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Natural talent

Sitting inside his spacious home studio on the 1200 block of South Second Street, Fritz Dietel reaches over and raps twice on a wooden desk.

"Knock on wood, I’ve always had positive response to my work. I would have to say it’s a combination of talent and that it’s appreciated," says the 42-year-old artist.

It’s an appropriate gesture for an artist whose main medium actually is wood.

Other natural materials also have proved lucky for Dietel, though.

In August, his first commissioned work, a welded bronze piece, was installed at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa. Named Keyhole, the sculpture is located at the entrance to the Town Center. The imposing artwork is 12 feet high, 14 feet wide and 9 feet deep with a 6-foot opening.

Commissioned in December 2001, Keyhole is a simple and totemic piece allowing for a broad range of interpretation — much like Dietel’s other sculptures, the artist says. Keyhole was a departure for Dietel, who usually works in oak, cedar, maple and other types of wood.

"It’s a warm material. It takes color well," he says, explaining his preference for the unconventional medium. "It’s a natural material and works well with my forms, which are organic."

And it doesn’t hurt that wood is easy to work with, adds the artist.

A few weeks ago, an exhibition of Dietel’s work closed its summer run at the Philadelphia International Airport.

Not bad for a farm boy from Connecticut.

One of five children of German, Scottish and Italian descent, Dietel grew up on a 43-acre farm in Richfield, Conn.

But Dietel’s father was no farmer. Instead, the artist describes his dad as a "white-collar" worker who commuted to Manhattan every day.

So it was Fritz who assumed the role of farmer by taking care of the animals and maintaining the farm machinery. Once he learned to operate some of the tools of the trade, Dietel started to build items for the homestead, laying the groundwork for his future career as a wood sculptor.

Growing up, Dietel says he enjoyed woodcarving and the 4H Club.

Originally, the aspiring farmer had designs on attending agriculture school, where he would have majored in forestry.

But the high school Dietel attended set him on a different life course.

Wooster High in Danbury was situated next to a community arts center that offered classes in photography, ceramics, nude drawing and other arts. The school encouraged students to take classes at the center. "It was a great exposure to the arts," notes Dietel. For his senior project, he made three large steel sculptures.

Bitten by the art bug, Dietel traded in his hoe for a sketchpad but says he never lost his love for the outdoors.

But he does admit with a laugh, "By that time, I was kind of tired of milking goats, shoveling s— and baling hay."

Dietel went on to major in sculpture at the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts. After graduation, he landed a job with the Balch Institute organizing the museum’s exhibits.

Since 1985, Dietel has been a full-time sculptor, working out of his home studio, where he built everything from the furniture to the walls, he notes. Wife Kathy, newborn baby Anna and 3-1/2-year-old daughter Emma are simply a door away from the artist’s sprawling loft. It’s the kind of creative space that would make even the most uppity SoHo artist green with envy.

After building a body of work at his loft, Dietel began soliciting local galleries. The artist says he doesn’t settle on any given artistic theme.

"My works are an ongoing exploration of form that challenge the material and myself," he says.

Talent and persistence paid off, as the artist eventually was offered solo and group showings at area galleries.

The first gallery to showcase his work was the Jessica Berwind Gallery, formerly on Cherry Street in Old City. When that facility closed, the Schmidt Dean Gallery picked up Dietel’s work. Today, the artist is represented exclusively by the gallery at 1636 Walnut St.

Dietel’s work has been showcased in galleries and museums throughout the region. His wooden creations hang in many private and public collections, including the lobbies of some Center City law firms.

"Part of being an artist is sticking with it. It takes a long time before [work] is picked up and recognized. Things don’t happen overnight," he says. It took him three years to get his first gallery showing and 12 years for his first large-scale outdoor commission — the one in Hershey.

Dietel’s next major exhibit at the Schmidt Dean Gallery will be next fall. In the meantime, he was recently selected by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts as one of more than 20 artists to showcase work there, but he says that exhibit is presently on hold.

For more information about Fritz Dietel’s art, visit www.fritzDietel.com.

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