Whiting’s Norman Rockwell
by Gayle Faulkner Kosalko
You’ve seen his work even if you don’t know his name. His paintings are at City Hall, the library, the Chamber of Commerce and in private homes. They cover the history of Whiting from as far back as 1891 to the present. The artist is Al Odlivak who is virtually “the Norman Rockwell of Whiting.”
And like Rockwell, his paintings are of everyday, small town people and events that tell stories with which local audiences quickly connect. All tolled, Al once said he figured there were about 300 of his canvasses somewhere around the country.
“Most of my paintings are the history of the city,” Al said referring to the Whiting of the 1930’s through the 1950’s. There are many of Standard Oil and the great fire of 1955 too.
Now these paintings may never have been painted had Al’s wife Mary Ann found a good painting to buy for over their couch back in 1970. Since she couldn’t find one, she wanted Al to paint one for her.
“I pulled out this old beat up suitcase he’d had for years and there were pictures of FDR and Mickey Mouse he had drawn,” she laughed. “I knew he had it in him.”
Soon he started painting for family and close friends, many of whom requested paintings of their homes. In his early days, Al worked in oils but then switched to acrylics. Many of his Standard Oil paintings also combine pen, ink and acrylic together to detail pipelines.
Al could tell the Whiting story honestly because he virtually lived it. Born on Center Street in 1930, like most kids of his era, he played in Whiting Park and at the Community Center. He skated on Lake George which was also their swimming hole before the Standard labs were built there. All of these idyllic moments are captured on canvas. In the backgrounds of paintings are familiar landmarks such as the old barrel house, Federated Metals, Mobile refinery, Sts. Peter and Paul steeple, and the backs of homes on Ohio Avenue that you can still recognize today.
Al’s love of trains is evidenced in his many paintings of Whiting and trains that were part of our history and our old train stations. Among his paintings, you’ll also find the 1967 blizzard, the old Green Line streetcar, and the first building built by Standard. One of my favorites is a wonderful painting of 119th Street in 1993 decked out with its white lights and wreaths. Various takes on the business district throughout the years and individual businesses are also common Odlivak themes.
If you’ve lived here all your life or if you’re a newcomer to our community, please take the time to look at our collection. If a picture is worth a thousand words, you will learn more about the heart of being raised in Whiting through the gentle mastery of artist Al Odlivak than by reading a hundred history books.