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Art People: Richard Olderman leaves the past behind

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Sometime after his mother died Richard Olderman cut himself off from the world. It might have happened in the foster home, when he was three--or the next year, when he was sent to live at an orphanage. He grew into a silent kid, waiting for the nightly punishment: a fist in the back, administered by an official who'd been a professional boxer. After seven years of this, Olderman's father took him home to a stepmother, and things went from bad to worse.

Then he found music, and with the music, drugs. During his high school years in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1950s, Olderman was a jazz drummer accomplished enough to play in nightclubs. He was a sophomore, already on the road "clubbing," the first time he got high. At 20 he was arrested: "Nothing serious, just some good grass and pills," he says. In 1967 he bottomed out. "Smoking too much was one of the things that pushed me over the edge. Showed me a lot of things but at the same time left me dysfunctional for a while. I just lost myself, and spent years pulling myself together."

He came to Chicago in 1970 as a member of composer William Thomas McKinley's improvisational jazz trio, which had been booked to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. By then Olderman was married, with a child; he was about to wrap up an undergraduate degree in art education and was eager to get off the road. From Orchestra Hall he wandered across the street to the Art Institute, took a look around, and decided the graduate school there would be his next stop. After picking up a master's degree in photography he began teaching part-time at Columbia College and full-time at New Trier East. By 1975 he had given up performing as a musician (though he continues to play alone at home). "It just kind of slipped away," he says, "and I got very involved with teaching."

Like everything else in his life, says Olderman, the teaching was an accident. "I was a very silent person until I started grad school," he says. "I didn't talk very much at all--and then I ended up getting up in front of people and talking all the time. Something opened up." Not until he was four years into it, however, did he realize "this was going to be it, that if I had anything to say, it was going to be through teaching." He spent ten years at New Trier, got laid off when it downsized in the 80s, and landed at the Evanston Art Center, where he ran the photography department and developed a reputation as an extraordinary teacher. He took photographs during those years, but only for himself: "schizophrenic" work, classic black-and-white one day, highly manipulated color the next. For a long time, he says, teaching was his link to the world. Photography--looking through the camera, making the pictures--was "a way of keeping myself together."

Not anymore. Two months ago, at 61 and in good health, Olderman left his job, sold his house, and moved with his wife to the outskirts of Santa Fe, where there's just "the land and the sky" and "the wind blowing through the pines." He's doing some writing now, but his darkroom equipment and cameras sit in boxes, packed--perhaps permanently. "I don't seem to have any need for it anymore," he says. "Not for teaching or for working. I'm shedding things, making myself lighter. I like to wander around and look, and not feel any kind of pressure to have to make something of it. I'm not even seeing photographically, don't go out and see things the way I did before, as potential images. I'm still on the same journey, but at this point it's about dying--the next great adventure--about finding a way to live until that occurs. I can see it up ahead--wherever it is, whenever it is--as an ending and a beginning.

"I've been through a lot of those, but this is the big one."

Olderman gave away a lot of photographs when he started shedding things, some to the Suburban Fine Arts Center in Highland Park. About 15 of his images are among the hundreds of pieces donated to the center's Recycled Art Sale, which begins this weekend and runs through August 29. Prices are generally low or negotiable; the asking price for an Olderman work (the Polaroid of a magazine image with an egg broken over it, for example) is $100. Sale hours are 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday. There's a $10 admission charge for the opening preview and auction, scheduled for 6:30 on Friday, July 24; after that, admission is free. The center is located at 1913 Sheridan; call 847-432-1888 for more information. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Elisa Olderman/ Olderman photo.

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