Don Nedobeck’s world of music and art is filled with sleepy hippos, puffy-cheeked cats, birds wearing red shoes and a clarinet that toots Dixieland.
A street artist, creator of children’s books and leader of the North Water Street Tavern Band, Nedobeck counts himself fortunate to be living in this decade.
”At no other time in history that I know about could an artist paint whatever he pleased, stand out there in public and sell it to someone who walks by and likes it,” the DeLand resident said.
A popular figure at art shows, Nedobeck fills his tent with large watercolors of his favorite animals, his browse bins with smaller versions of the same and a table with copies of the four children’s books he has illustrated. He sits nearby wearing a pair of bib overalls and playing his clarinet.
The music, he said, shoos the blues away on a slow day or when it rains.
Born in Milwaukee 57 years ago to a Russian Jewish father and a Polish Catholic mother, Nedobeck studied art in high school and clarinet in the U.S. Navy School of Music. But he never considered either as a career.
The job after his Navy stint sent him out mornings and afternoons reading meters for the local power company. It also gave him long lunch hours and free evenings to make music anywhere.
”Often, instead of having lunch, I would change from my power company uniform to a suit and go play a little business meeting for about an hour or two. I even used to play for celebrities coming in at 6 in the morning at the train station,” he said.
Nedobeck quit his job reading meters 30 years ago when an offer for his band to play in a Palm Beach nightclub sounded too glamorous to turn down. By the time he arrived in Florida, however, the club had gone bankrupt and he was out of luck. It was too late to go back to the power company.
He turned to art, drew several characters that have become his trademark and found a small gallery in Palm Beach to sell them. The weekend sunshine circuit of art shows followed.
He still returns to Milwaukee every summer to play music in the dozens of festivals that city stages.
”I quit my job to become a full-time musician, but instead I’m a full-time artist with music. My life fits neatly these days between the music and art.”
When he is on the road doing art shows, Nedobeck usually manages to pick up a few club dates on his free evenings. He plays Dixieland jazz. His art is cartoon-like with oversized, huggable animals.
Nedobeck doesn’t keep live cats, dogs or birds in his small DeLand home, where he stays at least six months of the year. They’re all on paper.
”The characters are as much a surprise to me as they are to you,” he said. ”If I have them too well-formulated in my mind, they’re not going to work. I let each evolve as I’m doing it. And then it’s fresh and it’s got a good spirit to it.”
Many of the paper pets work into fairy tales Nedobeck writes and illustrates or borrows from children’sliterature. His variations on popular themes make readers laugh.
In his children’s book titled Nedobeck’s Twelve Days of Christmas, a happy partridge sits in a pear tree eating all the pears, the five gold rings are onion rings and the 10 lords a-leaping are cats jumping on a trampoline.
Selling the children’s books along with his paintings at some of the outdoor shows has caused problems. Some show organizers call it commercialism and rule against it; others encourage it. Two years ago, Nedobeck was evicted from the Maitland Arts Festival when the festival chairman called his books mass-produced items. He had sold them at 12 previous Maitland festivals without complaint.
Not all of Nedobeck’s characters are animals. His maternal grandparents, Kazimir and Zoshia, often appear in the lower right-hand corner of his large canvases commenting about the action. Zoshia wears a babushka – a kerchief – on her head, while Kazimir wears a long coat and a long beard.
Nedobeck looks something like that, too, in the portrait he painted of himself dressed as Dr. Jazz, holding a clarinet in one hand and a turtledove under his arm. He has reprinted the painting and it is the cover illustration for note cards he sells at his stand.
”That’s the Polish side. The Russians are another story. My dad was born in the Ukraine and the name was probably something like Nyadovich. But when he and his parents got to Ellis Island and encountered customs people who didn’t understand the Russian alphabet, our name turned into a compromise of spelling and pronunciations.
”If they had kept it Nyadovich, I’d be doing big abstracts now.”
Article by Dianne Copelon: