Remembering Otis Dobson: Painter remembered for immortalizing lost treasures

Finishing Strong
July 1, 2015
Dove seeks Terrebonne Parish Presidency
July 1, 2015
Finishing Strong
July 1, 2015
Dove seeks Terrebonne Parish Presidency
July 1, 2015

Otis Dobson, who died on May 26 at age 71, loved immortalizing old buildings and landscapes from Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes in water color on canvas.

The prolific artist from Cut Off took fine art seriously and loved taking old photos of buildings that didn’t exist anymore and turning them into intricate watercolors that evoked the feeling that those places had.

“His work was beautiful,” said Carolyn France, President of Les Artistes du Bayou, a fine arts guild in Lafourche Parish, of which Otis was a founding member.

Otis was the oldest of six children born in Larose to Whitney and Mamie Dobson. Whitney raised his family by barbering. Each of the children had to work, and Otis worked hard. He would iron clothes the old-fashioned way, said his sister Joan Dean, sprinkling them with water and putting them in the refrigerator before placing a hot iron on them. Otis would also go crawfishing, selling them for 20 cents per pound – a customary price for the time.

Otis was the only one of his siblings to go to college. He worked the whole time to pay for tuition at Nicholls State University, where he earned his bachelor’s in typing and accounting. He later went on to earn a master’s degree plus 30, though his siblings can’t remember what he did his graduate studies in.

“He was good at getting himself through college on his own, because he had not a penny of help from my dad,” said his sister Mary Anne Alario. “[Dad] had six children and when you’re making 50 cents per haircut, that’s nothing.”

He worked in the accounting field for one year but then began teaching developmentally disabled children at Galliano Junior High School, which later became today’s Galliano Elementary School. He later taught at Special Education District Number One, otherwise known to locals as The Center, in Cut Off.

He taught adults with developmental disabilities basic woodworking, gardening and ceramics.

During his career as an educator, Otis also started a successful photography business with some friends called Bonne Chance, meaning “good luck” in French. He shot weddings, graduations and baptisms.

In the latter half of his teaching career, Otis became interested in art, particularly fine art. He was a talented watercolorist who specialized in painting things of the past. He would travel all over the Bayou Region, photographing old buildings, other structures, and bayou landscapes. He would take them home and paint them onto canvas with precision, but adding shading, blending and mist.

“My house is full of his paintings,” Alario said. “He was a very talented person.”

In 1980, Otis was among the group of artists who founded Les Artistes du Bayou, which serves as Lafourche Parish’s artists’ guild. He served as president and treasurer of the organization as well.

“He had no problem telling us what he thought,” France said. “We would butt heads often.”

France said that Otis believed Les Artistes needed to only focus on fine art, like painting, and not on craft art.

“He was not about painting on oyster shells or painting on lunch boxes or crafty things,” France said.

He was also instrumental in the creation of Les Artistes’ Summer Camp. Otis taught children how to paint in watercolor, often outlining a canvas for them in permanent marker for them to paint, focusing less on lines and more on the technique of painting in watercolor.

Otis was also a member of the Terrebonne Fine Arts Guild, which sponsors Downtown Art Gallery 630, in downtown Houma. He showed his art at the gallery regularly and was the group’s best-selling artist, said Aleta Leckhelt, director of Gallery 630. Tourists would stop by the gallery on bus tours and buy more of his art than any others’.

One painting, “The Dancing of the Shrimp,” depicted men and women with sacks tied around their feet dancing atop freshly caught Gulf shrimp in order to de-shell them, sold more than any other painting. It was on postcards and sold as prints.

Otis painted two of the front covers to the Lafourche Parish phonebook, one of them a misty depiction of the Louisiana Purchase.

In 1995, Otis retired from The Center. He also retired from photography then, for his knees hurt too much to run around a church or reception hall for the best shot.

He didn’t smile too often, France said. But once she caught him with a smile and made sure to take a photo.

“But once I did catch him smiling and I took my camera and went pop-pop-pop-pop-pop,” France said. “And we laughed about that.”

Otis Dobson with one of his many watercolor paintings depicting life along the bayous in by-gone eras. Dobson died May 26.