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Perfecting his Craft: Amish teen finds his niche in painting while exploring other career options

Jennifer Ditlevson Published: June 1, 2010 4:48 PM
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Elmer Yoder stays busy. He works 35 hours a week at a local leather shop in downtown Berlin; he keeps up with his chores at the house; he calls private auctions when he can; he frames and mats commissioned work; and he paints watercolor landscapes.

It sounds like a lot of work for anyone, but especially so for 15-years-old.

Yoder has a lot of ideas about what he'd like to do with his life. Since he graduated from eighth grade a little more than a year ago, Yoder's broad span of interests has given him a chance to explore career options other than manual labor.

While many of his fellow Amish classmates will be working in carpentry, farming, construction and other related fields, Yoder won't. When he was about 21 months old, a horse accident severely damaged

Yoder's spinal cord. His right arm is impaired, and he said his right leg isn't always very strong either.

But he doesn't think it slows him down too much. His movements are quick, and he's excitable like any other kid his age.

His dreams of becoming an auctioneer come from simply enjoying the atmosphere of the event. "I always liked to go to auctions and, hopefully, I'll do it someday," Yoder said.

To prepare, Yoder goes to auctions on his days off work and carries a reporter's audio recorder so he can listen to them at home. He practices with a microphone in the shop, practicing by "selling" household items. Right now, he can call private auctions, selling items from family estates.

Yoder has been in business several years already, having sold his artwork since he was about 11 years old. It started with selling sketches for a dollar a piece at the annual Charm Days festival just a few miles from his house.

David Bailey of West Lebanon, a friend of the Yoder family, would often come to visit and sell his paintings in downtown Charm.

"He'd always come down and just hang out," Bailey said.

After awhile, Bailey encouraged Yoder to branch out from refrigerator drawings to paintings.

"I thought he might have some artistic ability and I thought, 'This kid is pretty good,'" Bailey said.

Bailey learned how to paint by studying under local artist Mark Polamcheck, and he gave Yoder a few art lessons, but he said he thought he might need some more. So Bailey got Yoder connected with art classes in the area. Yoder has bought some of the painting kits Polamcheck puts together, but he doesn't always stick to the plan.

"I like the way he paints, but I never follow directions," Yoder said.

Yoder uses an area in the basement to paint and frame work.

"When I'm not rushed, I usually paint as long as I have [to paint]," Yoder said.

"I really think he's going to go a long way. He's just such a pleasant kid. He's so enthusiastic about everything," said his art instructor, Judy Leeson.

Leeson, of Newcomerstown, got to know Yoder's family through Bailey. When Leeson's husband died, she was looking for ways to spend time outside the house to cope with the loss. After she'd seen Yoder's work, she was inspired to give him lessons.

"I wanted something to do and I thought, 'If I could teach him I could just see him being a good painter," she said.

Initially, Leeson went to Yoder's house once a week, but now she goes about once a month. Anymore, Leeson said, she's checking up on Elmer to see what he's doing or if she can offer him some advice. In general, she said she thinks he's learned how to mix colors and he's fully equipped to keep moving ahead with his craft.

Yoder said he'd still like to learn about painting with oils, but for now he's working with watercolors and acrylics.

From selling about 40 sketches on the side of the road at Charm Days, Yoder has come a long way. Just last fall, Yoder traveled to Waynesville for his first major art show and sold most of his paintings.

"He's a pretty outstanding young man," Bailey said.

Yoder's desire to develop his artistic side into a commercial avenue is a pretty uncommon Amish enterprise. Yoder said he doesn't know anyone who has ever done what he's trying to do.

Artistic talent runs in the family, though. Elmer's 13-year-old sister Kathryn also paints. Both of them sell their paintings when they can and display them in the house. Overflow art hangs on the walls of their buggy garage, where, this spring, many were hanging above newly hatched chicks that their younger brother Caleb raises.

In the future, Yoder would like to put a sign at the end of the drive to let people know he can paint, mat and frame artwork as well as customers' photos and prints.

To find out more about Elmer's work, readers may call 330-674-1887.

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