Lessons Learned Outside of the UW Classroom: Ralph Karst

Somewhere between 1962 and 1963, I was working on a state curriculum project for my PhD advisor, Dr. Leonard Larson. I was collecting data for him through traveling the state visiting school districts and going west on Highway 21 when I came upon the small town of Coloma. There was an art fair going on and there were hundreds of people crowding the main street so I decided to take a look at the quality of the art work done in oils. There were good concepts of the natural beauty of the area and scenes with people who looked like people and not vague figures without definition.

The next day I paid a visit to an art exhibit being held on the campus by artists from the art department. What I saw in Coloma and what I saw at the art exhibit were vastly different. In the paintings by Coloma artists I understood the concepts and appreciated the skills. In the paintings by artists at the art exhibit, I appreciated the technical skills but had trouble with defining the concepts. I concluded that the artists were leaving the concepts for me to define. I had never looked at art that way. It was a very different kind of feeling from what I saw by the artists in Coloma where I had easily defined the concepts. But as far as making a critical comparison, I was not qualified to judge. I only knew what I thought was good art when I saw it.

A few days later I was having a cup of coffee at the Student Union and reading an article in the student newspaper, the Cardinal and on the front page a local artist in oils was interviewed by a student. Apparently, this artist was qualified to judge art work by the way the interview was going.

His name was Aaron Bohrod and he was explaining his views of modern art, saying that modern painters, such as the cubists, expressionists and surrealists are poor craftsmen because they don’t know how to put paint to canvas and then cover up their incompetence with awful artistic generalities which makes their work sloppy. Then they invent big fancy words that lead art critics to believe they are experiencing something rare and glorious. Real painters were men like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or Leonardo de Vinci, men with great technical skills and vision and knew exactly how to apply concepts that allowed them to paint with exacting perfection that clearly defines the actual images of humans and nature. But the modernists seem to lack any technical skills to paint humans or nature because they lack the discipline of  learning how to paint and do not take the time to learn the skills and discipline required.

Was he possibly talking about the art department? If he were, then he could not possibly have been a faculty member in the art department. Whomever he was or from wherever he came, he was a man after my own heart and I knew nothing about him. How we came to meet is one of the miracles of my life.

I was pedaling my three-speed English bicycle to Memorial Library from Eagle Heights when I passed a small wooded area and saw a man painting something I could not see because he was standing at an easel.  I turned off the road and down a rather steep graveled path  to a small landing where he was painting. Once there I noticed a small dilapidated trailer without windows. I put my briefcase on the ground and got off  my bike and stood behind him, but not too closely. He did not turn around to acknowledge me. He appeared to be painting a nature scene and would occasionally look down through the woods towards University Avenue where a new science facility would eventually be constructed and there would be no wooded area left behind it.

He was a small man, slightly balding, with very intense eyes that caught my attention when he turned to face me. His arms and hands appeared very strong. He smiled and then went back to his easel. He was highly intense in whatever it was he was painting.  This had to be the man I had read about in the Cardinal. I wanted to see what he was painting but it would have been rude to make the attempt.

I had to speak to him from behind and asked what he was painting. Again he turned to face me and this time he extended a hand. We shook and he did have a very strong handshake equal to my father’s Irish Grip. He was pleased that I would ask him a question about his painting and his face again lit up with my question. He stopped his work at the easel and we had a short conversation without me seeing his painting. In the conversation he told me he was painting this small forest of beautiful trees, so I shared with him the beauty of Wisconsin’s forests and lakes, especially Lake Michigan. From our short conversation I knew this man was of a higher order from most other men, that there was something magnetic about him.

I thanked him for the conversation and returned to my bike for the hard pump back  up the hill with my briefcase held tightly against the left handlebar. Suddenly he stepped in front of my bike and took a firm hold  on the handlebars. He pointed to his trailer and asked if I could see that line of oil painting leaning up against it and said I could pick one of them out as a gift. So I got off my bike, put my briefcase down and walked along the line. They all were nature scenes and beautifully painted. I chose the very first one in the line.

I realized I could not carry my briefcase and the painting at the same time. So I asked him if I could leave my gift with him while I returned home and came back for it with my car. I thought he would say that it was fine with him to leave it with him until I returned. But he had said very affirmatively that I had to take it with me, now, and not later. I wasn’t listening and promised him I’d be back within an hour to pick up my painting. I pedaled back up the path with my briefcase and back to Eagle Heights to get my car.

When I returned, he was gone, his trailer and paintings, including mine, were all gone. How could he have moved it all so quickly and without a trace? I have to say that I was shocked and somewhat angry and disgusted with him for doing what he had done and would hunt him down and get my painting. I hated people who would give something as a gift and then take it back. And in this case the nature scene was magnificent. It was mine, he had given it to me. I wanted back what belonged to me.

It was during this time in my studies that I was studying philosophy and had been taking courses from Professor Bill Hay, chair of the department and a district president of the American Philosophy Society, the society founded by Ben Franklin. He told me that I was one of his few students who kept nature and reality in my class papers and thought I’d make a fine philosopher. But philosophy was not in my blood and I was studying for the PhD in physical education, my chosen profession, under Professor Leonard Larson, the world’s greatest physical educator. Professor Hat appreciated my honesty and eventually we became good friends, which has much to do with Aaron Bohrod.

Had we not become good friends, he would not have told me about Aaron Bohrod’s personality and beliefs. Bohrod was among the world’s great artists and there was more to him than met the eye. He was one of the few artists selected by American military forces  for painting war scenes at the front in World War II. He was currently artist-in-residence in the College of Agriculture and when they first met, Dr. Hay wasn’t sure where Bohrod was living, but he was capable of living in his old dilapidated trailer. However, the  Ag dean provided  him a two-story farm house out at the edge of the campus on the university farm. The dean had the second floor renovated by moving the windows from the floor to the ceiling for maximum natural light Bohrod required.

Now I knew where Bohrod lived and I was determined to get what belonged to me, though I have to admit that I did see him coyly smile when he saw my attempts at holding my painting and my briefcase at the same time. At the time, I had believed he had seen humor in my struggle to hold my briefcase and my painting at the same time, triggering in Dr. Hay’s mind an important characteristic I needed to know about Bohrod before going to his farm house.

If I did decide to go,  I should know in advance that Bohrod was always pulling little tricks and pranks on people and would even put little jokes into his paintings because I did not believe I had seen any. The painting Bohrod had given me was a nature scene, so I wouldn’t be looking for any jokes. Besides, I had seen how serious and intense he was about painting the beauty of the nature scene at the site. It was hard to believe he was pulling a joke on me or never intended to give me the painting. I didn’t believe it. He was too serious and intense, except for that coy smile he tried to hide from me.

I went out to the farm house and as I was about to knock on the door, something was holding me back. What if I knocked and he opened the door and he didn’t know who I was and would tell me to go away and then he’d shut the door in my face. I could put my foot in the door should he do that  so he couldn’t close it and then I could tell him he had given me a painting at the site above University Avenue and I was at his front door to get it back. But keeping him from closing the door would have been more than rude.

What was the matter with me? Was I preventing myself from  knocking on his front door because he was one of the world’s great artists and who did I think I was? I was a nobody. However, hadn’t Bohrod himself told me to take the nature scene I had chosen with me? But then I realized that I hadn’t listened to him. I began to feel strangely guilty. He was not at fault. I was at fault. He had given me the terms of the gift and I had not been listening. I was too absorbed with how to get back up the hill with the painting and my briefcase.

I returned home thoroughly disgusted with myself, yet there remained in me a strange desire to get what was rightfully mine. To say the least, I was utterly confused. There had to be more to this gift and I did not know what it was.

Several weeks went by and I continued to collect data from around the state for Dr. Larson while also  taking philosophy classes and making long visits to Memorial Library for collecting curriculum studies for my dissertation and, often passing by the site, still frustrated and confused by what had happened there.

One day I was in the Great Hall assembling journal articles I had gathered from the stacks and happened to  notice a large group of people assembled around some paintings hanging on a wall. I had never noticed the paintings before and became curious and when the group left, I took a look at them. They were paintings about religion and they were very well done and I could see why the paintings had drawn attention from a crowd of people.

Later I mentioned to Dr. Hay the paintings I had seen handing on a wall and asked him if he might know the name of the artist. He had the strangest look in those very intensive eyes of his and was surprised as to why I didn’t know who the artist was. I didn’t know.

The paintings were done by Aaron Bohrod. How could I not know? How could I know? What I had seen of his work were some nature scenes lined up against an old trailer. I had not made the connection, so how could I know? Dr. Hay told me to take another look at the painting handing on the wall in the library.

I went back to the library and took a closer look. They were paintings of several different religions. Lutherans, Baptists, Mormons, Jews. and others. My mother would want to know about these paintings, especially the Lutheran religion and the religion of my birth.

The weekend was coming up and I travelled with my family to Sheboygan for the purpose to telling my mother about Aaron Bohrod and the experience I had had with him and the paintings on a wall at the library. When I told her Bohrod had included the Lutheran religion in his paintings, she had to come to Madison to see it for herself.

The following weekend my parents came to Madison to visit with us for the purpose of seeing Bohrod’s rendition of the Lutheran religion. Seeing the painting filled her with religious fervor and a kind of spiritual trembling so strong that it had taken her breath away with the beauty of it. As for me, the concepts Bohrod used were pure perfection and the application of his artistic skills were of absolute magnificence.

When I visited with Dr. Hay the following week he had a confession to make when I told him of my mother’s reaction to the Lutheran religion done so supremely well, he went silent for a while and appeared sad. as though he had something very important to say.  Then his demeanor changed. He broke out into a bright smile along with those penetrating eyes beaming intensely. He had to tell me more about his friend Aaron Bohrod, much of it coming from Bohrod himself.

Bohrod’s paintings of military battle scenes in World War II could have had a negative  effect on emotional attitudes. I wondered what he was trying to tell me. Painting scenes of death, mutilation, and men horribly dying on both sides of a battle field could have changed his views of religion to the extent that he eventually came to believe that all religions have limited effects on how humans behave under stress and conflict. Bohrod found artist expression by cleverly painted humor into his interpretation of the great religions. In other words, the painting hanging on the wall at library are full of humor that can be overlooked by serious observers of the paintings.

When World War II ended, Bohrod’s reputation soared for the technical beauty he had put into his war scenes, so much so that his work had been noticed by many religious leaders from churches across America, including priests, pastors, ministers, rabbis, and bishops who assembled together and came to the Madison campus to  ask Bohrod to paint each of the individual religions using icons they provided him as a source for concepts in the paintings. He was free to create images surrounding them that best exemplified each religion based upon the icons. He agreed and was commissioned to do the work.

According to Dr. Hay, Bohrod had told him personally that he had accepted the commission to do the paintings  and was a chance of a lifetime to poke fun and tell jokes on each of the great religions, admitting to Dr. Hay that he was an atheist and kept it from his commissioners.

After the paintings were completed, someone from the university or from the commissioners, submitted them to Life Magazine where they were featured. Whether Bohrod had any idea of what would happen after millions of people from around the world saw through the external beauty of the paintings and into what many believed was heresy  by slyly slipping jokes and laughter into his portrayals of the  great religions. Thoughts of finding humor in religion became an issue. For many,  Bohrod’s reputation was tarnished. For many others the paintings were  a grand display of humor he had planted  in the great  religions of America.

For myself personally I felt that he knew what the reaction would be and he didn’t care much for what anyone thought. In my interpretation of the paintings Bohrod had been in the heat of battle where blood and guts and blood flowed  and right or wrong, he had found his way for emotionally release of all he had seen in the only artistic way he knew.

I left Dr. Hay’s office knowing I would have to tell my mother what I knew about the paintings. I could not keep it from her. She had to know the truth and  I told her on the telephone because I knew how angry and disgusted she would be with Bohrod’s defiling of her religion. She and my dad were leaving Sheboygan for Madison in the morning. When they arrived we went directly to the Great Hall.

She wasted little time in finding the Lutheran religion and said rather loudly in a hushed room that she wanted to see where the jokes were about her religion. And there they were. It was if you had to know they were there before you saw them.  It was as if Bohrod had punched a hole in her soul. She saw all the jokes and then went on to view all the paintings that were in the room. And they were there throughout all of the paintings she saw. But as much as she detested Bohrod’s painting of the Lutheran religion and all the jokes in the rest of the religions seen hanging on that wall in the Great Hall,  she did not deny that Bohrod was a great artist, but that in itself did not excuse him from what he had done. Even if Bohrod had drawn a smile from my mother she would never have admitted it. I did detect a little smile on her face when she admitted to his greatness in painting the great religions

If only I had foreseen the future, I would have used my Brownie Camera to take a photograph of each one of paintings in the Great Hall at the library. There was plenty light and I would have had something of immense value in the world of art because they disappeared from the library.  I thought about taking the photographs  but it probably would have been illegal, so I didn’t do it.

Four examples should suffice for the  humor Bohrod had painted into the great religions.

Martin Luther’s hammer slightly misses the nail and is slightly bent as it held his 99 theses to the door. I had not seen anything wrong with a bent nail. Most people have hit a nail wrongly. But certainly Luther would have made certain to hit the nail perfectly, considering the effect the 99 theses have had on the world.  The bent nail l appeared so perfect I felt I needed to pull it off the door and straighten it out and nail it back properly.  The music score of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” starts perfectly well in the first 16 measures; after that the notes go haywire, up and down and in every direction on the musical score. If I hadn’t gone beyond the 16th measure I wouldn’t have noticed what happens to the music.

A Mormon wagon train is going east and not west as revealed by a sign post pointing east. A Mormon friend of mine told me that many Mormons did go east so the joke didn’t seem as funny to him as to many others of different persuasions. Above the sign is noticed what appears to be a large eagle flying east with the wagon train. But there is something odd about the bird; it has the wings and beck of an eagle and the tail of a sparrow.

The Baptists were painted in a place that  appeared like a rented motel room where everything is covered with water. The water that lay on top of a dresser appears as a glass top, except that at the edges of the dresser the water is beaded up and rounded like cut glass. There was a bowl on the dresser so full of water it piled above the top of the bowl without overflowing, a sort of a miracle. The water in the bowl appeared to be needing a towel to absorb overflow onto the top of the dresser. The way the scene was painted made me feel as if I needed to clean up all the water with several absorbent towels.

The Catholic religion is in a class of its own because Bohrod painted himself into the picture. One of its icons is the silver chalice. There was something about that  chalice. I began examining it very carefully. An image began to appear through the glimmer of light coming out of an image. What I saw was a distorted image of Bohrod’s bright eyes and smiling face in the curvature of the chalice.

For the Jewish faith you’d miss the joke if you didn’t go directly to the bottom of the painting, because coming out of the firmament were the Dead Sea Scrolls in  burning red hot heat from hell. On the very bottom of the last page of the scrolls was the  signature of George Washington just visible to the naked eye.

It is my belief that there are two views to these paintings. Dr. Hay told me that when he first saw the paintings he burst out into laughter with the cleaver ways Bohrod did it.. My father had been silent but I knew him and I knew he appreciated great art when he saw it and this was great art and he accepted the humor as nothing more than humor, but he kept his mouth shut for the obvious reasons. My mother was extremely angry and disgusted by how Bohrod had told jokes about her religion. I myself believe that there was nothing wrong with the humor Bohrod saw in the great religions. Perhaps because he had seen the limitations of religion for stopping warfare. The Bible is full of humorous jokes, but you’ve got look for them before you see them to appreciate the humor. There may be as many people in the world who believe there is nothing wrong with a good joke  as there are those who oppose jokes about religion.

I believe Bohrod must have received a tremendous amount of outcry demanding that these paintings had to disappear by any means. Without a doubt, the commissioners of Bohrod’s paintings had to feel betrayed for what he had done. I do not know what role they or the university administration or professional art critics played in the disappearance of the paintings, but they vanished without a trace, including the nature scenes I had seen at that site above University Avenue. Perhaps Bohrod himself either had them hidden into to perpetuity or destroyed them himself, including the nature scenes.

Years later I tried to find the publication in which Bohrod’s paintings were displayed and that one particular issue was missing. I have used the Internet and found nothing and gave up on computer searches, although there is an abundance of his paintings  on the Internet, but not of the great religions or the nature scenes. So far as I am concerned it remains a mystery to be solved. If only I had used my brownie camera!

Several years ago I happened to be listening to a Chicago radio station and I accidently came across a woman doing an interview with Bohrod. The interview had just begun and I was  hoping he’d tell the interviewer and a broad national audience the story behind the paintings and the missing nature scenes. But she never asked  him and he never said a word about them. It is as if the paintings and nature scenes never existed and that he had never been a great artist.

Hearing his voice again stirred past memories of him that I never fully understood until recently. I started thinking of going to Chicago, especially after what I knew about him and his paintings and finally  could have had a chance for getting my painting back. I could have tracked  him down. But too much time had passed and my emotional frustrations and confusions were more about what had happened at the site and the sly look he had given me as I left my painting with him and pedaled back to Eagle Heights with my brief case  to get the car.

What about that gift he had given me? In the maturity of my years I finally came to realize what had been bothering me in my relationship to this great artist for so many years.  I had been blind and came to see that in his own way Aaron Bohrod was not laughing at me; he was teaching me a moral lesson in judging what is most important and valuable in my life. I had put my briefcase as more important than a painting by one of the world’s great artists and that this sly old man saw me coming not for the joke of watching me struggle with the painting and my briefcase, but for the humor in my poor judgment of keeping my briefcase as more important to me than his painting.

Whatever else we may say about him, he was a great man and superior artist deserving of our  respect and reverence for his incredible ability in technical details. Many might say, “Where’s the evidence.” However, even though his great religions paintings and his nature scene paintings, one   of which belongs to me, have mysteriously disappeared, there remains abundant evidence for the hundreds of paintings of all varieties that he did paint that are publicly available for all to see.

The lesson he taught me was realized many years later. But what a great way to learn one of the most important lessons in life, a lesson my wife Pat and I had made a high priority in the lives of our children.

No matter how serious your religious beliefs, did you not smile at least a little bit or laugh with Aaron Bohrod?