Eric O’Dell Profile Piece

Where Eric O’Dell sits on his “throne,” educating students about the brilliance of Aristotle and Bruce Springsteen, his own Great Books professor once sat. It was 1988 and his brother Brian was in a classroom down the hall. “What do you want to get out of this course,” the professor asked his brother. Without hesitation he stood up and said, “Teacher, I want you to kick my ass.” The professor loved Brian right then and there, and Eric said he won her approval just as fast.

Eric O’Dell didn’t have the nerve his brother did, but he shared the same interest in philosophy and art. He was an Art Major and Philosophy Minor and received a Master of Fine Arts from Florida State. Now he is a professor at Mercer University and an established painter, but his road to success was far from glamorous.

O’Dell started off cleaning toilets and hanging paintings at the Museum of Arts and Sciences. Over the course of 14 years, he was promoted several times but was laid off in 2011 due to budget cuts.

“For my daughter’s 12th birthday I got to tell her that I didn’t have a job anymore so in the fall I did seven part time teaching classes at Mercer and Macon State,” said O’Dell.

After years of working several jobs, now he works at Mercer University full-time and helps run Mercer’s Philosophy and Art Study Abroad program. Every year they stay in one city for three weeks, and this summer they are going to Florence, Italy.

“I look forward to this all year man. It is our goal to make it alive and real to the point where you can taste it. [At Mercer] we can give you two dimensions. There we can give you depth,” O’Dell said.

The trip is different than the incredible service opportunities offered on campus like Mercer on a Mission, O’Dell said.

“Instead of landing somewhere and immediately being able to be helpful, I feel like I’m landing somewhere and bending my knee to greatness. It provides another triangulation point of what it means to be human,” O’Dell said. “We aren’t going where we are needed. We are going where we need to do better. It’s arguable that nobody in 500 years has carved as brilliantly as Michael Angelo, and [seeing that] shows the penultimate heights of what human endeavor can do.”

This summer, there will be an unusual addition. His brother Brian, Philosophy Major and Machiavellian buff, is joining the crew as a student. If Eric O’Dell meets his brother’s standards as a teacher, Brian is sure to get the “ass kicking” he always dreamed of.

When Eric O’Dell isn’t overseas, teaching or with his family, he’s probably painting in his studio. If you catch him at the right time, he might even have a companion or two.

“Mr. O’Dell took our whole freshman orientation group to his studio. I have to say, it was pretty cool,” said Mercer student, Colton Macrae.

O’Dell has come a long way since the small town kid who grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. He first discovered his love for painting when his father was the colorer at a textile mill. With unlimited access to paint, his artwork began at a young age.

Balancing the chaos between family life, committee meetings and teaching, O’Dell doesn’t get to paint as much as he used to, but he still paints when he has the time, he said.

According to O’Dell, the good thing about the arts is their availability. Anyone can do it, and anyone can practice.

People always ask O’Dell how to sell their paintings. They ask him how to get a showing at a gallery. What they don’t ask about is the hundreds of hours spent at the canvas mastering the craft. People are looking for shortcuts when they should be spending time growing as an artist and not a salesmen, O’Dell said.

The key to mastering an art is practice. An artist needs to paint, a musician needs to make music, and a writer needs to write. Regardless of money or status, no one can take it away, O’Dell said.

If you are interested in O’Dell’s paintings, go to EricO’ If you are interested in O’Dell, follow the Bob Dylan music blaring in the art building.