Excerpted from ...

Miracles of the Spirit
Folk, Art, and Stories from Wisconsin

by Don Krug, Ann Parker | pp. 53-61

Published: September 8, 2005

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ou see a whole series of interactions. This shows that all of humanity is interwoven and interrelated. And how each one is holding someone, being held, being supported, loving, and being loved. This is the dream.

—RUDY ROTTER (1913-2001) 


 Photo: 1995

"Happy" was a fitting way for DR. RUDY ROTTER to sign his prodigious artistic output from the last fifty years. Our several lengthy visits at the Rudy Rotter Museum of Sculpture in Manitowoc were filled with outpourings of passion, enthusiasm, creative thought, and kindness.

Rudy's life's work was to portray the value of family, and he created more than fifteen thousand pieces of work housed in his multilevel warehouse on Buffalo Street.

As he talked about family, ideas, and inventive ways to explore new materials (i.e., mink fur scraps. leather, scrap trophy metal) his enthusiasm was infectious.

His work is in the collection of the John Michael Kohler Art Center and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.



Both my parents were business people. They ran a number of stores. In fact, I think part of my artistic effort comes by way of making bouquets and wedding corsages at a real early age. We were a whole family working together during the Depression, and each one had to chip in, you know. My parents were immigrants from the Ukraine. There were eleven kids. My father came over first in 1905 and worked until he got enough money, because I had three brothers and a sister living in Europe. Then he went back in and brought the family to Milwaukee.

I was born and raised in Milwaukee. I went to UW—Madison and got my degree in zoology. I was a zoologist at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Owen Gromme was my boss. He was a young man, and I found out I'd have to wait until he died before I could move up the ladder, so I decided to go back to school and I took up dentistry.

I lived on Mitchell Street. It's an old south-side neighborhood. Later, my parents changed the grocery store into a floral shop. Then they bought half a block of this auto repair business right on Mitchell Street and created a number of stores there. So we made bouquets and ran next door and fixed flat tires. Oh yeah, I worked hard, worked from morning until night.

 So I think that ties in with my being a worker today. Because I'm a plodder, see? And the way I learned all this stuff being self-taught, and it's only by doing one thing after another after another that something starts to form. Hey, this looks interesting. Then I follow it. See, as you look around, you'll see all these variations, changes, and studies.


RudyRotterArt Studio

I used to spend a lot of time with my children. I was with them all the time, until they got to be young teenagers, and then all of a sudden they said, "Gee Dad, I'm pretty busy, my friends are waiting for me." At first, I was hurt, and then I said, "Hey, buddy, that's it." So I started making. I had always kind of had it in my mind. I said, "Hey, now that the kids are grown up and I have more time... " So one day I had a little bit of clay and this is what happened. It was fun. So I started doing a little bit more. 

We had a big family, but loving. My mother would give me a kiss goodnight. My father would greet me with a kiss in the morning. It is burned right into my mind. And I think all this love and everything comes by way of my experience and my feelings from my parents. As you go, you'll see a thousand pieces of families, mother, father, and child, it's endless. Like this piece here shows a father—wrapped around a little child. That's one of my early projects. You'll see a whole series of interrelationships. This whole series is on love and family strength. This shows that all humanity is interwoven and interrelated. And how each one is holding someone being held, being supported, loving, and being loved. This is the dream. I have had a man come in and say, "Almost looks like you're preaching." In a way, I am.


I made this room into a shrine. My sister, who is a trained artist, sixty years ago made sculptures of my mother and father. She graduated from Wisconsin. She sent them to me. I had this table, and I was looking for a place to put the sculpture. So I put them on here, and then the idea of the shrine came to me. I stepped back and said, "My god, that looks like a shrine." I'm really happy with it. See, with all my work, I'm not satisfied. I'm happy and delighted with what I can do. I'm not satisfied. I'm always looking for some more and something better. I think from the shrine, it would be apropos to go into the Old Testament room that's here.


All of these, with the exception of the two latest pieces, are scenes from the Old Testament. Rebecca at the Well depicts King Solomon on his throne and the weight of the decision. You can see both mothers claiming the same child. And he had to make the decision. I carved a head of Moses in granite.

(Editor's note: This work is in the Kohler Foundation's permanent collection)

I broke about fifteen chisels. Here is a carving of Jacob and Esau which is carved out of steatite or soapstone. This is Moses holding back the waters of the sea. The wooden pieces are carved from mahogany, Dorse mahogany, and teakwood. This depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This was also carved out of a block of mahogany. All of these carvings I just made up from the Old Testament. In the Testament laws it says, "Do not carve graven images." So there aren't many carvings in the Jewish religion. But I feel that these are not graven images to pray to, but these are educational things. They are depictions of a historical event.

For example, in this large carving, the story goes, in the beginning, God created night and day, and then he created the waters and the fishes, then he created the animals. From the dust, he created Adam. From Adam's sleep he created Eve from Adam's rib. Then he created the Garden of Eden. Here is the serpent, and this is Adam looking on in horror because Eve has taken a bite out of the apple. Then it goes over on the other side.

This is the angel with the flaming sword chasing Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. This is Adam and Eve in conjugal love. This is Adam helping Eve to deliver Cain. This is Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, the first family. Cain murders Abel. He's sent out to wander the earth as his punishment. Then starts the story of Noah. He pleads with the people to mend their ways and they scoff at him. Then he receives the message from God to build the ark. The floods come and the floods go. And here is the dove with the olive branch, and the sun is shining.

This is Noah and his family all thanking the Lord for their deliverance. Down below is the story of the Tower of Babel, and all the people falling off the sides. And on both sides are all the different peoples of the earth and the symbol of wheat or bread. This is Gabriel blowing his horn. This depicts Sodom and Gomorrah as she turns around and was turned into a pillar of salt. This scene shows Isaac blessing Jacob. This is the angel hovering over Samuel as he died, to lift him up to heaven. So in reading some of these things I learned according to history that this was the first murder. So this is humanity looking on in horror. These are some of the things that I added on to the original theme.

I made these large mahogany panels in the early 1970s, while I was still strong. Making the panel has an interesting story to it. I was chiseling on the figures and this large block was sliding off the ledge, and I didn't know it. In my enthusiasm, I gave one good punch, and the whole thing came down and landed on my foot and broke my foot. Everybody thought it was a tragedy, but I didn't think so. I was practicing dentistry and it was wintertime. My physician said, "You got to take a couple of weeks off." It took me about six months to complete this block. This is the only piece that I've ever gone back and forth between some smaller pieces. I had so much to do.

Otherwise, I always finish a piece before I start the next.


For the first five and a half or six years I used a hammer and chisel to carve all these stones. The granite I got from an old company here in town that made tombstones. They were going out of business. I bought a whole bunch of them. I bought a big chest full of stone chisels. And so I started working at it. I could take a piece of stone or wood, but especially stone, and start carving it. Then I could feel the way it gives or the way it doesn't. How it carves. How it doesn't carve. Where it will fracture, where it will not fracture How much polish and grinding and so forth that is required. It was only by the experience of it that I learned to do this. Many times, I was working on a piece and something broke. And I started to re-carve it. I call them happy accidents. Sometimes the new ideas are more interesting than what my original idea was. Only by keeping my mind open and continuing to investigate continually—that's where all these things have come about.

The female figure well has been used by artists since time immemorial for flow and movement and abstract shape. I think besides being a man, and being, how should I put it, normally erotic, that the beauty of eroticism is normal. It's natural. So I love the figure. You can see a lot of female figures here. The male figure is magnificent but the female figure has a flow and a line and cohesiveness in design. Sometimes I want to abstract this and people say, "How can you do that when you're doing figurative work?" I said, "It's shaping. Every figure is made up of a series of abstract shapes, forms, lines, designs." Whether it's a round bowling ball or whether it's a figure or a series of figures. It's all the same.


The new work, all this weird stuff, I think comes by way of the fact I'm quite arthritic since the early 1990s. I have to sleep in a chair. I can't sleep in a bed.

And I don't sleep as soundly, so while I'm awake certain ideas and things start to form. I can't wait to get up and start on it. So I try these different ideas. Some don't work out. Some of them are fair, but all of them lead me to something that's great.

For example, after all these years of working in wood and stone, which have nice colors but don't have the reflectiveness and the spark of this stuff, I came upon trophy metal by accident. One day a guy from the trophy factory said, "Hey, Rotter, I got a box of this shiny stuff. I don't know what to do with it, but I think you can. Here, take it." So I did, and I started working.

There is a company in Manitowoc that makes all different awards and trophies. It's a trophy company. There are things that they can't use. So I was able to get a hold of them just by accident. I give him some pieces of sculpture and I get this stuff, marvelous supplies, too! It's reflective metal and I've gone nuts with it the last couple of years. I started out by just using the big pieces themselves. I cut it into smaller pieces and started nailing onto boards of wood, so it looked like stained glass. I also had people just recently bring me leather cutouts from stampings. So I've been using that.

So in my workshop, I've got loads of stuff lying around all over. It's like a cook who has all different ingredients. Reaching out for one, reaching, reaching, and all different ingredients to put something together. Sometimes I also go out to the junkyards. There are beautiful stamping pieces that are left after the pieces are stamped out, which then have the beautiful shapes and designs. From that, I went into abstractions because of all of these designs. I see things in the junkyard and say, "Oh, that looks interesting."

I'll look around and see what looks to me like interesting things. Some I'll use. Some I won't use.

Over here is a gasket from a junkyard. This mahogany model was from the shipyard. This was a mold for a ship part. This is a keel that I used. These are parts from old electric motors. This is from bathroom fixtures. This is a pattern from the foundry.

I also have friends here in town who own the Wisconsin foundries. That's where I get all the industrial pattern forms. They're wonderful people. I drive them crazy, when I bring something to be done.

They say, "You're going to screw up our entire production." I say, "Ah, just throw some metal in there." So they've been real nice. Done a lot of casting.

It is an industrial foundry. But I've made a number of bronze castings and aluminum castings at their foundry. I have a lot of contacts with people in town from being a dentist.


As a dentist, I made dentures. But that was different. I did some jewelry work, but that was just like making gold inlays, just like dentistry. It didn't appeal to me. I did drawings in the beginning; it didn't appeal to me, because it wasn't physical enough. I was looking for some real physical release. Like I said, I started with a little bit of clay. I said, "Hey, this is pretty neat." Then I started a little bit more, little bit more, and a little bit more. Then I started studying anatomy. I got some books from the library and started another piece, and then the next piece and the next piece, and so we're now up to almost fifteen thousand pieces. And I'm still looking forward to coming every day. I go in my studio and I start chopping away at something. Then something else starts to form. It's only by doing it and keeping my mind open while I am doing it, and looking for new things that I learned to do this.

I am fairly active in our community. I have gotten to know a number of people, both from my practice and people who come into the museum. I'm kind of a schmoozer. I even enjoy working when people come in. My general impression of everybody who are not artists is that there are a great many people who have no real interest in art, see. The artist has to ward against becoming insulted or hurt, because... I would say, "I'm the nut on this stuff." I have got a friend, my buddy from the foundry that gives me all this stuff, he hasn't been in in the last six months. It's not that he doesn't like me or anything, he's just not interested in art. Many, many people like what I make. I remember reading that years ago an article, which has kept me going for all these years.

The main point was that the only thing an artist has going for him or her is the faith in him/herself, that what he/she is doing is good, what he/she is doing is right. And that he/she should not let anything divert him/her from his search. And so I've had that all my forty-plus years.

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