“Art is a way of life in many ways for the family,” Michele Ortlip says. “My generation, the generation before me, the generation before them my grandfather’s father was an artist, my great uncle, my two aunts everybody.” It goes without saying that, included in the generation before her is Michele’s father, Paul Ortlip, the shining star of the family’s serious crop of artistic talent. The fourth generation of Ortlips, under custody of their father, grew up in a Fort Lee, N.J., home overlooking the Manhattan skyline. The home doubled as a gallery, as Mr. Ortlip over the years continued to fill his home, as well as every home of his thereafter, with his work. Michele calls it the artistic home.
It is with this history that Michele Ortlip gets ready for the 2008 season opening of Four Generations Art Gallery, which is in fact Mr. Ortlip’s most recent artistic home, on State Road in Vineyard Haven. The exhibition Extraordinary Portraits: Every Painting Tells A Story will open with a Sunday evening reception. The opening comes despite tragedy for the Ortlips; this year, a void like never before exists at the gallery, for, this past Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2008, Paul Ortlip, patriarch and master painter, passed away after a long struggle with leukemia.
Paul Ortlip, born in Fort Lee in 1926, might be included in a growing list of contemporary American masters. “There was no choice for him about what he would do with his life, he always painted,” Michele says. “He just painted.”
The Four Generations gallery Web site describes him as a “who’s who” who has been in too many Who’s Who in America and American Art editions to be counted. His career might be praised as well for its deep patriotic immersion. Mr. Ortlip served for the U.S. Navy as a combat artist during World War II, captured terrifying moments during his time painting in Viet Nam, and also was a prolific NASA artist. Michele remembers: “My father was on television, on the initial recovery helicopter picking up the astronauts. Everybody in school was so interested. He always went off and did these exciting things,”
Mr. Ortlip served on three such recovery missions for NASA, including two Apollo lunar recovery missions. When it came to capturing these sorts of moments, snapshots in history, he was notoriously quick, accurate and emotive in his sketches. So much so, that despite his deeper love for paint, it was often his sketches that were solicited for display. Indeed his collection at the U.S. Navy League and the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., includes these immediate sketches and watercolors.
His time in Viet Nam, while obviously troubling for those he left at home, also is remembered fondly by Michele: “[It] was scary: He loved adventure, but he was always able to take care of us as well.” While personally Michele preferred her father’s hometown adventures painting local politicians or researching mastodons and Native Americans for various projects, she still is able to cite several works from his military and astronautical works as being particularly powerful, for her as well as others:
“He’s got an incredible painting of a flyer during the Cuban missile crisis. [The flyer is] getting out of his plane, he looks so cool. It’s such a great painting; it really captured his essence, his swagger.” Recently, that flyer, Ron Datka, passed away. In exploring his legacy, Mr. Datka’s son came across a postcard from Mr. Ortlip to his father. Promptly, Mr. Datka reached out to the artist. It is for this sort of precious moment, his ability to unite and transcend generational barriers, his ability to paint and touch people’s emotions, that Paul Ortlip existed.
One of Paul’s more recent portraits, that of Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, also prompted such emotional response that the Air and Space Museum is currently soliciting the work, hoping that the touching representation of one American master by another, can be experienced by its visitors.
Despite the immense size of the murals Paul Ortlip did (Michele says she used to think it was magic to see the huge works created without a projector), despite the immense historical importance that many of his works for the Navy and NASA hold for the nation’s heritage, despite the beauty of Ortlip’s landscapes, or rather scenescapes, it is the portraits which are so hypnotic that they become unforgettable. (Notably, Paul was the opposite of the artist-recluse: he was a teacher, as well as the founder, of the Farleigh Dickinson art department for 15 years.) Michele recounts that her father had a knack for portraits: “His style is varying, depending on who he’s painting. Whether it’s an astronaut or Tommy the shoemaker in Fort Lee, he brought out the best in people and pride for their calling.”
Mr. Ortlip’s portraits are deeply sensual and evocative. The audience peers in at an intimate moment: we know that Mr. Ortlip sees great import in people’s natural abilities being magnified; we know that he loves each of his subjects deeply in the moment in which he is painting them. Looking at his impressive portraits leaves us wanting more of the subject, an unrequited love.
Each portrait’s moment is nearly palpable. Paul Ortlip may be a master contemporary painter, but his ability to capture a particular aesthetic and emotion makes him an all-time great portrayer.
It is with this understanding, of their father’s ability to convey tacit honor, respect and love in each one of his portraits, that the Ortlip family decided to move forward with the Four Generations Art Gallery’s opening this year. Indeed, the late father’s portraits spoke for themselves, as many were discovered and rediscovered in his Florida home: “A lot of his work we ended up bringing up from Florida, and because he had done so many portraits that people hadn’t seen both recent and past, we thought it’d be an interesting way to open the season.” Prompted by further questioning on what the future of Four Generations Art Gallery would be without its figurehead, Paul Ortlip, at the helm, Michele continues, “Right now I still see this as an artistic home, there’s this legacy that I have to and want to continue. I have to bring forward this art and my father’s art, to bring it to the generations of Ortlips and everyone else and to continue the Ortlip tradition. My father had a hard time teaching because he felt that everybody should be encouraged to do art and be artistic and it’s important to do art whether you’re an artist or not; we all have the ability to express ourselves.”
The works in this exhibition offer us the same encouragement.
The opening reception for Extraordinary Portraits is free from 6 to 9 p.m. on Sunday, June 29, at Four Generations Art Gallery, 517 State Road, between the Black Dog Cafe and Crane Appliance in Vineyard Haven. For details, call 508-693-5501.