Captain Otto’s Cello


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, the painter and musician Guttorn Otto visited my studio. Born in Poland in 1919, Guttorn was conscripted into the German army for the duration of the Second World War. Severely wounded three times, he was always patched back together and sent again to the fight. “I was one of the lucky ones,” he says, “One time I had sixty pieces of shrapnel in me.” After the war he was billeted on a Bavarian farm where he worked for two sisters whose brothers had been killed in the war. In an attic room Otto found a dilapidated cello formerly owned by one of the dead brothers. Otto repaired the cello and taught himself to play. When he immigrated to Canada in 1952, the cello came with him.

In his new country Guttorn Otto worked as a house painter, part-time musician and painter. He loved the bush, the wild places of Canada, the quiet northern lakes and rivers, the peace of the land. He married, raised a boy and a girl. Painting on location with a generous stroke, his work became popular and collected.

At 83 he’s still going strong. His eyes light up when he talks about painting from coast to coast. He’s lithe and supple, with a jumpy nature and a broad, mischievous grin. His large hands are always moving, his mind active and curious. He’s made a life of venturing forth from his acreage near Ballantrae, Ontario. I feel his zest for just about everything–music, travel, books, women. We talk about how older artists tend to tighten up and become less bold, and how the wise ones go about fighting the tendency. We talk about painting less, but better. We talk about what a prolific artist does with the buildup of a life’s work. We talk of the joy of teaching, of giving real value to struggling painters through the art of knowledgeable demonstration. “Everybody wants to learn to paint right now,” he says. “It’s really quite beautiful. It’s a beautiful life. It’s too bad the art schools don’t tell how beautiful it is. I’m just in the middle of my dual life, you know. When I’m home with the orchestra I long for the bush. After a while in the bush I desire to return only to my beautiful cello. Beautiful.”

Best regards,


PS: “I paint what appeals to me. The rough skies, the giant storms, the quilt of snow in an October wood, the tiny forest flowers emerging.” (Guttorn Otto)

Esoterica: Guttorn Otto works mainly in oil. He paints wet into wet, often as large as four by eight feet. When a change is needed he pulls off a watercolour. “I don’t have email,” he says. “I’m too busy. Where would I find the time? Besides, luckily for me, there’s still no computer in the bush.”


Guttorn Otto


Ballantrae swamp


Guttorn Otto


East of Kenora







Chantry Island, South Hampton


Beaverton brook


Trilliums under rock, Parry Sound







Thrilled to be alive
by Jerry Waese


painting by Jerry Waese

Guttorn Otto’s life of music and art after emerging from nameless hardships in Europe brings to mind how we can be squeezed and pulled by forces we do not want and then become richer than our wildest dreams as a result. In a similar way his paintings reveal the faceless pullings and thrustings of nature, the unexpected crescendos of rock, arpeggios of flowers and branches, and proud brassy reflections of the forest on water. One loves every residual mark and how the color areas move together and in all directions — thrilled to be alive.


Decision is our own
by Linda Saccoccio

I agree the life of an artist can be a very good life. Guttorn Otto is right. What could be better than consistently tasting the nectar of life because of our curiosity and enthusiasm, not to mention dedication to a life worth living that suits our personal needs, desires and interests. Then taking the richness of that and turning it into something visual to add more beauty and wonder to the world and being sustained by the act of this work. In the Montessori preschool my children attended they instruct the children that all their activities are their works. Work then has a very positive association. What has happened to the teachers in art school who only tell us that being an artist is a bitter struggle? Perhaps they need to go back to preschool and realize the decision to live blissfully is ours.


He didn’t believe me
by Jane Champagne

What a joy to have news of Guttorn Otto. He was teaching at the Southampton Art School, Ontario, in the early ’80s. I hadn’t painted for 20-something years, despite years of training, and was in the depths of wondering what to do with a suddenly empty nest when I wandered into the school, found I could try a half-day class and did, with this amazing man. That was it — I’ve scarcely stopped since, in fact, and eventually realized my childhood dream of being a full-time professional artist.

Everyone called him “Tory.” Tory didn’t teach — he showed — and assumed that if you had the desire and the intelligence you’d try it, and find your own way. He gave you a wonderful gift: The freedom to choose — how to paint your way, not necessarily his. This attitude coloured my own approach to teaching: Rather than tell students what to do, show them various ways and leave the choice to them. At, where else, the Southampton Art School.

Years later, I told Tory Otto how crucial he had been in re-launching my career, and, modest man that he is, he didn’t seem to believe me.


Rescued a human soul
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Russia

My elder relatives and familiars were at opposite sides during WW2. People wanted not to fight. Many Soviet people knew German art and technology and the German language was learned in the school of Soviet Union as is English today. Otto have got shrapnel not because of his personal guilt. He was completely not guilty. The tragedy in souls of Soviet un-professional soldiers was also in observing this guiltlessness.

My family were soldiers in that war, but they deplore that 50 years after that war. Nobody knows, how was lost the former owner of Otto’s cello. But Otto rescued much from his human soul. Music, imaginative arts are all-mankind languages. A lack of understanding allows those wars between guiltless people. The role of art and artist to create, keep, defend and develop these all-mankind languages – each drop of created art saves the World!


Want to be like him
by Anne Copeland, CA, USA

I just love this story about Guttorn Otto, his life and his painting and music. What masterful work, and what a spirit. The man’s paintings and perhaps music will live on in history, but his spirit will surely live on forever. We all need people like Guttorn Otto, who despite the stings of life, go on and make their lives beautiful. When I grow up, I want to be like him!

Thankful for attitude
by Nana Dixie

Knowing of someone like Guttorn Otto who has so much past, is beautiful. He becomes a real person not attached to one thing only. He has endured and evolved, and loves his life now. I too have many memories and regrets, but I live for the pleasures of today and my dreams for tomorrow. I guess that is all we can do, but it beats the life so many others have. They give up and walk around dead, not yet lying down. What a pity they are missing so much. I am thankful for my attitude and work to keep it bright.

Get back to your medium
by Sherry Preston

Guttorn Otto sounds like a wonder of passion and experience. I think our lives’ paths help to develop us in such a way it pushes us to explore more in our directions. I know from experience that the more I explore the more I learn. I am currently ‘longing for my paintings’. I have been busy creating commissions of sorts for local people. That is how I make my artistic money in my area. My paintings are so unique I have yet to find the right market for them. It will all come in time. So finding time to work on my painting has been a challenge lately. I long to paint on the canvas when the time is right and I have caught up on all the commissions I have done for people. Then I can move back to my canvas and finish it. One thing is when I am away from the piece I think of what it needs next. The inspiration does flow when I am away from it for a time. The need to paint on the piece grows stronger each day. It is a means of survival for artists to always get back to their chosen medium.


Memories of a German soldier
by Robert Wanka


painting by Robert Wanka

Reading about Guttorn Otto brought back some memories of another ex-German soldier, who I knew quite well. At 16 he enrolled into a prestigious art school in his hometown, Linz, Austria. At 17 he was drafted into the air force and fought for his country. Captured by Canadians he spent the remainder of the war in England, where he helped repair Church frescos and paintings damaged by the bombing raids of the Luftwaffe.

From Germany he immigrated to Canada and brought his daughter and pregnant wife with him to the prairie province of Saskatchewan. In Saskatoon he worked as a house painter by day and a fine artist by night. Some of my earliest memories of an artist’s studio are of his, the easel in the corner with a fresh painting on it, the bottles of medium, the paint brushes and the smell of linseed oil, all invoke pleasant memories for me. Like Otto, my father loved the peace and quite of the natural world, he loved art, and painted what moved him with an enthusiastic spirit. Each day when I walk into my own studio, look at that fresh new painting on my easel, touch my brushes, mix the paint, and smell the linseed oil, I think of my father and smile.


Relationship between music and painting
by Eleanor Blair, FL, USA


painting by Eleanor Blair

As always, your letter resonates with what happens to be going on in my studio at the moment. Band practice tonight, fine-tuning arrangements and harmonies and some flute embellishment to Dave’s vocals. I sit at my drums trying out a new bass drum pattern, with one eye on the still life I painted last night. One yellow petal jumps out too much. I’ve got to fix that. But not right this minute.

There is a mysterious relationship between painting and making music. The two activities seem to feed one another. How could you paint, and not want to make music?


Who’s blessed?
by J. Warrick

When speaking of “The blessing” I believe you were not just speaking of painters who are painting, but of those who “get it,” who reach a point of understanding when the heavens open and the dawn comes, and your work is suddenly lifted to a higher level. You “get it” and in “getting It,” your work is of a greater caliber. I wonder if those to whom this blessing comes easily are truly more blessed than those of us who struggle mightily to achieve it, or is there merit and a blessing of sorts in the struggle itself? Although I have recently gone through (and am still occasionally going through) a dark period called MID-LIFE CRISIS — where, for the first time in my life I began to fear that I would never “get it,” during more lucid periods I realize that the whole “painting life” is a blessing in itself irregardless of the low parts, and that whether or not I ever truly get it, in truth, I wouldn’t give up the journey for anything. Torment aside, it is the gift of dissatisfaction that keeps us coming back for more, striving to learn, to perfect, to get it right. Sometimes I think I’m starting to get it, other times I fear I never will, but in those immortal words (was it Churchill?) I find my battle cry: “Never give up; never give up; never ever give up.”


Room for all
by Lori S. Lukasewich


painting by Lori S. Lukasewich

I just have to respond to the desperate sounding cries of Anne Barga in the last responses. For most of my artistic life I painted color, symbol, pattern and emotion. When I turned to realism, it was just so I could survive emotionally long enough to move on, yet I discovered something seductive and fascinating, something outside myself that filled me with awe, and I am enthralled and humbled by it to this day. Perhaps Anne should read Annie Bevan’s reply about the “Memory of love” and the red bud trees, before she so carelessly dismisses the motives and emotional involvement of other artists. Art is very large and there is room for us all.

(RG note) Thanks, Lori and to the several others who wrote on this subject. We live in a time when many of the people’s Art museums won’t let a decent realist artist have a look in the door. And many prestigious art magazines won’t publish anything that looks a little “art schooly.” In these clickbacks, and in the general direction of the Painter’s Keys site, I always thought we were better to err on the side of open-mindedness — and your letters confirm that. Indeed, there is room for us all.


Paint the world
by Liz Reday


painting by Liz Reday

The contrast of those two letters one after the other… I fell in love with Art and the memory of love, and yes, I have been there painting those trees before the blossoms fall off in that wonderful moment. When I was younger and painted abstract and psychological art, I too would turn up my nose at representational landscape paintings. But it’s been a long strange trip in and out of countries and museums, and now I don’t know it all anymore.

Now the wonder is in the observation of this incredible world swirling about. I paint from life. And if it looks like the trees drooping from blossoms or the sparkle on the afternoon beach, so be it. My inner consciousness no longer interests me as a motif for my painting when the world outside is of such mind-boggling beauty. It’s all good: abstract, representational, altered states, etc…







Shai Coggins, Singapore, Malaysia


Asia in my mind








oil painting on canvas
by Jonathan Gooders, UK


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.

This includes Mimi Notaro who wrote, “There is one thing I would disagree with in your letter about Otto. I think if you paint more, it helps you to paint better, so don’t paint less.”

And Jim Pescott, who wrote, “I paint what appeals to me.” These words from Guttorn Otto are so clear, so significant. Isn’t this the secret to the whole thing? The art world seems so filled with jargon, nuance, and other litter, while Otto cuts right through it by painting what appeals to him.”

And Jenny Turner of Australia, who writes, “Can anyone help me with the idea of using bee’s wax on finished acrylic paintings to add depth and sheen?”


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