Karl Bolander: The Hobby King

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

Surprising things often turn up in our archives, and the story of the first Director of the Fort Wayne Art School & Museum is one of those. When Theodore Thieme, president of the Wayne Knitting Mills, gave his home on Berry Street to the Fort Wayne Art School in 1921, he mandated some conditions before the transfer of his property could occur. One condition was that the Museum would become a formal part of the institution, others described the new board, constitution, and memberships, and, finally, it was agreed that the school would have a Director. Until then, the Board of Control had recruited an array of instructors, but had not appointed an executive. Now, with the added responsibilities of the Museum, a large endowment, and growing enrollment, it was necessary that the school and museum have a leader.

An ambitious, engaging young fellow from Ohio was recruited; Karl Bolander’s appointment was announced in May of 1922. Not quite 30 years old, he arrived from Marion, Ohio with credentials from the Ohio State University, Pratt Institute, and teaching experience in Columbus. He is described in a 1922 article from the Fort Wayne Saturday Night weekly by Marjorie Moellering. Miss Moellering, obviously quite taken with Karl, had stopped by the new art school to see how it measured up to the old Hamilton carriage house studios. She writes, “A most amazing man, Mr. Bolander. He was here, gone, back again, attending to this, that, transferring his absorption from one request to another without disturbing his poise or marring his smile.”

Mr. Bolander’s charms were also noticed by the other new “hire”, his Deputy Director, Miss Ella Langenberg, because she married him in December of 1922!

The Fort Wayne Art School students were charmed by both Bolanders and their little daughter, Bonnie Louise, born in 1924.  Baby Bonnie is featured in the students’ 1925 annual, Art Lights, as the Class Mascot.

A black and white photo of Bonnie Louise Bolander as a baby, paintbrush in hand.
Bonnie Louise Bolander, from the Fort Wayne Art School Art Lights, 1925.

The 1926 Art Lights opens with this dedication: – “To Karl S. Bolander, first director of the Fort Wayne Art School and Museum, who has expended his sincerest efforts toward the development of the school, we, the class of 1926 dedicate this third volume of “Art Lights”.  Under Ella’s photograph it says, “We regret very much that Mrs. Bolander is leaving us this year to go to Columbus, Ohio. However, we are sure that she will make many friends there as she has done while in Fort Wayne.” The Bolanders, content to stay for a couple of years in Fort Wayne, relocated at the end of the 1926 school year due to Karl’s ambitions.

Karl ramped up his career as an art educator, curator, and museum director and soon became involved in the Scholastic Art Award program which had been launched in 1923.  After serving as a judge for several years, he became its Director in 1940.

The charisma and energy that brought him success in Fort Wayne continued to propel his career, and along the way, he became a celebrity! He began sharing his passion for the arts as a lecturer around the country with a popular series on hobbies. He became known as The Hobby King – who “enriched the lives of over 200,000 children and adults each year with his educational programs and lectures”.

Karl Bolander stands on the left viewing student artwork with two other men.
Karl Bolander, on the left, views some student work. Image courtesy of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

In the 1940s, he claimed to have cultivated 244 personal hobbies! During WWII, he delivered a talk called Hobbies, How to Ride Them (a play on words referring to the hobby horse), that vowed, “The happy use of leisure time will be more of a reality for all who hear this message.”  In 1955 Karl wrote, “One hobby is not enough – twelve is perfect. This would give you three in each of the four desirable categories.” According to Karl, these are Learning, Doing, Making, and Collecting. He continues, “Let’s ride more hobbies, keep happy and have FUN out of this business of LIVIN’.” Karl retired from Scholastic in 1958, but continued to promote hobbies well into his retirement years in Florida where he died in 1976 at the age of 83, with a hobby count of 267! Karl died on July 17, which happens to be the date of the first meeting of the Board of Control of the Fort Wayne School of Art in 1897. Today, FWMoA’s hallway gallery is named in his and Ella’s honor. Check out the work by Indiana Impressionists (some from the original gift from Theodore Thieme!) currently on view in the Bolanders’ gallery.

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