A yellowed newspaper article, inside a portfolio in a closet behind a stack of oil paintings, is some of the only publicity Earl North saw while he was painting.
The pictures show paintings in all sorts of frames, hung on most of the wall space and leaned against display cases as his passion outpaced the space in his tiny watch and jewelry shop. Haskins, Ohio, is still home to this legacy, now in his son Frank’s house across the street from where Earl was born in 1904.
Earl’s shop, which served people in the small town and passing railroad workers who relied on their timekeeping devices, doubled as a gallery and studio for his landscape paintings for many years before his death in 1989.
Earl painted as a child. His watercolors won prizes at fairs when he was as young as 12, but when he entered his father’s watch repair business after elementary school, he left the hobby behind. On Christmas Day 1926, his wife, Vardinique, gave him a watercolor set that became the new spark to his lifelong passion.
He traveled six to eight weeks every year to help his asthma, often heading toward New England to study and paint with respected artists.
Frank, a retired band director and active musician, said his father would often close down the shop when he got the urge to paint, driving until he found a site that caught his eye. Often it was along the Maumee River or in fields east of the tiny town, wherever he saw a splash of color or particularly arresting scene.
His sketches and watercolor and oil paintings are in what his son calls the American impressionist style. They are representative of their subjects but filtered through what Earl remembered in the instant he knew he had to capture the scene.
It was those kinds of emotional stills Frank said buyers appreciated most.
”His work reflects on the fact that people who own them gain a deeper and deeper appreciation,” he said.
”He never really tried to promote himself. He didn’t mass-produce anything, so he didn’t really try to sell. He painted because he felt a particular emotional response to something he saw. He painted all the time, anytime he could. It was something — he had to do it.”
In 1971, he charged $45 for an unframed, 12-by-16-inch oil painting.
Rob Rousseau, a family friend and owner of Deluxe Frame Shop in Toledo, remembers trading frames for paintings.
”I bought my wedding ring from Frank,” he said. ”I paid him $400 and seven frames. I learned to deal from him.”
Now his paintings go for thousands, to law firms, doctors’ offices and private collectors, and they’ve been exhibited in galleries across the country. He had a one-man show in the Toledo Museum of Art in the 1960s that helped him win some local recognition.
Frank, the keeper of his father’s legacy, has been cataloging the work based on place and approximate time for future sales.
He said he has a hard time placing a dollar amount on his father’s work. Some of the paintings are marked ”NFS” in his database — not for sale.
”Some of these are when I was standing beside him when he painted a scene we went to before,” Frank said. ”They’re family heirlooms.”
”Music and art are really undervalued, compared to the rest of our society,” Frank said. ”People spend thousands for an automobile that will be worn out in a couple years, and hesitate to buy something that’s a joy forever.
”Purchasing a work of art can be an undiscovered opportunity.”
Rousseau said Toledo has a negative mentality about hometown artists.
”Toledo won’t appreciate [North’s work] until it’s all gone,” Rousseau said. ”Other parts of the country recognize this, but people here associate with the area rather than the artwork.
”They’re an investment — they only go up in value, and especially with this perception in the area right now, you won’t get a better deal,” said Rousseau, who has a few of Earl’s pieces for sale.
North has considered giving the works to a museum, but he wants to be sure they won’t ”shove them in a closet somewhere.”
For now, Frank said he’s open to visitors who want to stop by even just to look at his father’s work. Make an appointment by calling (419) 823-1735.