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Artist brings beauty to life despite visual challenges

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Artist Sam Dietz works on a celestial painting in his Altoona home.

Born with severe cataracts further complicated by glaucoma, Altoonan Sam C. Dietze hasn’t let his visual challenges stop him from enjoying the outdoors or building a career as an award-winning artist.

His oil painting “Interstellar Filaments” appears in the July issue of Astronomy magazine, an all-art issue dedicated to the Best Space Art of the International Association of Astronomical Artists. The oil painting is an “expressionistic image depicting one possible gas flowing through the early universe,” according to a caption in the magazine. Dietze is one of 42 artists featured in the annual special edition.

The magazine is available at newsstands and booksellers or can be purchased online at https://myscienceshop.com/product/ASY220701-C, said IAAA President Aldo Spadoni. More than 200 entries were received and only 50 were chosen.

“Sam’s work was selected for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because he’s an excellent artist. Also, he’s comfortable with abstract interpretations of complex astronomical phenomena and concepts. We needed some artwork to represent some exotic aspects of the early Universe and his piece … captured that perfectly,” Spadoni said via email. He described Dietze as a “veteran and well-respected artist member of the IAAA. He has explored the use of oils, pencils, acrylics and plein air painting to depict a variety of astronomical phenomena. Sam has a unique style, which is instantly recognizable, featuring distinct swatches of paint and bold use of color.”

Legally blind, Deitze can’t drive. Instead, Dietze (pronounced deets-ee) rides one of his three bikes to the gym and for errands and relies on friends Diane and Frank Barry. He met Diane through his participation in programs by The Blair/Clearfield Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“I paint the way I see things or work from my imagination,” Dietze explained. “It’s been the same all my life. I’ve never known normal vision. I’ve never had it. It’s a challenge. People don’t understand.”

To read a printed letter, he holds it close up to his eyes. For computer work, he uses extra large fonts to see text.

Despite his disability, Dietze succeeded in his educational endeavors as he pursued his interests in science, especially astronomy. He earned a bachelor of science and a master’s degree in astronomy from Penn State University and then a second master’s degree in Astro-Geophysics from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

He coped by sitting in front of classes, listening to audio tapes and did best with “very verbal” professors.

His late parents nurtured his “can do” attitude.

“They would say ‘there’s nothing you can’t do, you just have to do it differently,'” he said. Except for living in State College and in Colorado for several years, he’s lived in Altoona.

Employment proved elusive, so he turned to creating art full-time. He paints in two different styles: plein air, painting outdoor scenes while outdoors; and landscapes of the heavens and other planetary landscapes using his scientific and astronomical knowledge combined with imagination.

“The outdoor scenes came through my love of being outside and being in nature,” he said. “It’s another form of science and seeing the science in nature.”

Dietze frequently joins other area artists at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art Altoona Community Creates events, said site Director Hannah Harley. A solo exhibition of his work recently concluded.

“I’ve found Sam Dietze’s artistic style is a modern take on impressionism. His study of light in landscapes and imaginative skyscapes are colorful and vibrant. The works are not rigid or careful, but you can see he’s wonderfully considerate of the light and changing colors. From afar, the artworks appear as scenes, but up close, they become colors side by side in a formation,” she said. “I’ve always adored Sam’s plein air pieces. By painting outside, Sam can truly focus on and delight in the changing light and the beautiful colors of a scene.”

She also admires Dietze’s “generous spirit” as he helps newcomers learn.

“He has a generous spirit. Sam is a kind and considerate person and he is a talented and hardworking artist. Those personality and artistic characteristics come together (and) mean that Sam is an inspiration to many. His art continues to wow our community, and it will be so exciting to see what he creates next.”

His love of the astronomical heavens is expressed through larger canvases inspired by his education, imagination and photographic views from scientific voyagers, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. However, he doesn’t replicate photos but uses the images to fuel his imagination, he said.

Fellow artist and longtime friend Stephen Gilbert describes Dietze as “very thoughtful, intelligent and a bit taciturn. He doesn’t say a lot most of the time.”

The two have painted often together, and Gilbert praised Dietze for his artistic abilities.

“He’s totally self-taught. He pursues it very methodically and gives a lot of thought to his use of color. He’s quite accomplished. I really love the landscapes he does. He has a wonderfully quirky way of doing it that is all his own. It’s obvious it’s his work.”

His style is evident in his broad brush work, Gilbert said. “He doesn’t detail the way someone with better vision would. His work has a bold freshness to it. It’s quite charming.”

Dietze has had his works shown in several solo exhibits, and won national, state and regional awards. A solo exhibit of his works is planned for February 2023 at the Bellefonte Art Museum in Centre County.

Local resident Chabela Grabb, a former Hollidaysburg art gallery owner, is the proud owner of two Dietze works displayed in her home.

One work features trees in a wooded area with leaves ablaze in different colors.

“It’s not very defined, but all together makes a beautiful combination,” she said. “I truly enjoy his work.”

The other work features a “magnificent sky with trees with an evening dark and blue sky. It’s gorgeous. The colors he paints are wonderful.”

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