Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mort Künstler Painting Depicts TR in Oyster Bay

BY BILL BLEYER
bill.bleyer@newsday.com

June 29, 2008

Over a five-decade career, artist Mort Künstler has created more than 3,000 images and become the nation's best-selling painter of Civil War scenes. But none of the Cove Neck resident's works depicted a Long Island event.

The result is a new work by Künstler, "Teddy's Fourth of July," a scene of Oyster Bay's most famous resident, Theodore Roosevelt, downtown on the holiday in the early 20th century.

The painting, completed in time for this fall's 150th anniversary of the 26th president's birth, will be copied to make prints to be sold for $200 in September to benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Oyster Bay-East Norwich and eventually the Theodore Roosevelt Association's effort to build a TR museum in the hamlet. (Details will be available at mort kunstler.com.)

Making art more meaningful
It wouldn't have happened without the persistence of Roger Bahnik, chairman of Mill-Max Manufacturing Corp. and president of the Boys & Girls Club - and a serious art collector who met Künstler almost 20 years ago.

After Bahnik became acquainted with Künstler's work, he arranged for the artist to donate prints to Boys & Girls Club auctions and then ended up buying more than 15 of them himself.

"When I own art, I always like to know the artist," he said. "It makes the art much more meaningful."

Then he bought one original oil of Confederate Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson and another of a wartime religious service into which Künstler painted Bahnik and his wife, Lori, as members of the audience. Künstler frequently paints family, friends and auction donors into his works.

"It just didn't make any sense to have this very popular and talented artist here in Oyster Bay and all he paints is Gettysburg and Virginia," Bahnik said. "I said to him, 'I want you to do a Long Island painting, but, better yet, I want you to do an Oyster Bay painting of Teddy Roosevelt.' He said 'OK. Fine. But I have so many other paintings I have to do.'

"After asking him for at least 10 years, I said 'OK, Mort. Let's stop pussyfooting around. I commission you to do this painting.' He said 'OK, fine. I have two more paintings to finish, and then I will do it.'" Bahnik commissioned the painting for $100,000. Even though it was not part of the commission deal, Künstler included Bahnik, his wife, their son and daughter and their spouses in the painting.

Künstler said he had never done a local scene because "since my early days as an illustrator, when I was like a brush for hire, I've always been busy with work." He said he has been lucky enough to have a waiting list of private commissions and orders from publishers interested primarily in Civil War images to turn into prints.

"I put in more time on this than any other painting I've done" - four months - which was necessary to include the Bahnik clan and get architectural and other details right, the artist said. "I think this is certainly one of the best I have ever done. Once I got started with it, I began to get so excited."

Doing a lot of research
Künstler said he loves to paint scenes where the original architecture remains intact. And in this case, the backdrop for TR riding in an open car - driven by Bahnik - is the extant Moore Building, which served as the summer offices for TR's presidential staff.

Oyster Bay town historian John Hammond and the Theodore Roosevelt Association provided photographs and background material to Künstler, who included signs for the bicycle shop and bakery in the background as well as flags, bunting and "welcome" signs used at the time.

"People don't realize how much research goes into a painting like this," Künstler said. He read two books about TR, studied the types of cars and wagons used at the time and researched the weather so he could put the proper shadowing on the Moore Building for July. "I learned that the Secret Service accompanied him, so I painted a couple of Secret Service men dressed as Rough Riders, which is kind of a neat thing they did," Künstler said. He also arranged for TR re-enactor James Foote to come to the studio to model a white summer suit and white Panama hat.

The painting is "very accurate as to the details," Hammond said, "but there is no actual documentation of TR being in a car on July Fourth. However, the fact that there is no documentation doesn't mean he wasn't in the village in a car. The Fourth of July was his favorite holiday. He came downtown on many July Fourths." Every year TR gave a speech on the holiday in some city, and in 1906 he gave that speech in Oyster Bay on citizenship.

Theodore Roosevelt Association president James Bruns said, "Our hope is that we can work with the artist, who is world-renowned, to create 100 limited-edition prints that can be offered for sale to support the capital campaign for the Theodore Roosevelt Museum and Research Center." The organization and Künstler have discussed creating at least 15 special canvas prints to be offered to donors who give more than $100,000.

"Many of my paintings end up finding the right home" in the area where the scene depicted took place, Künstler said while admiring his finished product on the living room wall of Bahnik's Oyster Bay Cove home, "and this is certainly one of them."

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Knstler, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright 2001-2011. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.