There are a number of definitions for the word totem, but perhaps the best to apply to sculptor Rod Kagan’s work is “anything serving as a distinctive, often venerated, emblem or symbol.”
His whimsical totemic designs are a measure of Idaho’s embrace of his art, with his enormous pieces seen beside the Wood River Y in Ketchum and in downtown Boise.
Kagan’s imagination died with him in 2010 at the age of 70, but his work continues to lure dedicated fans, many a collector and museum curators across the country.
On Friday, Aug. 2, his work will be the center of a memorial retrospective at Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum during Gallery Walk from 5-8 p.m. The release of a book about him will be the subject of a lecture and book preview at the gallery Saturday, Aug. 3, at 10 a.m.
“Rod Kagan was a private man, who filled his life with love for family, friends and the great outdoors,” Severn says in the opening of the coffee-table book “Rod Kagan: Totems and Guardians. “He had an insatiable need to work and he was always creating. Not being a man of many words, and certainly not one of self-promotion, we found we had to reach outwards during the production of this book to gain a deeper understanding of Rod Kagan, the man and the artist—a picture that was further enhanced by those who knew him and by the stories they shared about him.”
Kagan came to Ketchum in the 1970s just as the art scene was beginning to take shape. He worked largely in steel harvested from mine remnants. The longtime valley resident’s family donated his work “Idaho Columns” in his memory for placement on Saddle Road, in the shadow of Bald Mountain next to the YMCA.
“Idaho Columns” is a perfect summation of how Kagan viewed the natural world. Consisting of six steel sculptures—each of which is between 18 and 25 feet tall—from scrap yards, it incorporates wheels, pulleys, cables and other objects. The installation allows people to understand viewing nature through Kagan’s eyes. His use of angles, shapes and oculars throughout the columns forces a viewer to see Baldy and the surrounding area from a new perspective and unusual vantage points. His home in Chocolate Gulch north of Ketchum is a monument to the way his mind worked.
Kagan’s sculptures are in private collections, museums and public spaces around the world. A collection of his sculptures is in the Boise Art Museum sculpture garden, and some of his work is featured in downtown Boise as well as Los Angeles and Florida. Among Kagan’s accolades is the Idaho Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship grant and participation in an Idaho exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art.
Kagan’s work spans a period of more than three decades, within which a number of fundamental changes took place. From his initial “Sun Burst” sculpture to his development of the “Birthday Series” and “Totems,” Kagan’s “mind’s eye” is evident in his exploration of spatial depth, symmetry and the effect his pieces have within a natural environment.
Kagan’s beginnings in art dovetailed with an interest in building model cars as a young child. At 15, he stripped and lowered a 1932 Ford into a hot rod while working at the family meat-cutting business.
“I’ve been working with my hands all my life,” was quoted as saying, in the forward by Severn.
“His passion for creative construction was fueled by early visits to museums followed by repeated excursions to other realms of enchantment for Rod the artist: junkyards, where he often gathered material or saw creations not visible to any other eye,” Severn writes. “Kagan traveled. It was the freedom of skiing and his respect for the natural world that fueled this passion to explore the West and eventually brought him to Ketchum, Idaho.”
Kristin Poole, artistic director for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, said Kagan’s work, while contemporary, also paid homage to the Western tradition of figurative sculpture and the stacked totems of Native Americans.
“Rod’s work always involved vertical columnar pieces that used clean, simple forms to create energy and views,” she writes. “Rod used his openings as ways to see through to the landscape, as a way to honor and frame the spectacular country he had chosen to settle in.”