Artist James Oblack

by Bill Weaver

“I took a drawing class early in my college career almost on a bet,” says James Oblack quietly. “I enjoyed it. It kind of led to other things.”

Which is kind of an understatement. For over two decades Oblack’s art has led him all over the country, eventually bringing him to the place he calls home.

Oblack, who grew up in Indianapolis, “discovered Brown County in the early ’70s and came down regularly from then on.”

After graduating from Indiana University Oblack dutifully found a job in his field of Geology but his heart wasn’t in it. “I had to wait until I got out of college to find out that I wanted to be an artist more than I wanted to a geologist,” he says earnestly.

“The whole art thing sneaked up on me. Little by little as my college career progressed I started feeling in some strange way that art fit my personality better. It was a slow process. I dabbled in a little bit of everything—oils, acrylics, pen and ink drawings. Around 1977 I signed up for some watercolor lessons with a fairly well known artist and learned the fundamentals.

“In a period of a few months I improved the quality of my work quite a bit. That was a big steppingstone for me towards becoming a professional artist. I decided to start signing up for art shows. Once I had my ducks in a row, as we say in Indiana, I decided to pursue it as a career. In 1980 I quit my job and pursued art full time.

“I think I made the right decision.”

Oblack became an art nomad, spending the winter months in Florida attending weekend art fairs, then returning north to do the same the rest of the year. “I always tried to paint something even if it was to set up on a picnic table on a sunny day and paint all afternoon and try not to get sunburned. It was a little different from the way most people live.”

Oblack paints deeply representational watercolors that some people associate with photo-realism. “People tend to say, ‘I thought these were photographs,’” he admits. “That’s a comment I take as a compliment.

“It has to do with how important light and shadow are in my painting. That’s what makes everything pop and look realistic. I have an attention to detail—maybe it’s that part of my brain that’s still scientifically oriented.

“Watercolor is a medium that never lets you totally relax,” he continues. “I’ve always enjoyed doing landscapes and I enjoyed the challenge of figuring it out on my own. I developed my own style through the years. I have a lot of little quirky ways of doing things, shall we say, along with some techniques that I’ve developed that are a little bit unorthodox.”

This served him very well in the extremely competitive world of art fairs. “If you wanted to make sales and make a living it was very important that something about you was different from the rest of the artists. Against fifty to a hundred other painters you need to have a look of your own, a style of your own.

“I do have a unique style,” he says confidently. “My paintings don’t look like anybody else’s.”

After twelve years with Bloomington as center of his operations Oblack made the decision to move to Brown County and open his own gallery in Antique Alley. “It’s gone well enough that I want to stick around and build on last year,” he says. “There’s a place for individually owned art galleries in Nashville.

“It’s analogous to an art fair on a weekend. Once the art fair develops a reputation for what it has to offer, that’s the kind of crowd that comes. Eventually the word gets out that Nashville is as enjoyable, as worthwhile an experience for an art shopper, as it is to go to a good quality weekend fine-art fair. The advantage is that you can shop at your leisure, take your time, as opposed to going to an art fair for only two days and then making a major decision about a piece of art.”

Oblack also enjoys painting on commission. “I don’t do portraits but I do portraits of people’s homes,” he says. “It’s nice when it turns out well because it means an awful lot to the clients. It’s a house they love, something that has meaning. I like being able to offer that.”

After 25 years on the road Oblack is happy to have his own gallery. “Brown County is something Indiana needs and appreciates. We have a unique kind of beauty. I wish I had moved here sooner. I’m very happy I live here.

“I’m fairly road weary after 25 or 30 years of traveling around. There’s a lot of fun to it but also insecurity. Every time you apply to an art fair it’s like applying for a job. They may hire you or they may not. There might be 200 spaces available for a given year and 1500 applicants. Once you get in the art show you’ve got the expenses of traveling and motels and a show fee. If the show is washed out you don’t make any money. All those things factor into a decision later in life, like opening a gallery in a nice rustic tourist town in south-central Indiana,” Oblack adds wryly.

“I’ve had an opportunity to do something I really enjoyed for the last 25 or 30 years. At some point it may catch up with me but I’ve gotten more out of life than some people. I’ve gotten to see beautiful areas in the country that I wouldn’t have if there hadn’t been an art show at the end of the rainbow—hopefully with a pot of gold,” he chuckles.

The James Oblack Gallery is located in Antique Alley. He can be reached at 812-988-4674.