Art masterpieces on display at the Turnage Theater

Published 8:11 am Saturday, April 13, 2024

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The name James Adam Oertel may or may not ring a bell, but the work of the world-renowned artist is on display at the Turnage Theater. Oertel was born in Bavaria in 1823, where he trained to be a Lutheran missionary and also studied painting and engraving. In 1848 as a result of the German Revolution, Oertel immigrated to Newark, New Jersey where he taught drawing, painted portraits, and did engravings for bank notes. In the 1850s he joined the Episcopal Church, became a priest, and for the next 20 years served in parishes in North and South Carolina, the District of Columbia, Tennessee, Missouri, and Maryland. But he never gave up his love of art. By 1854 his work was being displayed at the National Academy of Design, where he was also elected as an associate member. In 1857 he designed and painted the glass seals of the thirty-one states that were installed around the skylight in the ceiling of the House of Representatives Chamber in the U.S. Capitol. However, he is most revered for his religious paintings, and wood carvings for churches. His work remains on display in the Smithsonian, the Harvard Art Museum, and various other galleries across the country. 

“Oertel’s work was gifted to the Beaufort County Arts Council in 1992,” said Bronté Labbé, visual arts and marketing director for the council. “It has been exhibited in the Turnage since before I started working here over a year ago. Not many people know of its significance so we want to celebrate this collection and make it known that it is here for the public to enjoy. It is so special that Little Washington has artwork from an artist who is also featured in the Smithsonian.”

The story of how the artwork made its way to Washington is captivating in itself. As documented by Brown Library historian, Stephen Farrell, and the help of his wife, Mariah Nichols who became intrigued by the art, Lucy Good Capehart of Granville County married J. F. Oertel, the son of J.A. Oertel in 1909. The two resided near Fairfax, Virginia until his untimely death in 1936. After her husband’s passing, Lucy returned to North Carolina where she was reunited with her brothers Junius and Anthony Capehart who lived in Washington. She lived with her brother Junius at 1036 Market Street until her passing in 1958. During that time Jefferson D. Snuggs and his wife Elise Buckman were living in Washington. Jefferson was a handyman of sorts and did odd jobs for Lucy and her brother. In exchange for his work, he was given some of the original J.A. Oertel art. 

The artwork remained in Snuggs home on West 12th Street until his passing in 1985. Acting as the executor of the estate, Mrs. Louise “Weezie” Lane, Snuggs’ niece, donated seven original pieces of J.A. Oertel and one piece by his son J.F. to the Beaufort County Arts Council. “It is remarkable that these pieces of work are now permanently housed here in Washington,” said Farrell. “What the Oertels, the Snuggs, Buckmans, and Weezy Lane did to preserve and pass along this artwork from generation to generation shows us they had the forethought of preserving what makes our community special and rare in eastern North Carolina.”

The Oertel artwork is on display in the Turnage Theatre foyer along the walls of the second-floor balcony. It is free for public viewing during the theaters’ open hours on Wednesday through Saturday 11:00 am through 5:00 pm unless there is an event going on. 

“This priceless collection should continue to be admired and is just one of many reminders of Washington’s rich history and culture,” said Farrell. “It is all right here and you don’t have to travel anywhere to see it.”