The story of Albert Abelt is one of both a talented artist and a natural-born athlete. His uniquely coupled talents, varying pursuits, and adventurous life make him a fascinating subject.
Born in Portland, Oregon, on November 25, 1913, Albert Abelt was the son of Alexander Sokalovitch and Blanche Lang, both of Polish and Russian decent. Alexander served in the Czar's army and emigrated to this country around the time of the Russian Revolution. He took the last name Kunda, which Albert later changed to Abelt. When Albert was a small child both parents died within a short period of one another, and he was placed in a Catholic orphanage in Oregon at age seven.
Unhappy at the orphanage, Abelt ran away at the age of ten and began his life of adventure. He worked for two years as a busboy in a Kansas City restaurant, then got a taste of life at sea as a pantry boy on the freighter "San Tulsie" on its route between New York City and Puerto Rico. After his seafaring stint he lived for a short time in New York, staying at the Boys' Club and earning his keep by selling newspapers on the street. Still eager to roam, he started working his way back across the country, traveling in a carnival until he reached Seattle. There he boarded another freighter, this time fishing for salmon off the Alaskan coast. In an interview years later, Abelt recalled this year of long days of hard labor as "no vacation."1 He next took a two- year cruise to Japan and the Asiatic waters as a seaman aboard a Dollar Line steamer. When he returned to Seattle the fifteen-year-old continued to travel throughout the Northwest, supporting himself with work on forest fire crews and as a cook in lumber camps.
In Trail, Oregon, Abelt met Max Seimes, a wealthy sportsman, artist, and amateur boxer from Philadelphia. Seimes owned and operated a lodge in Trail named "Dripping Rock." He not only hired Abelt as a cook at the lodge, but, more importantly, he took a paternal interest in him. Seimes unofficially adopted the road-savvy youth and gave Abelt some stability in his life. Abelt stated that "without his influence, I would probably have never shaken off my wandering habit. Mr. Seimes was a wonderful fellow."2
This relationship was immensely influential in Abelt's life and created the foundation for many of his later pursuits and accomplishments. Max Seimes is credited with providing Abelt much of the support to explore his talents. It was from Seimes that Abelt learned boxing and football as well as painting. He lived at the lodge with Seimes until his enlistment in the Navy on April 25, 1933, at the age of 19.
Abelt's enlistment lasted eight years just prior to World War II and took him to many parts of the world including Europe, Africa, and Central America, where he served primarily shore patrol duties. During his two tours with the Navy, Abelt was able to hone both his boxing and painting skills. He became the middleweight champion of the Pacific Fleet in the summer of 1933, achieving the feat shortly after enlistment. That same year he played on the All-Navy football team.
Also, while stationed in San Diego, Abelt produced several California landscapes, painting them on the canvas of discarded Navy hammocks. Two of the landscapes were hung in the Naval Training Station library. He also painted a portrait of the base's commanding officer. The high quality of his work led to his transfer to a New York City recruiting unit to paint recruiting posters. While in the city Abelt took up sculpting and studied under the noted sculptor William Zorach.
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