Lessons Learned Outside of the UW Classroom: Ralph Karst

Somewhere between 1962 and 1963, there was an article in the student newspaper, the Cardinal and on the front page a local artist in oils was interviewed by a student. The artist was explaining his views of modern art, 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 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. According to the local artist, real painters were men like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or Leonardo de Vinci, men with great technical skills and vision and knew exactly how to apply oil to canvas with exacting perfection that clearly defines the actual images of humans and nature. But these modernists cannot 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.

I seldom understood what artists portray in their paintings, but this man I understood and how I came to meet him is one of the miracles in 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 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 house 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 behind it.

This man was really intense in whatever it was he was painting. Then it hit me. This had to be the man I had read about in the Cardinal.

I had to speak up and asked him what he was painting. He turned around and extended an arm. We shook hands. The man, small and balding, had very powerful hand grip and had penetrating eyes. His face lit up with my comment and spread into a broad bright smile. We had a short conversation. In the conversation he told me he was painting this small forest of beautiful trees. I shared with him the beauty of Wisconsin’s forests and lakes, especially Lake Michigan. 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 return 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. Then he pointed to his house trailer and asked if I could see that line of oil painting leaning up against it and said I could pick out any one of them as a gift. So I got off my bike, put my briefcase down and picked one out.

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. He said “no,” take it with you now, that I had to take it now. I didn’t listen and promised him I’d be back within an hour to pick up my painting. I pedaled back up the path with my briefcase to get my car.

When I returned, he was gone. His trailer and paintings, including mine, were gone. I have to say that I was shocked and somewhat angry and disgusted with him for doing what he had done to me and would have to hunt him down and get my gift back from him.

I told my philosophy professor, Dr. Bill Hay, the story and he told me that Aaron Bohrod was a friend of his and that he was always pulling little tricks and pranks on people and would often put them into his paintings. I did not care about that. He had given me a gift and then took it away. Dr. Hay told me that Aaron was artist-in-residence in the College of Agriculture and lived in a farm house on the college farm on the outskirts of the campus and that is where my painting would be found.

So I went to Bohrod’s farm house on the Ag campus and at the front door I couldn’t knock or ring the bell. Dr. Hay had told me that his friend was one of the world’s great artists. I felt ashamed of myself for my anger. I was a nobody. I couldn’t demand my painting. He had told me I had to take it with me and I hadn’t listened to him. I was at fault not him. I returned home thoroughly disgusted with myself.

In a later conversation with Dr. Hay, he told me to visit Memorial Library and look for some of Bohrod’s greatest paintings. They were on a wall in one of the study halls. I went and saw them and they were as good in technical skill as any of the great classical painters.

When I talked with Dr. Hay about the absolute greatness of the painting he asked me if I saw the jokes. Jokes? The paintings were loaded with jokes because Bohrod had been one of our country’s military artists and had painted the horrors and mutilations that war brings to humanity and he saw clearly that although religion must be respected, it also has its limitations and it was in these limitations that Bohrod found his humor.

I went back to the library and stood before the paintings and asked myself, “Where are the jokes?” And they were there in bountiful measure, at least 20 by my count. As four examples, Martin Luther must have slightly missed the nail that held the 99 theses to the door because he had badly bent the nail. The Mormons were going east. In the burning red hot heat from hell the Jews faced there is a document at the bottom of the painting cleverly signed by George Washington. The Baptist were painted in a room where everything is beaded up in standing water. Just reading about it and not even seeing the paintings makes anyone with a sense of humor laugh while yet respecting all the religions depicted. of our nation and especially their own religions. Many lovers of religious art did not find the jokes very funny.

I never received my gift from Bohrod. Many years later after I had earned the PhD in physical education and philosophy and living in Lincoln, Nebraska, with my wife and children, I was listening to the radio and lo and behold, an interview was being conducted with Aaron Bohrod. I listened to the entire interview. I actually thought about driving to Chicago to collect my gift but it was over and would have been a foolish trip. However, what was not over were questions in my mind of what had happened to his Great Religions paintings? They disappeared from American public life. Who has them? Were they stolen from Memorial Library? Did they become the property of the combine of religious leaders who commissioned Bohrod to do them? And if that were the case, did they burn them? So many questions without answers.

For years I searched the art literature and the Internet. It is as if Bohrod had never painted them, as if Bohrod had never been a great artist.

And what of the gift he had given me? That is a different matter. In the maturity of my years I came to realize that in his own way Aaron Bohrod 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’s of the world’s great artists and that that sly old man saw me coming and took the time to make a joke of my poor judgment and at my expense.

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