The Rackelmans: At the HeART of a Marriage by Donna Kelly

The Rackelmans: At the HeART of a Marriage
By Donna Kelly

The house has good vibes.

Those vibes grab visitors at the first glimpse of the blue guitar perched above the mailbox and pull the lucky guests into the magical, musical world of Robert and Marilyn Rackelman. Here, along the gorgeous shore of Lake Lucerne, music is played, songs written, sculptures created, and nature celebrated. Sometimes magic is performed. Dixie, a friendly, rambunctious Brindle Hound, is the enthusiastic door greeter. Resident cats Macy, the Grand Madam, and Bad Pete, lend added charm as they lounge on the backs of sofas and chairs while three semi-feral kittens roam.

The couple at the center of this creative energy met as students at the University of Florida where he was an art education major and she was focused on fine art – until she followed his lead and switched majors. He’s outgoing and filled with energy. She’s pleasantly reserved, a good listener. They’ve been married “an amazing 45 years,” he announces with a grin.

Robert Rackelman, a retired – although hardly retiring – computer graphics supervisor, is well-known in Polk County as a versatile musician with the band Fat Frank and the Plank Spankers. His wildlife photography is gathering quite a following, too, and is often featured on the Storm Team 8 WFLA-TV news broadcast.

His wife turned her art education degree into a 30-year teaching career. She retired in June 2014 after decades of sharing her passion for art with students at Winter Haven High School. She’s also gathered a number of local art show awards.

“They love the arts,” said Jacque Palomaki, an artist and co-owner of Jackie’s City Hall Art Café in Haines City who met the Rackelmans shortly after moving to Polk County in 1987. They’ve been friends ever since. “The arts: That’s who they are.”

Marilyn Rackelman: Art is a Driving Force

Native Havenite Marilyn Rackelman “ran away to Gainesville” and stayed there to teach art and music to preschoolers for several years after before returning home.

“It was one of the most interesting and fun jobs I’ve ever had and an introduction to the creative 4 to 6-year-old mind,” she said.

After nearly 12 years in Gainesville the couple moved to Winter Haven. She created sculptures for Walt Disney World before jumping into teaching teenagers at Winter Haven High School.

“When I had the kids who wanted to be there, there was nothing better,” she says.

One of the students who wanted to be in art class was award-winning artist Trent Manning, whose found object sculptures are exhibited in galleries in Park City, Utah; New Orleans, La.; San Francisco, Calif.; and Sanford, Fla.

“Marilyn was the first teacher to expose me to 3D art in her ceramics class,” says Manning, now 42. “Since I’ve been a 3D artist for over 10 years I would say it had a pretty substantial impact.”

As the years passed, teaching began to take a toll on Marilyn Rackelman physically. Her own art fell by the wayside – until she had an epiphany during a professional conference.

“I was listening to a speaker at an art teachers’ conference 10 years ago. They talked about how art teachers and artists can’t let the art go,” she says.

Aware that she’d need to give up something to make time to create art, she returned home and stopped reading books and watching TV.

“That was a crazy, wonderful freeing time. I used the time working on art,” she says. “I made a commitment.”

Her goal was to create a body of work she felt represented the artist she’d become.

“Then I got back into shows,” she says.

And she began winning awards.

Christy Hemenway, executive director of Ridge Art Association, describes Marilyn Rackelman as a “regular award winner.”

“She has fine tuned her craft. She’s always been good, but the intricacy and quality of detail has been taken to the next level. There’s so much detail,” she said. “Even before she retired, you could see she was spending more time with her art than she was 10 years ago.”

Manning and Rackelman often win awards in the same shows.

“I’m not sure when she retired, but I have noticed how strong her work has become,” says Manning. “Every piece seems to be better than the last.  She’s definitely developed her own style and it’s very unique.”

Although her work has always been inspired by nature, her medium has changed over the years.

She made stained glass for decades before their house – the home she grew up in – burned in 1999 and her stained glass equipment was destroyed in the fire.

“When I revamped the studio, I revamped it for clay,” she says.

About six years ago, she began creating mixed media sculptures with clay – often fashioned into heads of birds, bunnies and other beasts – and items she finds in nature.

“When we go walking in the woods, Robert is taking photos and I’m picking up skulls and butterfly wings,” she says, smiling. “I’m pretty passionate about the environment because I use it and my husband photographs it.”

Art, she says, is a type of therapy.

“I’ve seen so many of my students find themselves through art,” she says. “Everybody has something to say. Students figure out how art gives them that voice. That’s why I love the arts.”

Rackelman describes art as “the driving force in her life.”

“It’s something I’ve always had to do,” she says.

Robert Rackelman: Connecting through the Arts

The irony behind Robert Rackelman’s influence on Marilyn’s decision to change her major to art education is that her husband didn’t pursue a career in teaching. Instead, he created clay pottery in his spare time while, as a computer graphics supervisor, he helped Professional Office Services, Inc. adapt to new technology and transition into the digital age.

“It was a fun thing to do,” he says.

Perhaps he’s best known in Polk County as bandleader for Fat Frank and the Plank Spankers, a blues band comprised of Jeff Reddout, guitar and vocals; Jim Owen, drums; and Randy Taylor, bass. Rackelman plays guitar, harmonica, ukulele, wash board and assorted other percussion instruments.

“We’re not preeminent musicians, but we have a nice way about us,” said Rackelman, who sports a beard and moustache a la Jerry Garcia.

Robert Rackelman was introduced to music as a young child by parents who hosted weekly gatherings of musicians. His father played the fiddle, his mother the keyboard.

“On Friday nights, people would come over,” he says. “They’d drink martinis and play chamber music.”

His grandmother gave him a ukulele before he was in grade school. He started playing banjo when he was 11 years old. In high school he played in various garage bands, by college he was into acoustic folk music. After moving to Winter Haven, he played the clubs, particularly the Anchor Bar, in a band called Smooth Shoes.

Since 1991, he’s also carried on his parents’ tradition of hosting a weekly music night, calling it Thursday Night Jam. The Rackelmans still host these weekly jam sessions, which have drawn anywhere from three to 30 musicians to their garage.

According to Reddout, the band found its current moniker when members were curious to know how outrageous they could be with a name and still get it printed in the newspapers.

The bass player, he says, suggested, “The Embarrassing Stain.”

Not to be outdone, Rackelman came up with a few of his own interesting names.

“It was around the time of the American kid in Indonesia who was sentenced to a public caning for writing graffiti, so Robert came up with ‘Bad Boy Habib and the Singapore Butt Smackers.’” Reddout says. “They loved it when the local papers dutifully printed that as the band that would be performing that weekend at the Anchor.”

Rackelman, so the story goes, suggested, “Fat Frank and the Plank Spankers” the following week.

“That name stuck, partly because electric guitars are basically planks of wood, and so when we play them we are, in a sense, ‘spanking’ them,” says Reddout. “Also, Robert was beginning to grow in girth, and as the band leader, he became his alter ego, ‘Fat Frank.’

Reddout joined the band in late 1994, about a year after it assumed its permanent name.

“Robert is one of the most generous, inventive, and restless individuals on the planet. As a musician, his strengths tend to be his “feel” for the music and his versatility, especially in playing multiple instruments and singing harmonies with me,” says Reddout.

A man of many interests and talents, Rackelman collects guitars, makes pottery, and amuses folks with magic tricks.

And then there’s his photography.

His love of photography grew out of a desire to document precious family moments and the growth of their now adult children who live out of state.

“I’m looking to catch the essence – the true dog, musician, or bird of prey,” he says.

Whether Rackelman is photographing a newborn calf, an eagle in flight, or a musician onstage, he has an uncanny ability to capture its spirit. He catches the hope of sunrise and glory of sunset, the power of wind, the personality of the lake and beauty in flowers.

Avid photographer Chip Newton, a retired journalist and editor, says Rackelman’s talent as a photographer stems from his ability to “see things.”

“Photography is a razor thin slice of time and Robert has seen it move, and at a particular instant it will be the slice of time that makes a good photo,” says Newton, Palomaki’s business partner in the cafe. “Anyone can take a point and shoot camera and take pretty good photos, but what sets Robert apart is his sense of timing and eye for composition.”

Rackelman often loads his trusty canine companion, Dixie, and frequent visitors into his trail vehicle and rides through several eco-environments in a two-mile radius surrounding their home. He loads up a trail snack for the humans – usually a couple of hard boiled eggs, cheese, and bacon – and an assortment of veggies and fruits for his animal friends, including cows, and miniature horses.

Ironically, he’s become friendly with a host of animals, including a tortoise, eagles, and ospreys that seemingly show off for his camera.

“I didn’t like the woods. I didn’t like bugs,” he said. He wasn’t wild about cats and dogs, either, back in the day. “Marilyn introduced me to having animals around.”

He doesn’t enter his photography in competitions nor does he seek publications. But in addition to his own enjoyment of taking them, his photos do serve a purpose.

“I feel like I serve the armchair adventurer who doesn’t or can’t get out to experience it in real life. They may not be able to have their own dog, but they got a buddy in Dixie,” he says. “People may not be able to take a trip, but they can through my photography.”

Photography is one way he interacts with the world.

“Robert loves to connect with people, and he is full of stories about all sorts of people that he has connected with over the years,” says Reddout. “He is truly a unique, amazing, artistic, creative, and benevolent human being.”

Palomaki says the Rackelman family introduced her family to local people and wildlife.

“They quickly became friends and were so gracious to introduce us to all the great places to eat in the area and to several of the state parks,” Palomaki says.

“Marilyn is, as is Robert, very intelligent and fun to be around and we learned a lot about Florida from them. They are both so full of talent,” she adds.

What’s the secret behind this four-decade marriage between two creative forces in the Rackelman household?

“We understand each other’s studio time,” said Marilyn Rackelman. “We respect each other’s time and space.”