Art Rosenbaum, Georgia artist, musician, teacher, dies at 83

Painter, Grammy-winner

Art Rosenbaum created his first oil painting in grade school and his last one a few weeks ago, before the cancer he fought for two years ended his life on Sunday morning. His final piece was a portrait of singer Michael Stipe of REM, a former student in the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art, where Rosenbaum taught for 30 years.

As word circulated that Rosenbaum was ill, students from around the country flocked to Athens to thank him and say good-bye. He was 83.

“He was an extremely popular and effective teacher,” said long-time colleague Judy McWillie.

Rosenbaum’s works were collected and displayed in museums and galleries around the country. He was also known for his love of American folk music, which he played and collected in field recordings. Those arts sometimes came together in his classroom, where musicians serenaded students.

“There are some people who bring an entire world with them,” McWillie said. “When you took Art’s course, you had to enter that universe. His universe broadcast outward, so students learned so much about Georgia and Georgia music.”

Arthur Spark Rosenbaum, was born in Ogdensburg, New York, the son of Della Spark Rosenbaum and Dr. David Rosenbaum, a U.S. Army pathologist who settled in Indianapolis, Indiana, after World War II. Art Rosenbaum said often that his mother, a laboratory technician, was an artist. She encouraged him and his siblings to develop interests in music, art and writing. Victor Rosenbaum, Art’s younger brother, is a concert pianist and teacher in Boston.

After finishing high school in Indianapolis, Art earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and an MFA in painting from Columbia University in New York. While there, he met and married artist Margo Newmark. He also was active in the city’s emerging folk music scene, sitting in on music sessions and giving banjo lessons. In 1976, Art, Margo and their son Neil moved to Athens, where Art joined the Lamar Dodd faculty.

"Art Rosenbaum's painting  Self-Portrait with Fiddle." Rosenbaum was a respected artist and musicologist of American folk music.

Credit: Unknown

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Credit: Unknown

In 1978, Art was teaching in UGA’s study abroad program in Cortona, Italy. One Saturday evening, then-fellow faculty member Andy Nasisse, Art and Margo were walking in Piazza Navona, which was filled with playing musicians, including a bluegrass group from Amsterdam.

After the group finished a song, Art asked if he could borrow a banjo and sit in with them, Nasisse said. When they finished, to a round of applause, a Dutch musician said to Art, “You know, you play banjo in the Art Rosenbaum style!” Nasisse said the man was blown away when Art told him that he was, indeed, Art Rosenbaum.

In addition to working with MFA students, Rosenbaum taught drawing and painting to UGA undergraduates. Sometimes he would invite Lucy and Brady “Doc” Barnes, local folk and gospel singers, into the classroom, where they would play and sing during figure drawing classes.

Rosenbaum’s large canvases feature a riot of color and figures, and “he was prone to calling his art allegorical figurative work,” said Lee Matney, who carries Rosenbaum’s paintings in his Linda Matney Gallery in Williamsburg, Virginia. ”There’s something deeper in them, the mysteries of the South.”

Skilled as a fiddler, guitarist and banjo player, Rosenbaum had a lifelong interest in recording vernacular music — found in churches, homes, factories or festivals. His album “The Art of Field Recording, Volume 1, 50 Years of Traditional American Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum,” published by Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital Record Company, earned a Grammy Award in 2008.

As Dust-to-Digital Record Company co-director Lance Ledbetter was listening to the music with Rosenbaum, he marveled that Art “could remember so many details of recordings he had made 30, 40, 50 years ago, like who was there and what they were playing. Art had a phenomenal memory for music and people, and he loved keeping traditions alive.”

Rosenbaum would hear and then track down musicians or singers, find out about their lives and join in their music. Margo would photograph them while Art recorded. That’s how they got involved with Georgia’s McIntosh County Shouters, which resulted in recordings and a book, “Shout Because You’re Free,” published by UGA Press. Rosenbaum wrote instructional books for the banjo as well as “Folk Visions and Voices,” also published by UGA Press.

Many in Athens would join the Rosenbaums at their home for their New Year’s Day party, which always meant lots of good food, musical instruments, playing and singing. Art was such a wonderful cook, said Margo, “that I’ve forgotten how to cook. I guess I’ll have to put myself in rehab.”

Art Rosenbaum is survived by his wife, Margo Newmark Rosenbaum, son Neil, brother Victor Rosenbaum, sister Jenny Rosenbaum, two nieces and a grandniece.