Arts October 14, 2010

Sculption as a Way of Life

Like Trail Creek Cabin and the Sun Valley Barn, Rod Kagan’s sculptures have become an inextricable part of the Sun Valley scenery. Anyone heading to the Chocolate Gulch trailhead passes by Kagan’s sculpture garden, and he’s happy to share his corner of the world with visitors.

Kagan built his home, office, and gallery with his own hands in 1975, two years after he moved to Ketchum from New Jersey. It is now filled with more than 300 sculptures, from his first creation to recently completed works. Many more of his dramatic pieces have found homes with Valley residents and with art collectors around the country.

Kagan’s love of art was encouraged by his mother, an amateur watercolorist who introduced him to museums and exhibitions in and around New Jersey. At the age of 15, Kagan learned to weld while putting together models and hot rods. After high school, he continued welding in his spare time while working full time in the family butcher business—not the job of his dreams.

In 1973, when Kagan’s family sold their business, Rod set out to visit his brother in Heron, Montana. Kagan toured several ski resorts in the West, then settled down in Ketchum. After more than 100 skier days that first winter, his 33-year-old knees began to creak, encouraging him to find another activity.

Kagan bought a new welding outfit and started to experiment with discarded mine machinery. In 1974 he created his first geometric sculpture, The Lady, a prototype for several future pieces.

Over the next few years, influenced by the sculptures of New York artist David Smith, Kagan began to weld large-scale sculptures. He created his first totems—large, vertical pieces reminiscent of Native American totem poles—in 1978. The bronze totems give the illusion of four distinct sections, delineated by folds in the metal; together, the sections form a bold and statuesque sculpture of abstract, geometrical forms.

Distinguished from his totems by their cleaner, simpler lines, Kagan’s columns are sophisticated works based loosely on architectural columns of the past. He also creates “reclining totem” benches and chairs, each unique in form and design.

Kagan begins by drawing the desired shape of each side of the sculpture on large, flat sheets of bronze. He cuts out the pieces and welds them together in large sections, then shapes and buffs the fused areas until they are smooth and virtually seamless. After several weeks of work, Kagan treats the metal with chemical solutions to create the desired patina. In Idaho, where the humidity is low, these finished pieces make wonderful outdoor sculptures, as they can withstand inclement weather for decades.

Kagan was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship Grant in 1984 and the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1990. He has sold more than 500 pieces in his career, to public collections and to private buyers. Boise Totems was purchased by the city of Boise in 1993, and installed at the corner of 8th and Idaho streets in the heart of the downtown area. Most of the pieces that have left the area were bought by collectors who traveled to Ketchum to visit Kagan in his studio.

As part of his ongoing Birthday Series, each year Kagan completes one work and names it for his age. His most recent—63—will be given to the city of Ketchum as a gift to commemorate his 30th anniversary as a full-time local sculptor.

This artist loves living in the West, and spends his spare time fishing, skiing, and hiking. He has completed five new commissions this winter and is proud that the Idaho Columns, three of his tallest (standing 25 feet), have been purchased and will be installed in a private home in Ketchum.

Kagan encourages visitors to drop by his gallery in Chocolate Gulch for a tour. Just knock on the door if you’re in the neighborhood, or make an appointment by calling 208.726.8860.




This article appears in the Summer 2003 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.