Discovery

I was in my second year at Temple Tech when I began my journey to find my artistic self. I hadn't ever thought of art as a career; in fact, I never had a course in art past elementary school. Throughout my childhood I played with Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, American Bricks and then Erector Sets. As I grew into my early teens my interests were HO trains and custom car models. And then by High School all of my energy went into owning and maintaining a car.

My family had not had a car since I was nine. We took buses, trolleys and subways. So by 16, I had no family car to use to learn to drive. But, as fortune would have it, my maternal grandfather and grandmother were moving to the Masonic Home in Elizabethtown, Pa., and their 1952 Plymouth was given to me by my uncle with the stipulation that I buy insurance, keep it garaged, and pay for the repairs and upkeep.

I got my license at 17, and drove, maintained it, and rebuilt parts of it by mowing lawns, washing cars, painting "Roth" designs on dashboards and making deals honest and dishonest with auto parts employees. If my car failed an inspection, and I couldn't afford the repairs, I took the Plymouth to 42nd and Brown Street in Philadelphia, where they would put a sticker on my car to pass it. The car was my key to freedom and an entrance into responsibility of which I had little. I drove without brakes; I bought tires at the junkyard; I pilfered parts from junked cars I found in vacant lots; and I kept the car running into my first real job at the age of 21.

Any thoughts of art were translated into customizing my car. For my high school graduation I asked for the $25 needed to but fathom blue lacquer, and begged my minister's son to allow me to use his compressor and spray gun to paint the car in his parents' garage. In my mind, I cleaned up properly, never noticing the overlaying blue dust that covered every exposed space in the garage.

The car was my life and I was dependent on it and to it beyond anything. It was the key to dating and a social life. It was also my escape from the parental controls of my mother.

As I said, engineering seemed a good fit for my needs. Car repair and mechanical engineering were different, but both dealt with machinery. What I didn't realize was that a cared more about the look and design of cars then the repair of them. I identified with my friend Bob Kodadek, a near genius with mechanics, as were his brothers and father. They intuitively understood the intricacies of carburetors, cylinder displacement, piston stroke stroke and spark advancement. Though I had learned these things, they were of secondary importance to the seat covers I purchased, or the pleated door panels I made for the Plymouth.

None of my friends or the families had much money, though my family was definitely the poorest. We all had to keep our cars running, so we learned stuff. But that didn't make me good at math, precise in mechanical detail, or interested in grinding valves.

After entering Temple, I slowly found my way to things that would be important to me, besides cars.
I was always thought of as the artist because of how well I could copy monster cars, or create a Christmas card. In a study hall at Temple I was with a couple of the smart guys in my class, when I showed them a nude drawing of Marilyn Monroe I copied from a reissue of the photo from the first Playboy Magazine. They seriously were shocked, and asked me "why are you taking engineering if you can do that?"

My answer to their question had already been made by me. I knew that my mother didn't make much money as a department store artist, and my father's efforts made even less, and my mother had always discouraged me away from art, for logical reasons. So I just did it for fun.

But this question nagged at me. Even if I considered myself smart enough, I was close to the least likely to succeed student in the engineering technology program. Though I could do mechanical drawing, or drafting, I was neither accurate, nor particularly neat with my drawings. I was totally confused by chemistry, had no memory for names, and bad with numbers.

With this in mind, I began to draw pictures. I may have not stated that I also am not easily taught, no relish being taught in a traditional fashion. So I had to learn to draw my own way. I didn't sketch. I copied, beginning with a portrait of Andy Williams I found on an album cover. I used black and white charcoal pencils on colored pastel paper for this. In the process I discovered that my fingers were to big to blend small areas, so I rolled up a small piece of paper into a point cone and used that as a blending tool. I only found out later that there was indeed commercially something similar to my paper cone called a tortillion, but for several drawings I forged on with my rolled up paper sticks.

After the Andy Williams portrait, I rendered a cowboy, a portrait of the famous attorney Clarence Darrow, and a few other characters I gleaned from magazines. I then purchased some color pastels and decided to paint John Lennon in his Sergent Pepper costume. Surprisingly to me, it turned out okay, so I persisted. I decided to do a more complex rendering and found a carriage filled with people and drawn by a team of horses; it was my best attempt thus far.

"Untitled" charcoal on paper
(approx 12" x 9"), 1970
With several pictures behind me, I began roughly matting them and taping them to my bedroom wall. It served as an inspiration to continue on this blind quest.

Pastel pencil and pastels became my tools of choice. The richness of colors, the ease of application and the quick success of each piece gave me immense satisfaction. Looking at the finished pieces on the wall sanctioned my effort and built some self esteem. Yes, I could do something well.
Marjorie W. Rothacker - watercolor on board

Throughout this time I did have the example of a working artist to draw from. In fact, I had many. By my late teens my mother was working full time for Gimbel's Art Department drawing shoes, pocketbooks and notions for the newspapers. At night, she worked freelance, at home, to implement her small salary. Most evenings, especially during the Christmas season, she would set up shop on the dining/livingroom table for here work. She used pens and brushes, and worked in watercolor and india ink primarily. Her models were the products which she brought home along with the layouts of the ads that her drawings would be placed in for production. As an artist, she was technically self assured, and seldom needed to use a pencil to sketch a line. She could render her still life of a pair of shoes, necklace or perfume bottle confidently in ink alone or with wash leaving shining lights of white unpainted from the paper.

It must have been tiring work for her, but my father made the dinner. His days were filled only playing solitaire, reading or sketching postcards to send to friends and family. His themes were everyday life, executed in marker and pen. His characters were mostly anthropomorphic animals reliving events of relatives, acquaintances, him and my mother, and me and my friends. I was a mouse, something like Mickey.
George Rothacker, Sr. - marker on postcard(circa 1980)

At Christmas, my father would start early in the season creating special cards for each person on his list. Most of the cards had a Santa on them, but all were personalized to include a trip, an event or an encounter concerning the recipient. On some days he would do only one card, but many days he would do five or six. I would estimate that from the late 50s till he died in the 1980s that he created more than 15,000 cards.

The quality of his cards varied. Some were very imaginative and executed well, with simple lines and bright colors; others were dark and roughly drawn with muddy backgrounds. Those others were mostly when he had been drinking. I don't know if he ever knew the difference of what was good or not, or whether he cared whether they were muddy or crisp.

Today, as I look at the work I've done over many years, a see similarities in his work and mine. My paintings and drawings are either are part of a story, or a story to themselves as were my father's cards.
Untitled Landscape - watercolor and India Ink
Courtesy of Haley Katwill

I continued to work in pastel and watercolor throughout my years at Temple, and hoped that somehow I would find work after graduation that could include my new found skills. A week or two after leaving Temple, I set out to find a job. I had no real direction, but knew of a local engineering firm, Clifton Precision, for which a friend had been a draftsman. I had a few drafting projects from school, so I made an appointment. During the application process I was asked to take a couple of tests, and I must have done well enough, since the person in charge sent me to an adjunct office of the company in Drexel Hill for an interview with the head of the design department of Special Devices.

I packed up my portfolio and met with a very nice man, Jim Dodd, who patiently looked at my work as I showed him drawings of gears, a jack I designed, and some schematics, along with my drawing of the horse and carriage, John Lennon, and Clarence Darrow.

Mr. Dodd acknowledged that the pastels were very good, but then asked me, "What is it you want to do? Do you want to be an artist or a mechanical designer? I told him honestly, "I don't know! I just know I need a job."

He gave me one, and I was given a drafting table with straightedge and asked to bring my slide rule, triangles, protractor, elipse and circle templates and drawing implements and start the following Monday.

In my mind I was both happy and confused. I was hired to become a designer. "Artists are designers, aren't they?" I thought. But in reality I knew I was again on the wrong path. But I had a job.

Click to Chapter 4: Process