Back when artist Fred Rothenbush traveled the country toting canvases in a van, he painted commissioned portraits for Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Elvis Presley.
Priceless Rothenbush originals hang in museums, presidential libraries and at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Still, the artist prefers his modest home on the Little Manatee River canal to a formal work studio.
Here, the sunlight hits his canvas just right, making reds pop and blues glisten. Here, he watches the manatees through the kitchen window. Surrounded by family keepsakes, he chats with his wife and eats breakfast where he works.
After four decades making a living as a painter, Rothenbush, 63, still finds inspiration in his own back yard. This weekend he will appear at the Apollo Beach Manatee Festival of the Arts, where he took home the 2011 TECO Energy Award of Excellence.
At the event, sponsored by the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, he will showcase his newest paintings, including a photo-realistic alligator and river-inspired landscapes.
Preparing for the festival, Rothenbush sat at his easel contemplating a work in progress. He pressed his fingers into the bristles of a paintbrush and smiled.
"There's nothing like just getting up in the morning and saying, 'What would I like to paint today?' " he said. "I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I get to do exactly what I want to do. I have this community, in part, to thank for that."
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As a boy growing up in Owensboro, Ky., Rothenbush felt destined to create art. His grandfather painted Rookwood pottery at the turn of the 20th century. His accountant father sold watercolor landscapes part-time.
In grade school, Rothenbush used to skip class, sit by the lake and draw for hours. As a teen he trained his eye to act like a camera. He learned to capture the fleck of orange in a freshly fallen leaf, to mimic shadows and highlight yellow hues in brunette hair.
"Color obsessed me," he said. "Everything I saw, I was drawn to the colors."
Rothenbush won his first major art award at age 12, in a show where he competed against established adult artists. In high school, he painted portraits of his friend's gals and sketched for tips at a local bar. He argued with his art teacher about proper technique.
After graduation, the Army drafted Rothenbush and shipped him to Korea, where he spent free time painting works for commanders to send home to family. He returned to the States after two years with plans to move out West. Then, on a visit to his parents' new home in Florida, he met his future wife at First Baptist Church of Ruskin.
"When we shook hands, neither one of us could let go," Rothenbush said. "I knew I had to stay and, it turns out, Florida is a wonderful place to be an artist."
As a newlywed, Polly Rothenbush supported her husband's work. When they purchased their waterfront home 30 years ago, she never asked him to get a "real job." The mother of four remembers packing the kids into the van on weekends, traveling hundreds of miles to art shows.
"I would take my electric skillet and cook us all dinner in motel rooms," she said. "I never hesitated because I knew painting was what he loved. I knew he would be successful."
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Rothenbush made most of his contacts participating in art shows. At home in Ruskin, local commissions kept the family afloat. Then, connections led to meetings with influential leaders and celebrities. Whenever someone called looking for a painter, Rothenbush made himself available, whether that meant a plane ride or a car haul.
Hunters requested him for weeklong trips. Country stars invited him to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, where he painted Glen Campbell and Dolly Parton. He participated in festivals in every state.
"Shows are the way to success as a professional artist," Rothenbush said. "I still get commission jobs from contacts I made at shows I did 20 years ago."
Today, Rothenbush paintings sell for $750 to $18,000. He works with sheriff's offices and police departments throughout the United States providing paintings for fundraisers and other events. He recently finished a portrait of the late football star Freddie Solomon for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department.
In 2007, the Air Force contacted him about painting an aviation battle that took place in the Sangin Valley in Afghanistan. For the project, Rothenbush stayed up all night for months, mastering the detail of pilot uniforms and helicopter wings. The pilots depicted in the painting, which hangs at Fort Bragg, received prints at the Air Force Ball.
"That is the work I am most proud of," Rothenbush said. "Nothing compares to that."
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Wildlife inspires the majority of Rothenbush's noncommissioned work. He takes paints with him to the beach. He spends hours alongside the Hillsborough River. Sometimes, dolphins swim by his dock.
In 1992, Rothenbush displayed his work at the inaugural Manatee Festival of the Arts. Since then, he has participated in the event more than a dozen times. He describes the local arts community as supportive. As a grandfather to 10 girls with a love for art, he hopes more festivals will pop up and help pave the way for young artists. Not that he plans on retiring.
"As long as my hands and my mind holds up," Rothenbush said. "I plan on painting right up until the end."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]