The first thing that catches your eye as you approach Edwin “Ed” Echelmeyer’s art on display at the St. Peters Cultural Arts Centre is a display featuring many beautiful hand-painted cards framed under glass – each one a masterpiece in itself.
Those little works of art were mailed from Audrey Echelmeyer, a self-taught artist living in St. Louis, to Edwin “Ed” Echelmeyer, who was defending the Panama Canal during World War II.
Their love story – exhibited in both Ed’s and Audrey’s art – continues in a new exhibit at the St. Peters Cultural Arts Centre that runs through Feb. 28 and is open to the public.
For the Echelmeyer family, the art exhibit is not only about their parents’ shared joy of painting, it is also a tribute to the family’s strong bond, which they attribute to the generous way Audrey lived and the way Ed, now widowed, continues to live out their love.
Ed was born in Calvary Cemetery, where his father and grandfather were caretakers. He grew up in North St. Louis and enlisted in the Army immediately following graduation from McBride High.
He was stationed in Panama during World War II, where he played professional baseball with the Balboa Brewers in the competitive Canal Zone League. The Brewers also featured American League All-Star and Red Sox pitcher Mickey Harris from the beginning of 1942 to October 1945. Like Harris, Ed was a pitcher.
Audrey connected with Ed when his aunt suggested that Audrey should write letters to him because she thought they had a lot in common. So Audrey began sending her handmade cards to Ed, which in turn, ignited a romance. Their correspondence continued for three years. Soon after the war ended, they married.
The couple raised four boys and four girls together and managed the Arrow Head Motel in Columbia, Missouri, for 30 years. They were married for 61 years.
After Audrey’s death at age 83 in 2008, Ed said he noticed his wife’s art supplies around the house and decided he would take up the hobby to “pass the time.” He has been painting every morning since, but not until after his crossword puzzle is finished. Ed, who at 97 has survived two heart attacks, moved to St. Charles in 2016 to live with his youngest daughter, Maria Tadlock.
He said he never makes a plan for his art, he just lets his creativity take him through the process because “it’s more fun that way.” He likes the mystery of what the canvas will end up becoming. “I don’t know what I’m doing, really,” he said. “I never know what I am going to paint ahead of time, I just start and paint as I go.”
Maria said, “This exhibit represents the love of my parents had for each other, as well as their love for us kids. Even though Mom passed away over 12 years ago, the deep interconnection between them still exists as if she was still here physically. Dad wonders many days why he is still here, but painting helps him to focus and keeps him close to Mom.”
Daughter Edith Tierney, said, “I believe Dad does his art to feel close to Mom because she was always his guide in their years together.”
Seeing the exhibit for the first time on Jan. 8 brought tears to Ed’s eyes.
“I can’t believe all of this,” he said, looking around in amazement. “Audrey would be proud. I never did realize or even know about all the paintings she was doing. She used to do it on her own. She would say she was working at the motel cleaning the rooms and later I find out she was painting all of these paintings.”
He lowered his head and quietly added, “I just wish she could see this because she was the real artist. She was just an outstanding person. Outstanding!”
Audrey created images of scenery, still life and portraits with acrylic, oil, watercolor and pen. The family estimates that Audrey gave away hundreds of her paintings throughout her lifetime to family and friends.
It was important to Audrey and Ed that all of their children gained an appreciation for the arts as well as sports. The couple’s talents – playing baseball, singing, playing musical instruments, teaching and painting – were passed on to their eight children, 25 grandchildren and 44 great-grandchildren.
Once her youngest child was in school and before the couple’s hotel ownership days, Audrey taught spelling and art at St. Louise de Marillac grade school in Jennings. Rick Echelmeyer, the family’s youngest son, noted, “Mom was my teacher for kindergarten, spelling and art class, so my childhood memories of her artwork are through her showing and sharing her talents as her student.”
“She believed that everyone needed to discover their talent – their light – and once found, share the light of their talent with all those they met,” Maria said.
Ed said his most beloved paintings of Audrey’s have always been the ones of important shared family memories, which she painted for each of their children.
“Those are the paintings that bring me the most joy,” he said.
Maria agreed. “I proudly hang mine over my mantle to this day,” she said. “It is a painting from a photo taken on a vacation to Cancun of the Isla Mujeres. She titled the painting, ‘The Café by the Sea.’”
Acknowledging that many of his mother’s paintings similarly hang in other people’s homes, Rick said, “My favorite pictures may not even be on the wall in this exhibit, as my favorites were all those she gave away – the ones that made others feel special in this life.”
St. Peters Mayor Len Pagano was at the exhibit on Jan. 8 to present Ed with a citizenship award.
“I see a lot of love on these walls, your beautiful love story carries on through your artwork,” Pagano said.