Never Sold Out

Eriks Rudans, artist: 1933-2007

Friday evening (May 4), as a chill wind whipped unexpectedly through Armory Park, a Viking boat went up in flames in Tom Philabaum's back yard.

"I was in the background with a hose," the glass artist reported. "We all said a few things and then set it on fire."

The ritual burning was in honor of artist Eriks Rudans, 74, whose body had been found in his crumbling barrio house on April 30, just a few days before. Paper artist Ron Nelson made the boat after Rudans' own aesthetic. Meticulously pieced together with strips of cardboard, it was an impressive 10 feet high and 8 feet long. A white cloth sail flapped in the breeze, and "one of Eriks' signature goat's heads jutted out the prow," Philabaum said.

Rudans wasn't exactly a Viking--he was born in Latvia in 1933--but his larger-than-life story merited a hero's sendoff, art-style. A refugee who suffered through World War II in a displaced-persons' camp with his family, he landed in the United States as a teenager in 1949. In short order, he joined the Army, got his citizenship, studied art at the University of Wisconsin, became an art professor and then confounded his immigrant success story by dropping out to do art--and nothing but.

"Eriks never sold out," said Terry Etherton, his friend and art dealer since the late 1980s. "He was completely uncompromising. He was the real deal. He created art every single day."

Philabaum, a friend ever since he studied glass under Rudans at the University of Wisconsin, way back in 1971, said "his work and life were one. He had a purity of vision. I'd like to form my own life the same way."

That purity of vision meant that Rudans, one of the most admired artists in Tucson, lived in abject poverty for the last three decades of his life. When he bought his adobe home on South Ninth Avenue in 1988 with a little retirement money, it was a "condemned building," Philabaum remembered, and even now has minimal electricity, "just one 20-amp fuse outlet."

Art took precedence over living. On a visit I paid in 2000, paintings were stacked up against the walls in piles so deep that they had almost taken over the living room, leaving only a narrow space for a single bed. Giant skeletal sculptures of a man and dog occupied what must have once been a bedroom.

Paintings featuring images alternating between lovely Rousseau-like nudes and lecherous priests covered the walls, in between the heads of angels and devils carved out of scrap wood. Rudans would make art with whatever materials he could find.

"I'm doing art all the time," he told me. "When I run out of painting supplies, I do sculpture. I work with recycled materials. ... I have a couple of friends who are great scroungers."

And out of scraps of wood, worthless to anybody else, Rudans made giant wood sculptures--humans, bulls, devils--whose pieces "all fit together in a way only Eriks could do," Etherton said.

He didn't have to be that poor. Once upon a time, Rudans was a tenured professor of art at Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota, but he gave up that secure berth in 1978 for a free-form life that allowed him to paint every single day.

"There's very little art in university art departments," Rudans said. "Plus, everybody tends to buy into the mainstream."

Mainstream, Rudans was not. Rudans freewheeled around the country, living in New York, on a California beach, on an Arizona ranch, doing caretaking here, construction there. He eventually followed his old student, Philabaum, to Tucson. He devoted himself entirely to art and began showing regularly in town, first at Philabaum, then at Etherton, Dinnerware, Obsidian. With the exception of some of his smaller carved wall pieces, his work hardly ever sold.

"A lot of his work was political, and blasphemous, with references to the Catholic Church, politicians, wealthy people," Etherton said.

Case in point is the heroic-sized painting that's been at the top of the stairs at Etherton Gallery for the last 10 years. An acrylic and colored pencil on wood, "Arizona Landscape (View From the Mountain)" attacks America's financial divide and skewers the very folks most likely to buy art. It pictures foothills haves partying high above the shacks of the have-nots in the valley below. A sleazy priest is thrown in for good measure.

In "Death in the Desert," 2002, a lamentation for Mexican migrants, the Latvian immigrant cast Arizona's immigration tragedy in religious terms. A pietà pieced together from scrap wood, a woman wails over the shriveled body of the son lying limp in her lap.

Rudans loved painting the female nude, and often pictured women in gardens overflowing with flowers and fruits. But even progressive types occasionally balked at Rudans' unapologetic sexual imagery. Back in 1990, patrons at Club Congress were so angry about an explicit female nude hung above the bar that the painting eventually was removed. And Rudans delighted in attaching big wooden penises to many of his sculptures.

"We never did very well with his shows," Etherton said. "We knew the work was not saleable. He was grateful we kept showing his work, and he'd apologize."

He did make it into at least one museum. When Peter Briggs was curator at the Tucson Museum of Art, he bought some challenging Rudans pieces.

"He picked two coyote skeletons, whitewashed, and two tough nudes," Etherton said.

Rudans was a "contrarian, complicated," Philabaum said, and by 2000, his finances were so precarious that Etherton and Philabaum organized a Fifty Years in the U.S.A. show, with works sold for half-price. All proceeds went directly to the artist.

Three years later, Rudans won the $25,000 Arizona Arts Award.

"That changed his life," Etherton said. "It was big, big. It was the most money he'd ever seen at one time. But his first impulse was to have a big party for his friends. I was like, 'Eriks, why don't you take care of your phone bill first?'"

For a long time, Rudans wasn't able to collect Social Security. As he told the story to Etherton, a woman had once burned all of his identity papers. Gabrielle Giffords, now a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona, was Rudans' neighbor on South Ninth Avenue. They were buds, she said at the Philabaum gathering, and when she was a state legislator, she persuaded a federal bureaucrat to plow through the mess and get Rudans' monthly checks issued.

"That made all the difference," his son, John Rudans, said. "And he was also able to get Medicare once he got sick" with a cardiac condition. Rudans is also survived by a daughter, Marie-Claire Decker; another son, Joe; and three grandchildren.

In the last years of his life, Rudans fell in love with another child, Ivan, the little boy of the model who appeared in nearly every painting in his last show, at Etherton this winter. The woman and her son lived in a divided half of Rudans' adobe, and Ivan followed the artist around everywhere, Philabaum said. Rudans himself started drawing as a boy of 3, and he and Ivan, now 5, spent much of their time together doing art. Recently, the walls in the house gave equal billing to the works of Ivan and the works of Rudans.

"His final projects were with Ivan," Philabaum said. "That little boy would jump right in his lap."

All of the paintings in the final show were luminously colored and unusually optimistic for Rudans. But one of the best pictures features Ivan and his mother. "Mother and Child: Cats, Dogs and Reptiles," 2006, stands out in the Rudans oeuvre for its tenderness. The boy and his mother are curled up lovingly on the couch, surrounded by the blessings of domestic life: animals, plants, color, art.

"That was one of the most personal paintings he ever made," Etherton said.

Etherton is organizing a retrospective and silent auction of Rudans' work at Temple Gallery during June, with all proceeds going to the family. Philabaum is looking into putting together a book.

"It was an honor to know him, and an honor to be loved by him," Philabaum said. "There's a hole in my heart that will never be filled. But this was the best way for him to go. He had the gift of working through to the end."