Earle Oakes; artist loved magic

Earle D. Oakes also enjoyed the paper-folding art of origami.
Earle D. Oakes also enjoyed the paper-folding art of origami.
Posted: September 28, 2011

Earle D. Oakes, 88, an artist and illustrator with a passion for magic tricks, died of a stroke Sunday, Sept. 18, at Lankenau Hospital.

For 40 years, Mr. Oakes and his two brothers produced architectural renderings of most of the major building projects in Philadelphia. Working from an architect's plans, Mr. Oakes would create a depiction that enabled clients to visualize what the finished building would look like so they could make decisions about exterior treatments.

"They had plenty of business," said son Dennis, "because there weren't that many others who did it."

Mr. Oakes grew up in South Philadelphia. He and his family lived with his grandmother and her family until he was 9. He wasn't fond of school but did enjoy drawing, and his teachers encouraged him to develop his talent.

Throughout his teens, Mr. Oakes continued to draw and sketch. In 1942, at 19, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces, where he was trained to fly the B-29. Mr. Oakes, who logged more than 1,500 hours of flight time, was on his way to the South Pacific when the war, and his military career, ended.

Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Mr. Oakes attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied interior design before switching to architecture.

Mr. Oakes became interested in magic as a boy, and his interest intensified when he was at Penn. He bought a copy of Greater Magic by John Northern Hilliard. So fascinated was Mr. Oakes by the book that he began practicing diligently, and soon was creating and performing his own routines.

"My father was a night owl," Dennis Oakes recalled. "In everything he did, he was a perfectionist. I remember many evenings after we went to bed when he'd be up to the wee hours of the morning practicing his magic tricks.

"He didn't perform a lot for the family, but there was a trick called the Floating Wand that he did for David Copperfield and dazzled him."

In the early '90s, after Mr. Oakes retired, he applied his artistic skills to illustrating magic books and a column for Genii, a magazine for conjurers. He was also skillful in origami, and drew illustrations of various origami designs as well.

The book The Art of Deception, or the Affinity Between Conjuring and Art, features Mr. Oakes and hails him as "one of magic's most sought-after illustrators," known for "his exact and graceful drawings."

Mr. Oakes met his future wife, Helen Hays Baum, at a Penn-Navy football game. She remembers the date - Oct. 22, 1949.

"I knew right away that he was the one," she recalled. "It was love at first sight.

"He was very caring and very loving and very much a family man," she continued. "He adored his children and his grandchildren, and he worked very hard supporting his family. Being an artist is not easy."

Mr. Oakes and his wife, who served on the Philadelphia school board and was active in public education, lived in a house in Overbrook for 51 years. Last April, they celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary.

At an earlier residence in East Falls, Mr. Oakes had a home studio, and he put up a barrier in the doorway with what he called a "sidewalk superintendent's window" so his young children could watch what he was doing without disturbing him.

"He was always home for lunch and dinner," recalled Dennis Oakes, who was chief of staff to Mayor Bill Green. "He was always around when we were growing up, which was a special treat. Lots of people don't have that luxury."

An avid reader with a keen mind, Mr. Oakes enjoyed talking about politics.

"He had very clear views about right and wrong," his son said. "A lot of it came from his upbringing during the Depression."

Mr. Oakes evinced an old-fashioned sense of courtesy. He wrote numerous notes and letters, and lucky were they who received one of his special handmade birthday or graduation cards, adorned with an illustrator's touch.

"He was a really special, caring, gentle man," his son said.

Besides his wife and son, Mr. Oakes is survived by sons Jeffrey and Dave; a daughter, Peggy Shorr; eight grandchildren; two brothers; and four sisters.

A funeral was Wednesday, Sept. 21, at Christ Church Ithan, Villanova. Burial was in SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery in Marple Township.

Donations for the Earle Oakes Fund may be made to the Friends of the Architectural Archives, which will be mounting an exhibition of his architectural renderings, through the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, Attn.: William Whitaker, Meyerson Hall 102, Philadelphia 19104.


Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com.

 

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