NORTH SALEM, N.Y.-Bob Folberth believes his ability to draw is a gift from God.
Not in the way people usually use that phrase—figuratively—but a literal talent bestowed by the Lord.
Folberth was not born with the ability to draw, nor did he ever really take an interest in art. But in 1993, in the days leading up to surgery for colon cancer, he prayed harder than ever to God for his protection.
He not only woke up from surgery free of cancer, meaning no radiation or chemotherapy was needed, but with the ability to draw.
Folberth, a North Salem resident and graduate of Somers High School, recalled being a “dismal failure” in art class. The outdoors were more his thing.
“I took art in school, never could draw anything, really, and in ’93 I was recovering from a colon cancer operation and I decided, well, let me try drawing. I had a fellow worker and he used to draw with just a No. 2 pencil,” Folberth said. “I showed my wife and I said, look what I did. She didn’t believe me.”
With nothing to do but fish and recover from the surgery, he kept drawing to pass the time.
“Later in the week, I went and caught a couple of white perch down at the reservoir and went home and sketched them out,” Folberth said. “A friend was doing some plumbing work in the basement and sees them and says, ‘Bob, you did this?’ He said, ‘Don’t pay me, just give me the drawings.’ So I started drawing and that’s all I did for a year and a half with a No. 2 pencil.”
As a boy, Folberth’s life in Lake Purdys revolved around fishing and hunting with a bow and arrow. He followed in his father’s footsteps after graduating high school and joined an electrician’s union in New York City where he was employed until retirement in 2000.
His drawing process at the beginning started with what he knew: a fishing rod and some bait.
He’d catch a trout, lay it out in from of him and begin sketching. When the drawing was done, he’d fry the trout for dinner.
“I don’t want to kill anything or take a life unless I’m going to utilize it,” Folberth said. “Mostly I started to draw fish because I catch a lot of fish and drawing them, you really examine them for hours. I have fun catching them, I have fun drawing them and they’re delicious.”
As he got better at drawing, he bought better materials–colored pencils and good paper–and relied less on the fish in front of him and more on all of the wildlife around him for inspiration.
But it wasn’t until 2015, two years after his wife passed away, that he realized why God had given him the ability to draw.
Folberth was outside his home gardening when Karen Aronian came by to talk to him about the campaign for her husband, John Aronian, for judge in North Salem.
They began chatting. Folberth mentioned he was retired and an artist and invited Aronian in to see some of his work.
Then, Folberth said, Aronian asked him a question that would change his life: “How would you like to meet my girlfriend? She’s beautiful.”
Aronian introduced Folberth to Patricia Hartwell and the two have been together ever since.
“I always wondered, why did God give me this gift? Not to make money, that’s for sure,” Folberth said. “But if I wasn’t drawing, I probably wouldn’t have invited Karen Aronian in and she wouldn’t have told me about her beautiful girlfriend.”
Folberth and Hartwell were engaged in 2016 but have yet to pick a date for their wedding. When he tells this story, Hartwell turns a pinkish color and reaches over and squeezes Folberth’s knee, laughs and nods; the feeling is mutual.
In February, Folberth held his biggest art show yet at the Keeler Tavern Museum in Ridgefield, Conn. On display were about 70 pieces, including works of all different types of fish, chickens, dogs, ducks and a bobcat, which Folberth said was responsible for killing and eating some of his backyard chickens. There was also a series on moths and a few trout from 1995 when he was just starting out.
Drawing, no doubt, has changed the course of his life.
Folberth said he never wanted to be an electrician and definitely never wanted to work in New York City–he calls himself a “country boy”–but gave it a shot for his father.
“I figured I’ll appease him, and then I went down to the city and got my union card and I was a first-year apprentice,” Folberth said. “The foreman and other men treated me nice, so I stayed, and that was in 1958.”
He worked all over the city during his career, including at several New York landmarks no longer around, including Freedomland U.S.A., a short-lived amusement park in the Bronx, and the World Trade Center Twin Towers.
“I worked on bridges. I worked in subway tunnels, a lot in Rockefeller Center,” Folberth said. “I used to operate the spotlight at the Moon Bowl (at Freedomland), which was an arena with all these famous stars.”
From his position behind the spotlight, Folberth saw Stevie Wonder, Jack Jones and Nat King Cole perform.
As the years went by, Folberth found drawing taking up a bigger part of his life.
One night while on call, he had some time to kill, so he drew a 5-foot-long fish in the electricians’ locker room. It took weeks to fill it in with a carpenter’s pencil, using a glove to create the shading.
A crew brought in to paint the locker room years later was too impressed by the drawing to cover it up, Folberth said, so the drawing on the sheetrock was cut from the wall and Folberth took it home, where it remains in his basement.
With no formal training, Folberth describes drawing as a process in which his eyes act like a video camera controlling his hand.
“It was a gift from God, really. I had no talent up to this operation,” Folberth said. “I did a lot of praying…and it seems like God answered my prayers. I’ve been cancer-free since and when I came home, I got this ability to draw.
“Every time I draw something, I’m completely amazed,” Folberth said.
Hartwell chimed in, “That’s one of the driving forces behind his artwork and being so prolific, because of this sense of gratitude and that it’s a gift.”
The only time he takes a break from drawing is during deer hunting season, from October through December.
“You’re up in a tree and you watch all kinds of wildlife come–owls come, foxes come–it’s like a show,” Folberth said.
His drawings– especially those of fish–have a realism in both the coloring and the perspective. Pictures of his work are in every corner of the house, along with hunting memorabilia such as deer skins and antlers.
Through his work, he’s connected with people in a whole new way. For example, his friend, Howard Billington of Mahopac, also a retired electrician, started using Folberth’s paintings to sell custom frames made with reclaimed wood. The two go up to the Adirondacks together to show off their work
Plus, he found out about the opportunity to show at the Keeler Tavern Museum when he gave a drawing of a butterfly to his bank teller. She mentioned it might be a good place for him to exhibit.
“I can draw anything I can see,” Folberth said. “You’ve got to capture their eyes. The eyes light up the drawing.”