A renowned painter, muralist and educator, Art Rosenbaum was also a performer, folklorist and “song catcher” of traditional American music. With profound talent, a big heart and an unparalleled passion for the arts, he not only inspired others through his work but was instrumental in preserving the legacies of those who inspired him. He died at the age of 83 on the early morning of Sept. 4 after a long battle with cancer.
Born in 1938 in Ogdensburg, NY, Rosenbaum earned an AB in art history and an MFA in painting at Columbia University in New York City, where he met and married fellow artist Margo Newmark. A decade into their marriage, Art, Margo and their son Neil settled down in Athens, where he taught at the Lamar Dodd School of Art for the next 30 years, earning the title of the first Wheatley Professor in Fine Arts upon his retirement in 2006. As an educator, he influenced a generation of emerging artists through his contagious enthusiasm and deep well of knowledge. He was known to greet each student with genuine curiosity and respect, no matter their age or skill level, with an awareness that they may have the potential to become a future colleague or friend.
Belonging to a wave of artists who reintroduced figuration and narrative into a period dominated by abstraction, his distinctive painting style uses expressive realism to create scenes that vibrate with motion. Often embedded with real-life characters and allegorical references, his paintings transcended space and time by weaving together threads pulled from different memories, historical accounts and present-day contemplations.
Art and Margo maintained independent artistic practices that primarily ran parallel, yet occasionally intertwined for astounding results. Frequently traveling together, the pair would join their talents to create multi-dimensional portrayals of musicians and artists through combinations of recordings, essays, annotations, paintings, illustrations and photographs.
Art’s passion for documenting traditional American music motivated him to travel off the beaten paths throughout the South and Midwest in search of blues, ballads, spirituals, fiddle tunes and other vernacular melodies that may have otherwise been lost to history. His field recordings are preserved through over a dozen releases, several of which are included on the Smithsonian Folkways label. In 2008, his expansive box set Art of Field Recording Volume I: Fifty Years of American Traditional Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum won a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.
In addition to several instructional books on how to play old-time mountain banjo, he authored Folk Visions & Voices: Traditional Music and Song in North Georgia, Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia and The Mary Lomax Ballad Book: America’s Great 21st Century Traditional Singer. A catalog entitled Weaving His Art on Golden Looms: Paintings and Drawings by Art Rosenbaum accompanied his first major retrospective exhibition held at the Georgia Museum of Art in 2006.
Naturally, Art was a musician and multi-instrumentalist himself who released several LPs and CDs of his own playing and singing. Known to pick up a guitar, banjo or fiddle and hop in with other performers, he was also the beloved captain of the Around the Globe Sea Chantey Singers, an ensemble of art students recruited to keep the tradition of maritime work songs alive.
A founder of the North Georgia Folk Festival, he created its popular poster art every year with the exception of its upcoming 37th iteration, for which Margo illustrated a portrait of Art. Though unable to perform again as he had hoped, his presence will be felt during a tribute held at the festival at Sandy Creek Park on Sept. 24 at 4 p.m.
Exhibited at Tif Sigfrids in New York City last month, Art’s final painting was a portrait of Michael Stipe, R.E.M. frontman and a former student-turned-friend. An hour’s drive from Athens, Piedmont University’s Mason-Scharfenstein Museum of Art in Demorest is currently exhibiting a collection of his work through Oct. 13, with a reception scheduled for Oct. 6 from 5–7 p.m. Organized by the Linda Matney Gallery, the Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts in Spring, TX will host “Three Excellences of Culture: Painting, Poetry and Music, the Work of Art Rosenbaum and Friends” from Sept. 24–Jan. 13.
If this recent burst of exhibitions is any indication, Art was someone who succeeded in squeezing every last drop out of life. With a devout interest in the human condition, his work demonstrates how to find inspiration among the people and places that surround you. He will be deeply missed, but much of him lives on through his artwork, recordings, lessons and stories.
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