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There is a Horizon For You: Edward Obermueller Blazes a Polymath’s Trail in a Specialized World



Influenced by Zen teachings, Kierkegaard, Malcolm Gladwell, and The Artist’s Way, painter and violinist Edward Obermueller owns two businesses, each focused on one of his main passions in life: music and art. 


One of the businesses is Edward Obermueller Fine Art; the other is Edward’s Violin Studio. They are both part of his company, Right Brain Solutions LLC.


These enterprises represent “the realization of lifelong dreams,” after countless second guesses, fears, and rejections. Not just being rejected by others, but Edward himself had to reject that which was familiar to venture into the world of the unknown, where perhaps all human potential is unlocked.



Meeting a Mentor


I met Edward at his studio building in Boonton, NJ. His unassuming form appears in the doorway, looking like any other sturdily built, bespectacled guy wearing workaday clothes: jeans and a dark green polo with the two buttons buttoned, the collar neatly plaited.



He leads me up the stairs—though I could’ve found it myself just by following the smell of oil paint—to a squareish studio room. It’s just as you might imagine it: 


In the center, a huge table, paints, brushes, palettes, knives, spatulas, tubes of paint completely obscuring its surface. And lining almost every edge of the floor, running under the panoramic window overlooking Boonton's Main Street, even blocking the path of the door...paintings of every size, some bright, some dim, some clearly representative, others more abstract.


It turns out our conversation would run much the same way.


I look around, getting a feel for the man and his work. A cushion rests on the floor near a wall draped with a small tapestry; obviously a meditation corner. 


A red couch, worn in and lined with a yard or two of green muslin: both items probably secondhand, functional. A small shelf filled with drink options—mostly tea. An area to lie down; not for Edward, but for a life model.


It’s bohemian, but healthier, cleaner, more professional.


He offers me a seat on the couch, kindly hands me a Fresca from the mini-fridge. I’m parched so I rip it open, guzzle half. It’s the best thing I’d ever tasted in my life. My millennial self had yet to sample this Gen-X delicacy until now. Never too late, I say.


Preparing my list of questions, I loll into my seat like a patron in an opium den. But the vision that I seek is not of a fantastic future; rather, I hope to put a finer point on the present, through the lens of the past. 


Many of my ilk are multidisciplinarians, polymaths, ostensible jacks-and-jills-of-many-trades, myself included. Multiple activities reach from one side of our mind to the other, bridging the seemingly remote, engaging and inspiring and feeding different parts of us like farmers growing different kinds of plants.


So I felt a certain kinship with Edward. As though he was someone I could learn from. Although I doubt he would claim any such title.


How does a multidisciplinarian live life to the fullest? Is it a pure slog of individualism? Or is there help involved? Do family and friends support it or disparage it, and most importantly, does it bring happiness?


But where to start? How about: what does a multidisciplinarian look like?



I'm looking at one. Edward, a man who refused to choose, who rode the line between finding his place in the world and creating that place, between being and becoming, ambition and humility, who took his time reaching the full expression of what exceptional talent imbues.


And talent alone was not enough. Talent was only the doorway. Work and sacrifice were the legs to carry him through it.


Plus, “I was a Lutheran pastor for seven years.”


How does one get from there to here? Let’s find out.


Strings and Frames


Edward graduated from St. Olaf College in 1996 with a double major in Music and Art. Getting that degree “was so excruciatingly hard!” He laughs self-effacingly. This means Edward has been doing or pursuing these dreams for thirty years. 


But of course it begins even earlier than that.


Having picked up his first drawing pencil at age three, Edward started out in music and painting in earnest at around the same time about a few years later. In fifth grade, “I had to choose an instrument and all the other boys wanted to do drums or trumpet. I chose violin and there were only five other kids in my group, whereas there were over a hundred in the other class.”


It was clear he was different from other kids, not just in terms of instrument preferences but also promise. Out of everyone in the music program, Edward won the Most Improved Award within the first year. “I couldn’t even hold the violin properly yet.”


Wait; was that a humble brag? Or is Edward minimizing the importance of his childhood achievement and the future it portended?


Either way, I’m sure the positive reinforcement didn’t hurt. 


Edward’s dream was to make it into a really good orchestra. “That’s just the pinnacle for a lot of musicians, [to experience] that opening up of the self when you’re lost in this sound-bath of music.” 



Just the way he talks about it, I can tell the dream still has that intoxicating quality. But his voice drops; life is always more complex than one dream.


“I was fortunate enough to take a year of Suzuki violin. And then my teacher moved away.”


I’ve known musicians who quit their instrument when they lost their beloved instructor. So I’m eager to hear more. After that happened, “I transferred to traditional method, which didn’t really make me a good violinist.”


Hold on, I say. I need a brief refresher: what’s the difference between Suzuki and traditional violin instruction? Edward breaks it down for me.


Traditional methods start between ages six and ten, focusing on reading music and individual progress with minimal parental involvement, which usually results in a more solitary and structured learning experience. On the other hand, the Suzuki Method, pioneered by Shinichi Suzuki, immerses children as young as three years of age in music through listening and imitation, with deep parental involvement and group instruction, creating a nurturing, communal learning atmosphere. 



I can see how a young student might grow attached to this Suzuki method. So how did changing to traditional instruction affect Edward, his playing habits and his love of music?


“I played with a lot of tension. I was stuck in the same old orchestra playing really demanding music all the time. I was practicing several hours a day and killing myself. I even got a repetitive stress injury.” 


“So I stopped playing. I was just burnt out.”


Uh-oh.


He was 23. Not getting into graduate school for art didn’t help Edward’s morale.


A few years passed; he worked in graphic design and got married. There was movement in his life, but movement is not the same as direction.


“I didn’t know what I was doing. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer all day.”


Fair enough.



So Edward followed a whisper that few hear and even fewer listen to. He decided to become an ordained Lutheran pastor. But the path was not entirely out of left field. Edward’s grandfather was a minister, after all. 


His service to the church is how he ended up in New Jersey, where he was needed.




"Jacob Was a Shepherd for Seven Years"


Some people join the military to find themselves; Edward joined the church.


“I was ordained twenty years ago this year.” He pauses, leans back, smiles at the realization. Then his countenance darkens and he continues. After a period of bouncing around, “I was trying to follow a script of, ‘go to school, get married, go to church,’ to be the dutiful oldest son in the dutiful family.”


But, in 2011 after seven years in the clergy, “very suddenly I realized: none of this is me.”


What happened? How does one outgrow such a calling?


“I’d started reading the I Ching and this and that other philosopher and I just realized there was a wider world out there. And career-wise, I was running afoul of [religious] politics...I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. I knew I needed a change, I just didn’t know what.”


Some people called Edward courageous for trusting his feelings and following his heart. “I guess,” he would say, “but I didn’t have a choice. I was just doing what needs to be done.”


So he couldn’t even take credit for his courage. But it was more authentic for him not to. “That's what was missing for me as a pastor: authenticity.”


So, in the name of acting authentically, he got out. How did that feel?


“Really painful; excruciatingly painful.” And the conflict wasn’t entirely internal, either.



“I paid a high price for it socially, too. When I left the church, I lost all the status and prestige and all the social currency. My life shrank to a tiny dot.”


Edward found himself ostracized. “There was no support,” he explains, “except for my parents. Bless their lovely hearts. To me, they represent the highest side of Christianity: the forgiveness and compassion. But almost everyone else dove off the side of the boat; I went through a divorce.” 


I remind Edward that if he ever wants me to pause the recording, we can do that. He falls quiet for a moment, but pushes on.


“When you leave something, it feels like you’re in an awful hole at first. But there’s something better on the other side.”


How did he cultivate that optimism? It came from an unexpected source: a fellow member of the clergy. “He was one of the most conservative, down-the-cuff, doctrinal orthodox people I knew. But he was the only person to give me some encouragement.”


What did he say?


“He said, “There is a horizon for you.”



Second Lives


Throughout this difficult journey, Edward kept with his art. At his church, he hosted fundraisers, community leadership efforts, and art shows. Just by coincidence, or perhaps fate, one such show would draw Edward back to the violin as a career.



“A violin teacher came to the show who knew that I played and she said to me, “We’re looking for a teacher to fill in.’ And I said, OK, sure, whatever.” He was 38 and nonchalant. Just a fill-in; no big deal.


Fast forward twelve years, and Edward’s been running his studio for a decade.


“And your studio teaches the Suzuki method, is that right?” I ask.


He answers in the affirmative. “The group emphasis in Suzuki is really important. That method saved me as a violinist.”


Memories of a challenging time give way, once again, to pride. 


“Yesterday, one of my best students and I were talking and she said, ‘my goal is to sound like you someday.’ That’s the best compliment I could possibly get. If you had told me twenty years ago that I would become a violin teacher, I never would’ve believed you.”


Because, twenty years ago, Edward was out. Given up. Moved on. Or so he thought.


“It was like a second life for violin, and it came from art.”



Letting Go


When he was in college pursuing his double major, his art professor told him he didn’t take enough risks. The professor advised him to “dialogue more with what’s in front of you.”



What does this mean? I ask for an example.


“Take this image here.” He gestures towards an in-progress painting of a pond and its surrounding vegetation. A photo of the actual pond hangs from the edge of the easel; the source image. 


Edward could endeavor to make his painting look exactly like the source image. He could try to figure out exactly how to match those swirls, those colors, so that whoever views his painting will know exactly what they are looking at.


But this, in a way, is avoiding risk. Instead, “I try to respond to what I’ve put on the canvas. This [source image] is just a cue for some of the colors. When you dialogue with what’s in front of you, with what you’ve already put on the canvas, it’s more like letting reality arise in the moment, responding to what’s happening, instead of trying to control it so much. And you start to have this relationship with it.”


And that’s what his professor wanted to see more of in Edward’s art: his relationship with it.



It directly ties to his Zen practice. “We spend so much time in our heads and narratives and thought processes and anxieties, we can miss what’s right in front of us.”


But that’s where vulnerability comes in. If he just paints the source image, it’s safer. But dialoguing with what’s in front of him requires being open to his feelings. 


And who wants to do that? 


“The critical voice creeps in and says that you’re not good enough, you’re not measuring up, your work is subpar or the mark you made was the wrong one.”


It’s a little surprising to hear how prevalent this self-criticism is in Edward. I ask him how he overcame it to become an accomplished music and art teacher.


He tilts his head to one side, raises the ipsilateral shoulder, disagrees. “I don’t think I have. I don’t think you ever really arrive at a place where you’re totally free of that. I think accepting that is what’s allowed me to do what I do.”


I was going to ask him what advice he would give to young creative people, but that's already a pretty epic start.


Edward uses focused, repetitive practice of his arts to help shut that voice up. He aims for 1000 hours a year. Eventually, “doing something ten times is easier than doing it two times. Trusting the practice is a refuge from that voice; it’s proof that the voice doesn’t know what it’s talking about.”


Why do artists so often struggle with that voice?


“It’s an affliction that creative people have that can only be solved by creating, not by other methods of treating sadness.” 


Edward pauses for a moment, straining to remember a certain article. The author talks about “this myth, this pernicious ideal of the solo artist as the rugged individualist.” He needs nobody, nobody needs him. The individual genius. Right?


That’s part of where Edward’s critical voice comes from. “That is something I am continually trying to release out of my consciousness. That’s deeply scripted in me.” 


Okay, so if the genius is not lone, if the artist is not original, if the beauty they create doesn’t come from within them, then where does it come from?


Edward laughs his first belly laugh. Have I stumped him? 


He stands up. Again, he gestures to a painting, this time of a forest: darkness, pillars of light broken by butterflies in flight, swirling mist and net-like vegetation that almost breathes from the canvas.



“This is called ‘Emergence,’” he says. “I’m trying to talk about the creative muse here, literally coming from complete darkness, coming out of the forest and through the mystery of it all. Like where does that come from? I don’t know if anybody knows the answer to that, but it’s just about recognizing that the wonder is all around you. It doesn't originate from my consciousness, or my effort—you don’t will it into existence; that’s the thing I’ve really had to let go of—but when you open yourself to it and trust it, it’s larger than your own brain.”


“What’s larger than your own brain?”


“Reality.”


That’s getting a page break, all right.



Benediction of the Polymath


So here's the question: what advice would Edward give other creative people or folks with multiple interests?



First, a very hard pill to swallow. “You can really only do one thing at a time.” But you keep the other ones alive. While he was building his violin teaching business, Edward made some art, “exhibited here and there. You have to give your other interest enough oxygen so that you’re not totally angry all the time.” Another belly laugh. 


“But there’s no way I could’ve created a successful art business at the same time.”


Edward finds creative work is a “battle on two fronts: one is to get the motivation to produce the work itself, which is a fantastic amount of effort and energy, and the second is to create the space in which to market the work.”


Do you need to market the work, though? Can’t the art just be for the artist?


Sure it can. “But over the years, I found that just stacking art up in my basement was really unsatisfying. I like having a destination.” 


Individualism’s destination...is other people. Kind of ironic. “And I have no right to withhold it.”



“Society views culture as a distraction,” and even as the artist, it’s possible to view it that way too. Just working out of the home, as many artists do, it’s easy for friends or spouses or even the artist himself or herself to think, “'well, since you’re home, you should be able to do this and that other thing and take care of this and that.'”


What it boils down to is the perception that making art is “not really working.”


“If I had to name one of the most important struggles for me, it’s to own that this is my work, just like a lawyer’s work is their work and a doctor's work is their work. I have as much expertise as they do. And yet why is it that I don’t make $450 an hour?”


Well, why is that?


"It’s partly because our culture just doesn’t value art as much as they value other things. And that’s not my fault. But that’s also not an excuse not to be an artist.”


Edward Obermueller can be reached at either of his business websites, www.EdwardsViolinStudio.com or www.eofine.art, by emailing him directly at edward@eofine.art, or on Instagram: @edwardo_fine_art


Story: Mark Ludas @aulos.media

Photos: Peter Stog for LOKL cafe peterstog.com 

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