiosity spurs Rosenbaum to keep searching for original ideas, fresh perceptions and new inspiration to share with students or commit to canvas.

“He’ll never run out of subject matter,” Harper said, “as long as his eyes are open.”

For more information, contact Art Rosenbaum at or access

Judy Bolyard Purdy edits Research Magazine and directs the UGA Office of Research Communications.