A palatable hobby

For more than 30 years, Hagerstown fixture Bob Wantz has used paint, brush to represent the world around him.

For more than 30 years, Hagerstown fixture Bob Wantz has used paint, brush to represent the world around him.

November 25, 2002|BY KEVIN CLAPP

Bob Wantz springs up three steps into the William H. Singer Jr. Memorial Gallery, whirling around to select an oil painting at random.

The gallery is empty, and he zeros in on a golden-hued dog to one side of a painted canvas, Adolphe Monticelli's "Garden Scene."

His finger waves across the figure in broad strokes to illustrate the differences between working in oils and watercolors, his chosen medium.


There is a lesson to be taught on this Tuesday morning, and Wantz is in his element.

"Watercolor is very spontaneous, and a very unpredictable medium. It's the only medium where you have this wonderful transparency in the medium," the artist says. "It's not like oil. You can do oil over oil, acrylic over acrylic, but watercolor doesn't work that way."

Lesson complete, Wantz retreats back to the Smith Gallery at Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, where a retrospective exhibit of 33 Wantz originals will hang through Sunday, Jan. 12.

An opening reception from 2:30 to 4 p.m. today provides an opportunity to meet the artist and take in a 30-year body of work peppered with comforting landscapes and warm still lifes.

"He captures this region," says museum director Jean Woods. "I think it makes people feel comfortable, and they enjoy the works. He uses a lot of greens and blues and restful colors."

Hagerstown born and bred, Wantz was a fixture in Washington County Schools, first as a biology teacher and later as principal at Clear Spring Middle School, where he served 16 years until his retirement 12 years ago.

Attracted to art and painting since childhood, he didn't fully give in to his hobby until after high school. Since, he has taken and taught watercolor classes to hone his craft, studying with watercolorists such as Mac Fisher, Zoltan Szabo and Larry Webster.

His first painting to be hung at the museum, 1973's "Ocracoke," is in the retrospective; the most recent was completed within the last month.

For an old bio teacher, Wantz' approach to painting is decidedly unscientific. He paints in his home studio, but doesn't force it. The days and weeks leading up to a show tend to spur him along, kind of like an all-night cram session the night before a big test.

"You paint when you're in the mood and you kind of have to be in the mood," he says. "And when you are in that painterly mood, things usually come out better. If I don't paint for a week or so, I hunger for it and things come out pretty good."

Predominantly landscapes, the show illustrates an artist constantly growing who is influenced by the scenes around him. One work, "Along Old 40-West," was inspired by a section of his daily drive to work in Clear Spring.

He enjoys the contrast of light and dark, particularly evident in the wintery landscapes that dot the exhibit. Stark white snowfall is often punctured by the dark, lonely bark of a barren tree.

"I do like winter because of the contrast. The lights and darks really populate them," he says. "And we're always looking for contrast because that gets people's attention."

And always he works in watercolors. Other media don't excite him; pastels make him sneeze. So when inspiration strikes, he takes up his brush to recreate the world around him.

"He creates a nice mood in his work," says Clyde Roberts, Wantz' art teacher in high school. Calling his pupil's work impressionistic in a realistic manner, Roberts says Wantz' talent was apparent from the beginning.

"Definitely, he stood out," Roberts, himself a painter, says. "He's a serious worker, a good teacher and hopefully people will enjoy his work."

Regardless, Wantz has fun, which, given his self-proclaimed short attention span for extracurricular activities, is somewhat surprising.

"I have a tendency to tire of things, perhaps too quickly, but I've never tired of this. It's always exciting," he says, ticking off a laundry list of discarded hobbies: Hunting, golf, fishing.

"I just got tired with it, bored with it. But this? It's exciting, it's fun," he says, admitting he's not sure why his art habit has stuck. "I don't know but I'm darn glad it has, and it's because it's most pleasurable in your retirement years."

Wantz surveys the room. It feels like a family reunion, seeing 30 years of fun assembled. It's good to see them all in one place.

"It's like seeing an old friend again," he says. "I hadn't seen 'Old 40-West' in 17 years, and I was like an old dog breeder - I still love that pup."

Thirty years, 33 paintings. There exists a kind of symmetry in the Smith Gallery, where Wantz can see how far he has come as an artist by comparing the detail in an early piece like "Ocracoke" to a more recent work, "Snowbound" (2002).

Time to leave for now, but first another lesson from an old teacher who is ever the inquisitive student at heart.

"Break it down to the basics: Animal hair, pigment and paper," Wantz says. "If you can create something out of those three materials, that's kind of neat. It's just a nice moment when someone likes that painting. It feels good."

If you go...

Watercolors by Bob Wantz

Through Sunday, Jan. 12

Smith Gallery

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

City Park


An opening reception with the artist is from 2:30 to 4 p.m. today.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday

For information, call 301-739-5727 or go to on the Web.

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