Sculptor Roderick H. “Rod” Kagan, who passed away at home in Sun Valley December 2010, has been called one of Idaho’s greatest artists. Winner of the 1984 National Endowment for the Arts, his sculptures have been displayed in art museums, public spaces and private collections throughout the country. But Idaho, thankfully for us, is where he called home for almost 40 years.
A native-born New Jersey boy, Rod grew up working at his father’s butcher shop by day and building hot rods by night. “From the time he was very young, he was building things, making things and collecting things,” said Gail Severn, owner of the Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum—things like model airplanes, cars and trains. He had a natural eye for mechanical functionality and an obvious aptitude for engineering, but he also saw something in these grease-stained and rusting materials that most others missed—a curious beauty.
“I never knew anyone so fascinated with junkyards,” said Severn. “It was part of his upbringing; learning how to see shape, how to use these materials and how to take something that was already made and repurpose it. It all informed his ability to appropriate them into his art.”
When Kagan moved out West in 1973, touring the alpine ski mountains, he found a budding art scene forming in Ketchum. The Sun Valley Center for the Arts (SVCA) was only a couple years old at the time, but it created “a real sense of community in the arts that I think gave people permission to be artists, to follow their chosen path. It was like an incubator of ideas,” said Severn, who met Kagan through one of the SVCA gatherings. It was within this “incubator,” among the other artists and big names of 1970s Ketchum, that Kagan’s sculpting career began to take shape.
Two years after moving to the Valley, he hand-built an octagonal “compound” out Chocolate Gulch, which served as his home, studio workspace and gallery. In his studio, he had drill presses and welding torches, grinders and air compressors, hydraulic lifts for moving up to 900-pound structures and a metal operating table to cut designs out of bronze and steel. Here, he created well over 1,000 sculptures throughout his career.
And in his backyard, he had mountains.
“He was an avid outdoorsman,” said Severn. In Sun Valley, he found the mountains, rivers, skiing and hiking that originally drew him westward. “Here he had everything he needed,” she said.
During his exploration of the Wood River Valley’s trails, hiking through gullies and aspen groves, he stumbled upon something that would shape his career for years to come—abandoned Idaho mines. Creaking and dusty, they whispered of a Western history long since dead.
“He was very much engaged in the history of this place,” said Kristin Poole, artistic director of the SVCA. The scraps of pulleys, wheels, cables, gears and linkages that he collected from these mines would later become part of his series called “The Idaho Columns,” historic pieces rewoven into a new and yet ancient narrative, a number of which can be found at the Rod Kagan Park near the YMCA in Ketchum.
Kagan began constructing his totem series in 1978, exploring construction and material in a process that evolved into both his column series and reclining totem series. He was always exploring new ideas, form and shape, although the strong verticality and stacked shapes of The Idaho Columns are arguably some of Kagan’s most recognizable and famous work. Abstract and industrial, they stand up to 25 feet high and are, in the words of Poole, “commanding in their presence.” Coming from a long trajectory of modernism and cubism, she said, “He came of age, art historically, when there was a huge movement away from Representation and the Illusionistic approach, moving instead toward Abstraction and building things out of nontraditional materials.”
The naming of his earlier sculptures as numbered totems is also significant, said Poole, because it echoes back to the history of Native American culture and traditions in Idaho. “He had a very personal relationship with the land,” she said, explaining that totems were created to pay homage to the natural systems of the Earth. “Because his totems have so much to do with the mountain shape—that triangular form, the very vertical nature of them—I think he was honoring the place that he lived in that very simple way.”
While Kagan was very involved in the local history and art community, he also had an ear tuned in to global movements. Influenced by European sculptors like Brancusi and Arnaldo Pomodoro, his later work evolved into “more sophisticated and refined” structures of bronze, said Severn. But even during the 1980s and ’90s, in series like “Doric,” “Ionic,” “Corinthian” and the “Reclining Lady” series, he maintained the same reoccurring geometric shapes—the triangular and rectangular forms, inspired in part by the mountains of home.
“We always felt that he was underplayed during his lifetime, but that was the way he liked it,” said longtime Sun Valley friend, Sonia Baker. His work is displayed in the Smithsonian Museum, Schneider Museum, Boise Art Museum and in 38 major cities throughout the U.S. “But you would never know it from talking to him,” said Baker. “He quietly went about his life and his work.”
As Poole explained, “I think there has to be a meditation and a peace involved when you’re building things at the level and scale that Rod was. He wasn’t a gregarious person, but you can tell by the depths of his friendships what a kind and loving man he was.”
Every spring, Severn told how he would travel around the U.S. to visit each of his pieces and polish them for collectors. “They were like his offspring,” she said. “And I think it’s part of what endeared him to people so much. He was very rare among artists in that way.”
Today, around 100 of his “offspring” still sit in the outdoor sculpture garden of his compound, some worn by the elements and overgrown with grass, others towering high against the mountains. Like a quiet graveyard, you can wander among his life’s work, perhaps catching whispers of that gentle artistic spirit, now as much a legend of Idaho history as the ones that originally inspired him.
You can visit Kagan’s work at the Rod Kagan Park on Saddle Road in Ketchum, which was dedicated for the artist in 2011 and contains six of his “Idaho Columns” (donated by his brother Tim Kagan). You can also tour his sculpture garden and home by appointment through the Gail Severn Gallery. Contact 208.726.5079 or firstname.lastname@example.org.