ARTISTIC ODD COUPLE Joan Erbe, George Udel are happily different

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anyone who thinks an artist's life is a peaceful thing has never spent an evening with Joan Erbe and her husband, George Udel.

First of all, the phone won't stop ringing. (Hello, Steve. . . . Hold on, Elsie. . . . Come on over, Tilden.) Then there's Natey, the couple's handsome 9-year-old grandson, shuffling around the second floor. Isn't that the doorbell? Just a neighbor dropping by to chat about his new airplane.

Mr. Udel, meanwhile, is trying to lead an impromptu tour through the couple's Roland Park home. At first glance, the place is overwhelming: every nook and cranny jam-packed with paintings, sculptures, photos and toys; flea-market finds going side by side with precious art.

What's a stranger to make of it all?

"That we're slovenly housekeepers," says Ms. Erbe, a woman given to short sentences and long sighs.

Mr. Udel, standing by the dining room table (at least you think there's a dining room table beneath the marking pens, paper, shoe boxes and large ceramic pig), concurs.

"When I was a younger man, I had erotic fantasies," says Mr.

Udel, 60. "Now I have dreams about clear surfaces."

Color them eccentric, irascible and unpredictable, but over the years Joan Erbe and George Udel have created styles all their own. They haven't kept pace with the local art scene; they've set it. She is a painter, sculptor and jeweler, whose work commands as much as $6,000. His name is synonymous with film. He's made them, sold them, reviewed them. But his major accomplishment has been in helping found the Baltimore Film Forum, a non-profit organization that sponsors film festivals.

They are living proof opposites can attract. She'd sooner drowned in chartreuse paint than analyze her work; he'll discuss anything -- from the meaning of life to the meaning behind his wife's paintings.

After three decades as her agent and manager, he considers the latter his right. Although he failed as a professional salesman, he has had no trouble selling gallery owners from Washington to San Diego on the beauty of a Joan Erbe work.

"When Joan was much shyer than she is now, people would come up and ask her about her work and say, 'Well, what do you mean by this?' She didn't really know what to say.. . . So I armed her with a statement saying: 'If I could articulate it, I wouldn't bother to paint it,' " he says.

"Now," says Ms. Erbe, 64, "I've forgotten how to say that."

Others have used words like "grotesque," "distorted" and "disturbing" to describe her art.

That, like much of life, leaves her unfazed.

"It's OK," she says. "Grotesque is sort of normal anyway."

Once you see a Joan Erbe painting though, it's hard to forget. Siamese twins in hot pink dresses; a brown-haired child festooned in a clown suit; well-heeled women wearing misshapen faces.

In her work -- and her life -- a subtle tension often exists. Conversations with her husband often give way to light-hearted bickering. He grows long-winded, and she rolls her eyes. He reveals a family secret, and she sighs. Finally, she reprimands him.

"I feel like Nancy Reagan sitting here telling you what to say," she says.

But if theirs has been a you-say-tomato-I-say-tomahto existence, similar quirky sensibility has helped keep them together.

They met at a Marx Brothers double feature in 1954. She thoughhe looked like Groucho Marx; he thought she was a beauty with a beguiling manner.

They married two years later and today joke about why they'd never divorce. "We're too intermeshed," Mr. Udel says looking around the couple's living room. "If we were to separate, it would probably take seven years just to sort out all this stuff."

More seriously, he says, "With all of our problems and misadventures, the reason we stay together is when we contemplate being apart that seems even worse."

One of the problems the two face now is Mr. Udel's recent resignation as festival program director of the Baltimore Film Forum. Although he was a founder of the 22-year-old organization, he left quietly several months ago over the issue of censorship. Two weeks ago, he made his resignation public through an open letter to the forum's board.

The controversy arose over two short films, "Dick" and "We're Talking Vulva," which Mr. Udel and several program advisers decided to include in Baltimore's International Film Festival. After several board members expressed concern over the titles, they were removed from the program and flier. A vote was taken. The films were shown, but not in the order Mr. Udel had selected and with a warning about their possible objectionable nature, he says.

He calls it censorship.

Vicky Westover, executive director of the Baltimore Film Forum, says it's not. The titles had to be removed from the printed material because the press deadline approached before the board's vote was taken, she says.

Instead, she believes the controversy arose because Mr. Udel has been reluctant to accept the more businesslike nature of the group.

"I think George remembers the golden, olden days of the Film Forum when people would stay up until 3 talking about film," she says. "We're a much more structured organization now. If we want to get grants, we have to be."

But an even greater challenge the couple faced in recent years involves Mr. Udel's health. Since 1983, he's had three heart attacks and 11 bypasses. He's on medication now and has lost almost 150 pounds since becoming ill. At one time he weighed 297 pounds; now he hovers around 150.

"I still think of myself as a fat man disguised in a skinny suit," he says with a laugh. "All the time I was fat, I thought I was Fred Astaire wearing a fat suit."

From his illness though, some good has come. Most important, he's learned how assertive and supportive his wife can be. "Joan is flibbertigibbety, flying about, can't get her act together," he says. "She goes through life that way until I get sick and then she instantly gets mobilized and becomes a pillar of strength for me. I'm alive today because of her."

From childhood, both had a sense of the direction their lives would take. Ms. Erbe remembers being enchanted by circus sideshows when she was 5 years old. "I loved the freaks in the freak shows," she says. "My father took me every year, and they became friends."

She began drawing what she saw, her first subject being a group of elephants standing tusk to tail.

"But you can't attach any special significance to being an artist," she says modestly. "It's just a thing I do. I couldn't do anything else."

She was so successful she never had to try.

After attending the Maryland Institute, College of Art, she gave her first show at Martick's Restaurant Francais in the '50s. From there she went on to exhibit in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Today, her work is so popular it's spawned a number of imitators.

Lynn O'Sullivan, director of the Knight Gomez Gallery in Otterbein, which displays her paintings, calls Ms. Erbe's work primitive and expressive. She says studying it is, perhaps, the best way to get to know the artist.

"It's hard to know her when you first meet her," she says. "She's shy, but she dresses flamboyantly. That's kind of the way her paintings are -- a strange combination of different elements that you get a surreal feeling from. She picks up these odd characters, and you get the sense that she's been carrying them around for a long time."

Similarly, Mr. Udel's childhood visits to the movies shaped his future. "Film was always a little better than real life, a little simpler than real life," he says. "There were good guys and bad guys, the white hats and the black hats. My whole code of honor, my sense of ethics was set by the films. It's very romantic and very foolish and I'm very cynical and don't believe that, but the inner me still operates that way."

He briefly worked as a salesman and photographer like his father, but soon realized he had no talent for either. "I was always interested in the moving image," he says.

After attending St. John's College in Annapolis and New York University, Mr. Udel became a WJZ-TV film editor and cameraman. Three years later, he went to the more stable world of the Social Security Administration as a systems analyst.

At age 40, he decided he didn't want to punch a time clock anymore and left to pursue his interest in film. He made several short movies, including "Plaster Casting Using a Waste Mold," wrote film reviews for local papers and helped found the Baltimore Film Forum.

Today, he's still adjusting to having severed that tie, once so integral to his personal and professional happiness.

"It really hurts," he says. "It's like losing an arm and a leg."

On the bright side, he'll now have more time to talk to his three grown children, visit friends (a colorful cast of boutique owners, artists, college professors and musicians) and play poker. Who knows, he may even start accompanying Ms. Erbe to flea markets. Together they have survived worse than this, he says.

"We've spent most of our lives fighting and loving each other," he says, sweetly looking over at his wife in her rocking chair.

"Oh, come on, George," she says with a roll of her eyes, "that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

THE ERBE-UDEL FILE

Born: (Joan) Nov. 1, 1926, Baltimore; (George) Sept. 6, 1930, Greenwich, Conn.

Home: Roland Park.

Occupation: (Joan) artist; (George) film consultant and artist's agent.

Family: Married since 1956; children: Joan, Cee Cee, Jack; grandchildren: Nate, 9.

Education: (Joan) Attended Maryland Institute, College of Art; (George) attended St. John's College in Annapolis and New York University.

Hobbies: (Joan) Visiting museums, flea markets and antique shops; (George) playing poker and exercising.

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