Prophet of Paint

by | Dec 2016

Painter Frank Zeller

Photos: Joel Schnell

Watercolorist Frank Zeller shares his love of art.

For Frank Zeller, immersing himself in his art is where he finds his bliss. But he also finds bliss in sharing that passion with others. “Everything he sees and touches has to do with art,” says Sheryl Struntz, the third of his four daughters. “When he’s in his room painting, he’s in a whole different world.” But it’s an accessible world, where her father can disengage from his canvas to share a love of process, creation and community.

Zeller has been teaching art in the White Bear Lake community for half a century, with 32 years in the White Bear Lake public school system, followed by another 20 spent teaching community art classes at White Bear Center for the Arts. He’s so popular there’s a waiting list to enroll, and in his 20-student classes, the average student has been coming for 15 years. Such devotion is unusual in any aspect of life, let alone a community art center where life events typically override long-term commitment.

“When I was a very young teacher in the ’60s I was impressed with this community that had a group of citizens interested in art,” Zeller says, noting that community inspired him to stick it out after a student-teaching job landed him in the district, albeit outside of the art world. While he laughs now about the year he spent teaching typing and accounting, it got his foot in the door and established his track record as a popular teacher of any subject. Zeller developed elementary arts programs for the district, later teaching at White Bear Lake High School.

While his day job as a teacher kept him busy, Zeller found time to paint at 4:30 a.m. each morning, and often taught workshops at night. Zeller helped found Northstar Watercolor Society, has won local and national awards, judged the State Fair arts exhibitions, and influenced and inspired artists from elementary school through retirement. His artistic achievements are impressive, but Zeller’s lasting mark in White Bear Lake isn’t just in the paintings he’s sold, but the community that’s bonded and grown in his classroom and around him in White Bear Lake.

After so many years of teaching, one would expect that spark to fizzle now that he’s reached his 80th birthday. Instead, it keeps him pushing ahead. “I think as he does research for his lessons he is inspired by it. You’ll see him going through different phases and learning himself. He keeps growing as he’s teaching,” explains Danielle Cézanne, program director at WBCA.

Painting by Frank Zeller

Painting for All

In 2001, Rosita Meehan approached Zeller to teach an arts class to individuals at On Our Own, which provides services to special needs adults. Meehan didn’t know Zeller at the time, but contacted him because he was president of Northstar Watercolor Society. He not only arranged a time and place for the class, he taught the first classes himself. “They made these gorgeous paintings,” she remembers. “And nobody had ever painted before.” Just as importantly, he bonded with students—including a young man whom she had feared would be a challenge in the classroom environment. “Frank is his man. Whatever Frank said, he did,” she recalls.

At a recent reunion of the class, first thing in the door the student greeted him excitedly, recalls Meehan, proof of a lasting impression. “I did one class with Frank as an adult,” Meehan says. “He treated my gang like he treated the regular people,” she notes, and the process and respect touched her. It was a few years after taking Zeller’s class that she learned Frank’s youngest daughter, Kelly, was similarly challenged. Kelly passed away in 2005, and discussion of her loss made the reunion an emotional event for all.

At 80 years old, Zeller also looks back. “I have to have some time for reflection,” he admits. Zeller credits Sister Florentine Goulet and the White Bear Arts Council for building a community before he got involved. Now, he’s passing that enthusiasm across the board.

“When I started this job, he influenced me the most,” says Cézanne. “He made me realize what a community art center is.”

What His Students Say

“It would be 53 years ago that I took my first painting class,” recalls Marilyn Ash. Her teacher in that evening workshop was a young Frank Zeller. She took more workshops while raising her family and in December 2007, she enrolled in his regular classes at WBCA.

Lynn Johnson has been his student for about 13 years and there’s never been a repeated lesson in that time. “He’s always coming up with new stuff,” she explains.

“A lot of painters do classes and they demonstrate. He goes so much further,” says Rockie Weymouth, a student of two years. “As I’ve been in the class for a while, it’s dawned on me the history some people have. He is committed to them not just as students, but as people.”

“He’s very systematic,” says Barb Neihart, another longtime student. “He tells what he’s going to teach, then he teaches it.” Then he critiques with sensitivity and patience to break through learning barrier, she explains.

Frank Zeller helps student painting.

Frank Zeller helps student Darlene Veiman in a recent painting class.


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