Artist searches for potato heads" painting

By Cody Ellerd' email='

It was July 1973. The nation was electrified by the Watergate hearings as the demise of Richard Nixon's presidency was being played out in front of everyone's eyes. Northwest-area painter Judy Odell, seized by inspiration, turned off her television and painted, throughout the night, her impression of the scene in the Senate chamber. "It was all in shades of red, white and blue. The gallery of people, they were faceless. They looked like potato heads," Odell said. "This is what I came up with." Soon after, the painting sold at a Seattle Co-Arts Show to the National Bank of Commerce, but no snapshot or visual record of the artwork was made. That was the last Odell ever saw of it. Now retired and taking inventory of her life's work, Odell, who was honored with a solo retrospective at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle in 1991, is searching for the lost painting. She hopes that canvas prints she can produce of "Watergate" and her other works will help her put her four grandchildren through college. "I knew it had historical significance," Odell said of the painting, but she didn't make prints of it then because "the timing wasn't right. The country needed time to heal." Years later, the nation had moved on and the Watergate scene that had so gripped Odell one sleepless night in 1973 was far from her mind. Until a conversation with an acquaintance about his tugboat. "Beans" Hatley of Seattle owned a tugboat named "Potato." After a wedding one night in the mid-1980s, the peculiar boat name reminded another guest of a certain painting she had often admired that hung on the wall of her bank on Mercer Island.

Odell asked the woman if it was of a courtroom scene, and she said "Yes." Odell knew that it could only be one painting. "I told her I painted that and she nearly fell off her chair," Odell said. At last Odell knew the whereabouts of her historical"Watergate," and felt assured that she would always know where to find it when the time came to make transparencies.

Now that time has come. But on 80th Avenue S.E. in Mercer Island, the National Bank of Commerce which once displayed "Watergate" is gone, and with it, the painting. After many years and changes of ownership, a Bank of America occupies the site today. For the branch's senior-most employee, who has been there some 20 years throughout many of the changes, "potato" is still nothing more than a vegetable. Bank of America spokeswoman Tara Burke said that when banks merge, art holdings are considered part of the acquisition. Bank of America has an extensive corporate collection -- one of the country's largest -- complete with galleries in San Francisco and Charlotte, N.C. and art exhibitions that tour from city to city.

But initial efforts by the bank's curatorial staff to locate Odell's painting have turned up nothing, and she doesn't appear any closer to solving the mystery.

"All this happened because I didn't keep good records, so let that be a lesson to up-and-coming artists," Odell said. She points out that the creation of canvas prints greatly increases the value of the original, so it would be in the owner's interest to come forward.

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