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.
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.
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.