Dusting off the Cornell's image 

If nothing else, the new curator of exhibitions at Cornell Fine Arts Museum is out to banish any visions of blue hair and brown paintings that might hang on the esteemed Rollins College institution. Certainly in the years to come, the public presentation of the untold treasures in Cornell's collection -- Central Florida's largest, with more than 6,000 works -- should receive a fresh reworking through the eyes of 31-year-old Theo Lotz.

The Cornell has been around for so long -- accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1981, but with a collection that dates back a century ago to the first paintings donated to the college -- it's easy to take for granted its rich impact and history. Then again, the Cornell made some well-deserved noise for itself this past year, mostly for its "Treasures of the Chinese Nobility" summer exhibit that took friendly advantage of the hype for the Orlando Museum of Art's "Imperial Tombs of China." While the Cornell exhibit didn't feature the flashy pieces that anchored the OMA extravaganza, it did offer a thoughtful and more historically complete showcase of 140 objects from the private store of Chauncey Lowe, a pharmacist and collector from Winter Park.

The Cornell does benefit from its many and monied connections. And therein lies the blue-hair connection and the general association of stuffiness. So what better PR than a hip, well-schooled, freshly married curator with a pierced ear? Righteously, then, the design and selection of Cornell's exhibitions now lies with a local boy, who brings some history himself to the job that he began in September.

Lotz is the son of Steve Lotz, the founder of the UCF Art Department who is still teaching and painting there. His mother is also an artist, a sculptor, and teaches in the Orange County Public Schools. Though Lotz grew up in a city portrayed as a cultural black hole and came of age along with the theme parks, his childhood was full of world travels and exposure to art. "All my role models were artists," he says, but he didn't romanticize the profession.

His parents were not particularly encouraging of a career in the arts. Still, Lotz followed his own muse. A degree at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg was followed by travels and trials, though he always came back to Orlando. Lotz employed his artistic skills at then under-construction Universal Studios, where he left his mark on the New York cityscapes and sculptures incorporated into E.T.'s Adventure. Ultimately, throwaway showbiz work was not satisfying, he says, because he was not free to express himself.

"It's so the opposite of what you want to do in the studio, which is contemplative work that reflects the inner soul," he says.

His own soul-searching led him to the decision to pursue art seriously. At 25, he was accepted into the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, and there he had the time of his life, settling down with his own vision.

On the merits of his paintings, which he says are "rooted in the figurative tradition ... but grounded in contemporary art," Lotz was selected as a Fulbright scholar at the Royal College of Art and completed his master's of fine arts at Louisiana State University. Keeping with family tradition, he worked as an adjunct instructor at UCF and Valencia Community College.

Of course, the Cornell's defining presence is museum director Arthur Blumenthal, who nurtures a user-friendly atmosphere that suits Lotz's casual and comfortable attitude toward art. "I want him to shine," says Blumenthal of his new addition, though Lotz' influence will be gradual.

For now, Lotz is in a state of discovery. He says it's a "kick" browsing around the overcrowded back chambers. Lotz's arrival is fortuitously timed with plans for a $3.5 million expansion that would add three-times the space to the existing 5,000-square-foot museum.

Lotz looks forward to working against those blue-hair, brown painting images. He also wants to demystify the museum experience, building a bridge to the "I don't get it" syndrome. For him, visiting a museum should be less confrontational and more like visiting church. "It should make you contemplate life and the world in ways you don't in everyday life."

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