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Travels with “The Painter”
MichArtist — Rodney Waara
Many winters ago, a grizzled Houghton florist looked down at the white azalea I’d placed on the counter, took my money, and then slowly looked back up at me:
“You’re not from around here, are you?” he asked, unsmiling.
“White” was the giveaway. A true native of the Copper Country gets more than her fill of white during the long Keweenaw winters: she’d never intentionally bring the color inside. Apparently this goes for art, as well as houseplants, which may be why Rod Waara’s snowscape “The Painter” didn’t sell that fall in Houghton. And why, thirty- seven years later, it still hangs in my home below the bridge.
When I met him in 1985, Waara was an engineering student at Michigan Tech, having completed an associate’s degree in fine arts from Suomi College (now Finlandia University). He was a serious, hard-working artist with a style that ranged from the primitive and plainspoken to the startling and abstract. In the painting he called “The Painter” Waara used a lean palette and spare geometry to depict a man with a pad and pencil striding through a field of deep snow. When I first saw it hanging in the Copper Country Community Arts Center (CCCAC) fall show, I assumed that the figure was a writer (a forgivable error for a writer to make). I was a transplanted downstater, working for MTU as publications editor, and was just heading into my second winter in Houghton. Waara’s painting succinctly captured the uncompromising, stark loveliness of a Keweenaw winter. The minute I saw it, I was on fire to own it.
The problem was I couldn’t afford his completely reasonable asking price. Throughout the three-day show I checked nervously every day to see if had sold, fretting so much about it that a coworker suggested I offer an amount I could afford. I didn’t want to insult Waara by proposing such a thing, but the coworker, himself an artist, shrugged:
“The worst thing he can do is say ‘no’.”
Instead of doing the worst thing, Waara did the best thing. He called me after the show and said he’d deliver the painting to me for my price. He was professional, but shy while he waited for me to write the check. I had never parted with money more happily.
That was the last time I saw him. But the following summer I stopped at a small whatnot store in Mohawk (a wide spot in the road north of Houghton) and found more of Waara’s paintings for sale. The shop, it turned out, belonged to his parents, and while I debated which one I would buy, his dad maneuvered the conversation from Rod’s art to his engineering studies at the Tech. As I was leaving, Waara’s mom caught my eye and said in a shy but pointed whisper:
“Two galleries in the Twin Cities called about Rod’s paintings. They think a lot of him down there.”
After that, sixteen years passed. I moved five times and the painting moved with me. In 2001, while camping on Isle Royale with my husband, I met the National Park’s artist-in-residence that year, Clyde Mikkola, a limner from Calumet. I asked him if he happened to know Rod Waara from Houghton. He did. And he knew the painting, too. He should have—he was the painter striding through the snow. Clyde was less amazed by this coincidence than I was: the Keweenaw was not so overrun with painters in the 1980s that it was unusual for two of them to know each other.
Then another seventeen years passed, and I decided to look up Rod on social media. He was living in Wisconsin, having retired from his career as a controls engineer, and he was still very much an active artist. Through our correspondence, I learned that his painting “Oedipus vs. Tiresias” was in Central Michigan University’s permanent collection and that private collectors from Minneapolis to Finland had purchased his photography, watercolors, and oils. In 2019 his work “Two Horses on a Snowy Day” won a Wisconsin Regional Artists Association state award.
At that point in my own writing career, it was particularly important to me to find Rod and tell him that “The Painter” still hangs in my home and that I’d never forgotten his generosity in selling it to me for a price I could afford. While I don’t recommend this method of art acquisition—it is hard enough to make a living as an artist—I think it mattered to both sides of the transaction that this particular painting came to me.
Throughout my writing life, questions of merit, compensation, and distribution have dogged me. With a graduate degree in English, I was subject to all manner of academic prejudices and neuroses about literature. Were the topics I wrote about serious enough? Was the style I wrote in legitimate? Was any of it worthy of submitting to prestigious publications? And if it wasn’t, what was its “value”? Then along came the internet—that infinite non-juried art show—adding its own compounding spin to the dilemma: with no gatekeeper, where everyone and everything is on exhibit, how can artists continue to set a value for their labor, particularly writers who are expected to give away their work for nothing?
I don’t have fully formed answers to this question. But my thirty-seven-year travels with “The Painter” has adjusted my thinking about the value of art and the direction I want for my own work. In particular, my relationship with this painting begs the question: if someone loved one of my poems as much as I love Rod’s painting, if they’d kept it with them for nearly forty years, and gained pleasure from it every time they read it, could I ask for better compensation or higher critical confirmation? What would I trade for that depth of connection between a piece of my work and another human being?