McCrabb: Thief leads Middletown artist to paint animals

We can thank a thief for the latest exhibit at the Middletown Arts Center.

Not for stealing any of the work, but for pushing C. Kelly Lohr into painting animals.

Her exhibit, “Personal Observations of Animals” opened last week at the Middletown Art Center, and has received rave reviews, according to Executive Director Betsy Hope. The 33-piece exhibit, which features large oils of zebras and elephants, can be appreciated by all ages and levels of artistic sophistication, Hope said.

“They are both breathtaking and soothing at the same time,” she said of Lohr’s work. “These paintings of animals in their natural habitat are startlingly beautiful.”

All because of something ugly: Thievery.

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Last year, someone stole some of Lohr’s “creative work” — music she had written from her studio in Arizona. The “very disturbing” burglary left Lohr devastated. She felt violated. She couldn’t stop crying.

Then the Middletown resident discovered “healing” from the unlikeliest of sources: her photography work of animals in their natural settings and in zoos.

“I never thought I could improve on a photograph of an animal,” the 68-year-old said when asked why she never painted animals. “But I needed to focus on something.”

So Lohr dedicated the last year to painting animals not with a brush, but a palette knife, a much slower process that creates “rough” pieces, she said. Each of the 33 pieces, which are on sale from $500 to $14,000, tells a “different story,” she said.

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One of her favorites is a picture of a baby elephant because “he took me out of the doldrums. He’s happy little guy.”

The photos were taken in exotic places like the Chobe River in Botswana, South Africa, Thailand, Costa Rica, China and also the Cincinnati Zoo and the Omaha Zoo in Nebraska.

Two paintings of elephants — entitled “Thou Shalt Not Kill #1” and “Thou Shalt Not Kill #2” — illustrate Lohr’s affection of animals. Ironically, the paintings are mounted on supports that resemble tablets like the “10 Commandments.” Elephants shouldn’t be killed for their ivory, she said.

“We need to protect our wildlife resources,” she said while pointing to the paintings. “These are beautiful elephants that are so sweet.”

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Lohr isn’t new to the art scene. Her work has been represented in seven museums, been exhibited in three foreign countries, and has received some of the highest grant awards in the country.

Her love of animals grew during a recent excursion to South Africa. She loaned a friend $1,000 several years ago, then, after her friend’s finances improved, she called and invited Lohr on an African safari.

“We had the times of our lives,” she said.

They visited an animal reserve where visitors were allowed to have their pictures taken with young lions. Visitors were allowed to be with the lions for one minute. In and out. No one gets hurt.

As soon as Lohr entered the area, one of the lions left the trench and started grooming her. His paws were the size of her face, she said. When she tried to leave, the lion pulled her back by the collar.

“I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “He looked at me like, ‘I love you. You are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’”

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So how did this animal lover find her way to Middletown?

Wanting to live near the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Lohr scouted smaller communities around Cincinnati. She checked Middletown’s city plans and noticed there was an emphasis on the visual and musical arts. She fell in love with the city and the direction it was heading.

In 2013, she rented a Middletown apartment and purchased the Pickwick Building, which formerly housed the Middletown Historical Society on South Main Street, and renovated it with her own funds. One large upstairs room has been converted into a studio where she paints, sculpts, composes music, writes libretto and opens it to other artists.

Lohr sounds like she works for the Chamber of Commerce.

“I see all this happening and I’m really excited about it,” she said of the rebirth of downtown. “People have caught the vision. It’s gonna be a wonderful place.”

Then she caught herself. “It is a wonderful place.”

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She called Middletown a “blue collar” community, a label it should wear proudly.

“It is the roots of America,” Lohr said. “Being blue collar is a strength not a weakness. It’s a backbone. It’s fabulous. We shouldn’t wash that down the river and say it’s better to be sitting behind a computer.”

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