Internationally Renowned Artist
Ruskin, Florida: Artist Fred Rothenbush knew art was his destiny at age 4. “My father and grandfather were both artists. The fire’s just always been in me,” says Fred.
Fred exhibited professionally for the first time at age 12 in Owensboro, Kentucky, where he’s from, and never stopped. Art has been Fred’s life-long livelihood and career.
“I was always extremely blessed,” says Fred. “My family, especially my father, supported me and my art ambitions when I was young. My dad told me the opposite of what his father had told him.”
Fred’s father, an accountant who created and sold art on the side, always encouraged Fred to make art his full-time career. As a youngster, Fred’s father had been encouraged to do something more ‘stable’ and then do ‘art on the side’ when it was art that Fred’s father really loved.
“Go do what you love and you’ll make the ends meet,” is what Fred’s father would tell him.
Who is Fred Rothenbush?
If you’ve lived in this area for a while you’ve likely heard of Fred. If you’re newer, his name may be unfamiliar.
You see, despite having drawn the portraits of Presidents Reagan and Carter, having won multiple awards, nationally and internationally, for many of his pieces including his much acclaimed battle scene pieces, Fred is an unassuming guy.
Heck, you may have been in the check-out lane next to him yesterday and you would never know you’re standing beside a guy that went quail hunting with President Carter in order to do his portrait.
In Ruskin since the 1970’s
Fred never intended to live in Ruskin. As a young man in the early 1970’s he stopped in this area to see family before he headed to the west coast, where he’d planned to live.
But, one night he shook hands with a lady in church that was it. “I knew the second we met I’d marry her,” Fred says. Fred and Polly have been married since 1972 and they never moved away from Ruskin.
So, fortunately for us South Shorians, we’ve had the great honor and luck to have Fred and Polly Rothenbush as our neighbors. In addition to being an amazingly talented artist, both Fred and Polly are also incredible community supporters.
Art in the Early Days
Though Fred’s family always supported his choice to make art his career, he did take jobs when he and Polly had a young family, but this didn’t last long. Polly finally put an end to it. “You’ve got to go paint,” she told Fred. “Let’s live off my teaching salary.”
And, they did. Polly knew what it was to really love something and to have a calling to do it. Polly loved teaching and she taught for 40 years. She knew it would kill Fred if he didn’t paint full time. So, she pushed him to do so.
Art on the Road
Fred and Polly, and often their four children, spent many a day on the road, going from one art show to the next. That was how Fred sold his art. “I’ve been in every state in the U.S. and Hawaii many times,” Fred says.
Polly, when she wasn’t teaching, would pack the kids and the car up and help Fred set up at each show. “It was tough,” she says. “It was sometimes hot, the supplies were heavy, we’d often drive overnight and we usually sat there for two days, but we always loved it.”
“We were getting to do exactly what we wanted to do and that’s the way we had to do it” Fred adds.
A Real Community of Artists
Fred and Polly were on the road mostly between the 1970’s and 1990’s.
“Back then,” says Fred, “it was a real community. All of the artists new each other and helped each other. One time when I got sick another artist came by, picked up all of my pieces, took them to the show and sold them for me. That’s just how it was. We’d even introduce artist friends to our collectors. There was no competition, just helping each other,” Fred says.
Clearly, Fred is abundantly talented and it was his talent that continued to bring new new work his way. “Things just kept falling in place,” Polly says.
Fred particularly loved painting portraits and wildlife. He spent time at hunting lodges to capture wildlife. “Wildlife painting was a good break for me. When I’d get a bit burned out doing portrait work [Fred’s primary work], I’d paint wildlife.”
Eventually, hunters started commissioning Fred to do their portraits because Fred could combine the portrait and wildlife elements so well.
“As it happens, President Carter saw one of my paintings hanging in a hunting lodge in Georgia and asked me to do his. I went quail hunting with the President and drew his portrait,” says Fred.
President Reagan came to Fred through a friend of Fred’s family who’d been working on the President’s campaign. The friend introduced Fred to President Reagan. “We’d meet in Tampa,” Fred says, “when he was in town and I’d work on his portrait.”
Fred loved the experience. He admits working with the secret service was fun. He also enjoyed both Presidents.
“President Carter is one of the greatest humanitarians and President Reagan was a great guy, too”, Fred says. “He [Reagan] really appreciated the Office of the President. He told me I could call him Ron if we weren’t in the Oval Office, but I would have to address him as Mr. President if we were there, out of respect for the office.”
Fred’s favorite medium is pencil, but he does oils, too, and he’s always loved doing portraits.
“Even as a kid people fascinated me,” he says. “I loved studying features. Portraits can be brutal, though” Fred admits. “People want them perfect and they have to be perfect. It’s easy to get burned out.”
A ‘typical’ portrait takes about two weeks to complete but, according to Fred, sometimes miracles happen and they’ll come to life in a few days.
Children, Dogs, Nashville Stars and Battle Scenes
Fred also has a love of painting kids and dogs and battle scenes. He has an entire series ‘Kids Doing Their Thing’, mostly inspired by his own children and grandchildren, and he began painting dogs when he was visiting hunting lodges. ‘A Dog’s Revenge’ is one of Fred’s cheekier works.
At one point Fred met somebody in the country music business at an art show and Fred suddenly found himself backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. Soon, he became friends with Porter Wagner and Tennessee Ernie Ford and Fred began doing portraits of many of the great Nashville stars (he and Polly have met Garth Brooks) and doing commissioned pieces for them, too.
The battle scenes are really special in Fred’s heart, a veteran himself, and it started through his son Doug who was in the military. “He’d arrange for me to have a ‘one man show’ on the base in Hawaii where he was stationed,” Fred says. Soon he began painting military scenes.
Word of mouth spread.
Doug then hung one of Fred’s paintings in a museum at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina and a man, just about to deploy to Afghanistan, commissioned Fred to do a painting of the man kissing his wife good-bye before he left. Fred did the work from a photograph.
From there, Fred was commissioned to do a painting of one of the largest aviation battles in Afghanistan. The battle was brutal, but Fred captured the scene in infinite detail and the men and women involved in the battle fell in love with the piece.
Fred continued getting more military commissioned pieces. To this day he’ll hear from the people in the battle scenes themselves, wives and cousins. Many of the people depicted in the paintings were lost.
Fred’s slowed down with the painting, although he still paints in his kitchen on occasion.
Painting was tough physically on Fred. In the height of his career, once Fred had an idea, he’d paint all night, see Polly and the kids off in the morning and then sleep while they were gone for the day. Then, he spend afternoons and evenings with the family, and then go back to painting all night while they slept.
“I don’t really miss art,” Fred says. “I’ve gotten to do exactly what I’ve wanted to do for 56 years. We’ve met the most incredible people and have had the best lives. What more could I want?”
Today, Polly continues to share her kitchen with Fred, who calls it his studio, but they’re both more likely to be spending time with the grand kids, or involved in the many local charitable and community organizations they help support.
On a recent morning in March, Fred and Polly hosted the South Shore Chamber of Commerce ‘Wake Up Coffee’ event at their Ruskin home. Unbeknownst to anyone in attendance, the Military Committee of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce organized an award ceremony to present Fred the first Challenge Coin, an award given to military veterans for incredible support. It was a powerful moment for a most deserving man.
I asked Fred what he loves most about being an artist. Like Fred himself, his answer was unassuming: “I just want people to like my work. I don’t need them to buy it. I just want them to look at it and to enjoy it.”