Opening a window to nature
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Susan Sterling, director of the Dimmick Memorial Library in Jim Thorpe stands in front of a print the Lone Hunter by Charles Fracé of East Mauch Chunk, now Jim Thorpe.
Back in the days when it was East Mauch Chunk, long before the borough merged with Mauch Chunk to become Jim Thorpe, and well before it become home to a fledgling artist population, it was home to a young man who would become one of America's most successful wildlife artists.
Charles Fracé, the only living wildlife artist to have the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History host a one-man exhibit, received that honor in 1993. Over 100 of his wildlife paintings were issued as prints and were eagerly taken by collectors.
His work is best described as photorealistic. Most people, upon first viewing his paintings believe them to be photographs-but upon closer inspection, the backgrounds and lighting combine to go beyond what a photograph can capture.
Charles Frace was born in East Mauch Chunk in 1926 to parents Charles and Eleanor Frace. The marriage didn't last long. Charles would later tell his wife, Elke, that he "had no memories of his father."
After the separation, Eleanor moved in with her parents, George and Sarah Knauss in East Mauch Chunk. As a boy, "Charles played soccer, basketball, and designed backgrounds for school plays. Charles was an excellent musician. He played the horn and his band was very popular," Elke said. "His friends used to call him Jumbo because he had big feet."
Charles began making pencil drawings at the age of five. Although his grandparents felt that the life of an artist could never support Charles, reluctantly at the age of 14, they bought him a set of oil paints. Fearing the expensive gift be wasted, it would be a year before he opened the present. Then, without any training, he painted his first work, a portrait of Christ.
When he was 16, Charles painted a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and presented it to Lawrence Morris, principal of the East Mauch Chunk High School. Elke reports that when the school closed, the portrait was relocated to the Dimmick Library, and in 1980, when a fire damaged the building, the artwork escaped-as it was being reframed.
Although the Lincoln portrait is no longer at the Dimmick Memorial Library, a limited edition print one of Charles' original wildlife paintings is on display. Lone Hunter is a 1982 painting of an African leopard stalking through the dense bush in search of its "quarry of monkeys, antelopes, jackals, wild dogs or whatever unsuspecting prey crosses its path." Many subspecies of leopards are now extinct.
At the age of 22, Charles earned him a scholarship to Philadelphia's Museum School of Art, where he graduated with honors.
According to Elke, Charles changed his name from Frace to Fracé as he was completing art school. He attended the Presbyterian Church in Mauch Chunk. The minister's wife said that Charles' name had Huguenot roots and should be spelled the French way, with an accent mark-Fracé.
In 1955, he moved to New York City and established himself as an illustrator for soft cover books.
In 1962, he worked with photographers Shelly Grossman and his wife Mary Louise, and naturalist John Hamlet in Weeki Wachi, Florida on Birds of Prey of the World. Fracé became fascinated with wildlife, transforming his New York City apartment into a zoo and botanical garden. The following year, he produced his first wildlife paintings; Great Horned Owl, Sparrow Hawk, and Pondicherry Vulture.
Charles married Else Roettger in 1964. Together, they decided he would focus on wildlife painting, and three years later, moved to Long Island.
Charles Fracé's long career of wildlife painting was made into the book. Copies of the book, which tells of Fracé's life and exhibits many of his paintings, are available to borrow from the Dimmick Memorial Library in Jim Thorpe.
"I knew he was talented when I met him," Elke said. "When we met, he painted a portrait of me in a day. He was a born artist."
"He had no trouble remembering all the Latin names of the animals. He was sincere-a gentle and humble person. He had a charm. Everyone felt that he paid special attention to them."
Charles Fracé contracted Alzheimer's Disease which caused him to stop painting in the mid-1990s. He died in 2005.
To view many of of the published images of Charles Fracé, see: fracewildlifeart.com.