CARROLLTON, Ohio – Ralph Brumbaugh was born with an artist’s eye, the urge for artistic self-expression, and an intense interest in what was around him, especially nature.
But his impressive list of artistic accomplishments did not start to accumulate until after he was 60.
The Carroll County Commission for Advancement of the Arts honored Brumbaugh recently in recognition of his 93rd birthday and for his lifetime contribution to the arts.
Gallery exhibit. An exhibit of his paintings, photographs, and charcoal drawings was displayed in the main gallery of the arts center during November.
It was the first time his paintings had ever been exhibited outside the homes of relatives to whom they had been given.
The exhibit was not, however, the artistic expression of an entire lifetime, but of the lifetime since Brumbaugh began teaching himself how to paint in 1968.
Needed to draw. Born in 1908 in a log cabin in Marlboro Township in Stark County, Brumbaugh says one of his earliest memories is waiting for the months to turn so he would be given the expired calendar pages to use as drawing paper.
But he has also written in his reminiscences of vivid memories he stored of natural things, of green frogs diving into the water as he approached; of a spotted turtle, legs flailing wildly as it made for deeper water.
But especially of “a redwing blackbird, red epaulets ablaze, clinging to the tip of the tallest cattail, he completed the scene with his color and gurgling, liquid song.”
Starting to school was exciting, Brumbaugh said, not because he liked school that much, but because they gave him a slate and chalk. He could draw as much as he wanted, if he was willing to stay after school to finish his arithmetic problems on the blackboard.
And those birds. That schoolroom held another alluring charm: A large poster illustrating the birds of Ohio hung on the wall. He memorized them all.
Years later, after he had started tracking birds to photograph them and record their calls, sighting an Indigo bunting with shimmering, dark blue summer plumage – was one of the most exciting moments of his life.
“I knew it from the chart,” he said, “but I had never seen one.”
Put art away. After high school graduation, Brumbaugh joined his brother in Akron and he went to work at the Goodyear factory making tires. He married his high school sweetheart and started to raise a family. He turned 21 the day before the stock market crash of Oct. 29, 1929. He spent some time in the WPA, mostly grading roads and hauling dirt.
He was, he said, too busy making a living and raising a family to think about art or drawing.
Interest in birds. But he did maintain a strong interest in all things associated with nature and became an expert in identifying birds. “We used to call him nature boy, from the Nat King Cole recording,” said Brumbaugh’s daughter, Betty Shotwell.
“He knew everything, every tree, every bird, every bird song, every bird egg. He could tell what kind of bird it was by its flight, and he could identify what kind of owl you were hearing by the sound of its hoot.”
He loved to hunt and fish, anything that would keep him outside, and in 1944 he decided he wanted to get his family out of the city.
Farm in Carrollton. His brother, Walter, had settled on a farm near Carrollton to be near his wife’s mother. And the 98-acre farm across the road with an eight-room house, big enough for a family of six growing children, was for sale. The Brumbaughs bought the farm, two workhorses, six milk cows, and a selection of well-worn implements and tools for $3,500.
One week after Japan surrendered and the war had ended in 1945, the family moved to the farm in Carroll County.
Didn’t work. Brumbaugh said he has never regretted his decision to move. But the farm, he said, turned out to be a financial disaster.
“We expected to farm the way we knew,” he said, “with the horses and machinery that were there, and selling milk.”
The changing nature of farming and regulations being instituted for selling milk made it all impossible.
Within a few months he closed down the dairy, inseminated his cows with Angus semen to turn his herd into beef cattle, and went to look for work.
It would be another 20 years before he would allow his interest in expressing himself through art to make its way back into his life.
Drawing birds. When he did begin drawing again, it was to experiment with charcoal to draw birds.
The bird series he published in local newspapers through the 1970s included detailed charcoal drawings of each bird, with a short description.
He finally took his first big step toward becoming an artist by enrolling in an adult education oil painting class at Carrollton High School in 1968.
Although he had never painted, he discovered these classes weren’t going to teach him what he really wanted to know. He already knew how to draw. He understood perspective. What he needed to know was how to use and mix oils to achieve the colors and effects he had in his mind.
Teach himself. So he began to experiment and to teach himself, step by step, how to put paint onto canvas.
Brumbaugh said he preferred painting still life, and those are the paintings he is still proudest of. But he also made paintings of the farmhouses and settings around him in Carroll County.
And he painted birds, gorgeous renderings of pheasants and other game birds with each brilliantly colored feather faithfully included.
Couldn’t go on. Then, Brumbaugh said, in 1977 his wife Erma died of cancer. He stopped painting. He lost his concentration.
When the paintings were brought back together for the current exhibit, it was the first time he had seen most of them in many years. They were, he said, much better than he had remembered.
“And this has brought back a lot of memories,” he indicated as he looked around the room filled with bits and pieces of his life.
Brumbaugh’s first wife’s death left him at odds with himself and alone for the first time in his life.
Bird project. What he could do, he decided, was wander the fields and woods around his home and record the sounds of the birds.
He wanted to put a presentation together to help educate people who didn’t know one bird from another.
The Sunday school class he wife had taught surprised him with a parabolic microphone and enough extra to put toward a good camera.
Stalking birds. And he started stalking birds.
He beat the bushes to find nests so he could photograph first the eggs, then the young birds, and finally the fledglings.
He stalked them in the woods, getting ever closer to get a better and then a better picture.
He constructed a 20-foot extension for the camera so he could set it directly on the nest and then operate it from behind a bush.
He installed a feeder on his window that included a hole just large enough to put the camera lens through from the inside.
He focused his camera on a single blossom and then waited for a hummingbird to appear, even resorting to coating the blossom with nectar.
He camped out in the woods all night to record the calls of the owl, and then used his recording to lure them out in daylight to take their pictures.
Along the way he taught himself photography and sound recording, and then the multi-media art of putting together a slide program that included sounds, music, and narration.
Songbird program. Two years after he started he had completed one program, “Songbirds and their Calls.”
During that time his son, Wilber, died in a fire, and he also lost his sister, Viola, and a grandson.
It was the project that got him through all of that.
But that first program was just the beginning. Brumbaugh had found a calling that would consume him for the next 18 years.
In the end, he completed 12 programs ranging from 12 to 20 minutes, of birds and on themes he constructed around music.
Nature with music. His first nature program was “America the Beautiful” featuring music from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Another was “1900 Yesterday” with photographs of once familiar things like steam trains and outhouses.
He wanted a real Salvation Army lassie for his program, and persuaded a woman he met at the Salvation Army in Pittsburgh to dig out her old uniform to pose for the picture.
Over the years, he presented 17,000 programs to groups ranging from half a dozen to over 300 – in schools, churches, senior centers, rest homes, restaurants, fraternal organizations, and in private homes.
Donated proceeds. Although he never charged for the programs, there were donations. They all went to the American Cancer Society in the name of his wife, Erma. By 1983, he had contributed over $37,000.
Then Dorothy. And it was though the programs that he met his second wife, Dorothy.
She attended one of his programs, given for a senior group in her church in Springfield in 1985. She talked with him afterward and then invited him back to present a program at a rest home where she was volunteering.
“She took me to lunch,” Brumbaugh said, “and we kind of hit it off.”
After that she attended every program he did in the Youngstown area. They were married a few months later.
“I don’t know how I would manage without her,” Brumbaugh emphasizes now after 16 years of marriage.
Created legacy. The exhibit at the arts center, Brumbaugh said, has given him cause to think that perhaps he will leave a little heritage, something lasting to mark his life.
What he values most highly, he said, is the way his programs were received and what people told him they had meant to them.
Some of them have been put on videotape and are still being shown in the schools, in senior centers, and by other groups.
(Jackie Cummins can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)