Rudy Rotter (1913-2001) began carving wood sculptures while still operating his full-time dental practice in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It was 1956 and Rotter was 43 years old. For the next 25 years, this devoted dentist spent all of his spare time making art. In the 1960s he completed a monumental series of mahogany panels of Old Testament scenes. These magnificent tablets document the stories of Genesis, David and Goliath, King Solomon, Abraham and Isaac, and Adam and Eve. He also made intricate compositions of carved family groupings which he called “Interrelationships.”
Rotter’s art has been shown at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee, the Lawton Art Gallery at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, the Rahr West Art Museum in Manitowoc, WI, the Intuit Art Fair, the Outsider Art Fair in New York City as well as the now closed Museum of Sculpture in Manitowoc, WI. A body of his work was acquired by the Kohler Foundation for preservation. His estate is represented by Portrait Society Gallery.
“After the tension of the fine and careful work needed to be done in patients’ mouths,” Rotter said in a 1991 interview, “it was a release to work freely in my studio. I also enjoyed the solitude of working alone after being with people all day.” (Rajer 43).
Rotter retired from dentistry at age 74 and then rented a three-story warehouse in downtown Manitowoc for his studio. When he died in 2001 at age 88, the 21,000 square foot warehouse was full. However, throughout these 14 years of accelerated production, Rudy hardly took the time to notice. It was only in his last months of life that the artist returned to the warehouse and truly looked around. His wife Karen recalls Rotter saying, “I can’t believe I did all this.” Indeed, wood carvings, assemblage sculptures, drawings, and mixed media pieces fill all three floors. Anton Rajer, an art conservator who published a book on Rotter in 1998, dubbed Rudy, “the most prolific artist in Wisconsin history.”
The warehouse, which he called “Rudy Rotter’s Museum of Art,” is now quite dilapidated. A portion of the roof caved in several years ago and had to be dismantled. Windows are broken. There is no heat or electricity in some sections of the building. Rudy’s legacy, however, holds firm as does the ghostly presence of the artist himself.
To enter the warehouse, even in its present state, is to come in contact with a relentlessly committed spirit. Rotter believed that there was magic in the act of making things. To tap into these free forces of boundless potentiality, a realm without laws or limits, was to share in the fullest condition of humanity. The act of creating something, whether it was from a huge panel of Mahogany or some cast off metal pieces from the local trophy factory, provided an avenue of access to a spiritually infused state. This is what unifies Rotter’s extraordinarily diverse body of work. For Rotter, it was clearly the act of making things that held the power, not necessarily the final “product” itself. Yet each piece acts a little like an icon or totem as it gently and often humorously emits material evidence of Rudy’s belief in creativity, hard-work and human intimacy. ‘Here,’ Rudy seems to be saying with each piece, ‘take this work of art and remember to value life.”
Michael Davidson, a Milwaukee artist who helped curate this exhibition, commented that with every material Rudy approached he seemed to ask ‘what could this be? Or ‘look what I can make out of this.’ “It is overwhelmingly positive,” Davidson said, having not been familiar with Rudy’s work prior to this project. “He seems to always emphasize a wonder of the creative process…The joy of the making. There’s a delight in the very act of creation – which I think is embedded in the content as well as some of the subject matter.”
An individual who can find and follow his own interests and passions, outside the constricting cultural forces that define who we are and how we behave, is indeed rare. Rudy was well-known throughout Manitowoc as the family dentist. He had done his undergraduate degree at Madison in zoology and then went to Marquette University for dentistry. By all accounts, he was a man of distinction who parented four children, participated in the local Jewish synagogue, traveled, and pursued a love of opera. Yet Rudy was able to step out of a conventional professional role and take on a rather eccentric endeavor. Rudy didn’t seem to be affected by what people thought or in any way seduced by the more popular interests of his peers. He instead developed and followed his own path — a rarity, especially as one climbs the socio-economic ladder.
One wonders if there will be many more Rudy Rotters in the world. Rotter’s generation grew up in the American Depression. He was youngest of six children born to first generation Russian immigrants, who lived and worked on Milwaukee’s Mitchell Street. The family eventually developed a number of small businesses, from a floral shop to a tire repair and grocery store. This notion of ‘making something from nothing’ through sheer determination and faith, seemed to infuse Rudy’s sensibility. When Eck Foundry and Manitowoc Pattern Works gave Rudy old wooden foundry forms, he marveled over the craftsmanship and turned them into hundreds of assemblages. Cast-off linoleum squares and wall paper sample books became perfect drawing surfaces. There was no material that slowed him down. Surplus teak wood came from one of his patients who happened to own the Burger Yacht Company in Manitowoc. Relative’s mink coats became “imaginary creatures.”
Rotter essentially worked from the Surrealist mindset of automatism where images were allowed to rise out of unconscious zones. A shape or drawn squiggle might generate entwined human and bird forms. Even in his wood carvings of the 1960s and 1970s, Rotter seemed to make so many sketches between seeing patients that the compositions grew and developed almost organically out of a continuous flow of the pen. “I work on an emotional or gut level,” Rotter told Anton Rajer in an interview. “Something seems to happen in the process. I’ll follow a new lead and it goes into a series, which will then lead into something else. This is the fun of creating all these things.”
Rudy Rotter has something to offer all of us. His art, whether a seven foot carving of a woman or a four inch etched piece of tin, should remind us to enjoy what we do. It should remind us not to judge ourselves or others too harshly. “It’s OK,” Rudy seems to say. “You don’t have to be perfect. Just love what you do and love the people around you and that’s enough.”
“I’ve enjoyed every piece,” Rotter said. “The ‘Joy of Creativity,’ that’s it. I mean that’s the entire thing because if you didn’t really love doing this, nothing would mean anything in the things I’ve done…but I’ve enjoyed every piece, banging away at it with hammers and nails, cutting it, chiseling, grinding, kicking, cussing, everything else.”
-Debra Brehmer, owner Portrait Society
(All direct quotes are from Tony Rajer’s book, “Rudy Rotter’s Spirit-Driven Art: The Odyssey and Evolution of an Artistic Vision,” 1998. Madison, Wisconsin.)
SELECT EXHIBITIONS (GROUP & SOLO)
2018 Waste Not II: Wisconsin Self Taught, Portrait Society Gallery, Milwaukee, WI
2017 Stacked, Portrait Society Gallery
2017 Rudy Rotter: Intimate Bonds, Jewish Community Center, Milwaukee, WI (solo)
2011 Given in Trust: New MWA Acquisitions, Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, WI
2008 Rudy Rotter: We Are Family, Portrait Society Gallery (solo)
2007 One Collection, Three Dimensions: A Personal Pursuit of WI Sculpture, Museum of Wisconsin Art
2002 Wisconsin Visions: A Journey of Wisconsin Self-Taught, Outsider, and Folk Art, Walkers Point Center for the Arts, Milwaukee, WI
Rudy Rotter's Spirit-Driven Art: The Odyssey and Evolution of an Artistic Vision by Tony Rajer (1998).
Kohler Foundation, Inc.
Video, Rudy Rotter in his museum