The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Elstun Lauesen
For The LOG 

A Tribute To Rod Gonzales, Alaskan Artist (1948-2012)

Point of View


Mary and Rod Gonzalez

A few of years ago, I read an article in “Newsweek” that I thought interesting. The Centers for Disease Control had been noticing a rise in cases of Hepatitis C among middle-aged Americans. According to the article, many of these cases are unexpected, hitting otherwise healthy Americans in the midst of their lives. The pattern that has fallen into place is this: 2.7 million to 3.9 million Americans have been stricken with a dormant form of Hepatitis C that has been hiding in the victim’s system for 30 or 40 years. The victims are mostly Baby Boomers who came in contact with the virus through infected blood, either from intravenous drug use, transplants or a transfusion from an infected donor before 1992 when the blood banks started screening for hepatitis.

Last year, my friend, Rod Gonzales called me and told me that he’d been going to the doctor to find out why he was feeling so bad. After a thorough examination and some blood screening, he learned that he was dealing with a case of Hepatitis C that had lain dormant in his body decades. Always the optimist, he detailed how much better he’s been feeling, thanks to diet and treatment. He was off alcohol and had lost weight and he was feeling good and looking fit. Then in mid-February of this year, I got a call from Rod’s family saying he was in the hospital. My friend, Shannyn and I went to see him and he looked terrible. He was happy to see us but the picture of our old friend Rod lying in bed with tubes and yellow eyes was depressing. Ten days later Rod was dead.

In many ways, Rod’s is a classical Alaskan story. He was born and raised in California where, as his memorial notes, “he developed a passion for art and baseball.” Like so many others, Rod came to Alaska during Pipeline construction and worked out of the Iron Workers Union. He met his wife, Mary, in 1979 on the Homer Spit and they have been together ever since. Together they had two children and the couple fished a 28-foot open skiff in the Katchemak Bay for a number of years. They moved to Anchorage in 1982 and Rod won 40 acres in Talkeetna through a state land lottery. It was there that Rod developed his obsession with Mount McKinley and mountains in general. Mountains became a key feature of his art.

My own relationship with Rod began at a winter bonfire in a friend’s backyard. He seemed outrageous in appearance and temperament but quickly proved himself to be a keen observer of the world. We related on many levels, including politics. We both cheer for the underdog and we both support causes that many might see as hopeless but we see as the only possibility for hope.

Rod was a visual artist whose absence of “filters” gave his comic art a graphically exaggerated look akin to R. Crumb (whom Rod liked). His left-populism inspired a large portfolio of political “Comix.” One group of panels, for example, featured female super-heroes (with the facial likenesses of his Anchorage heroines, Shannyn Moore and Jeanne Devon) with exaggerated breasts and bunny boots fighting the entrenched Alaska Right-Wing troll army to the death.

His non-political art featured sports heroes like Scotty Gomez of his beloved Alaska Aces skating atop Mount McKinley; Rod also celebrated the real champions of the Iditarod, the dogs. He also drew a graphic novel about the triumph of Taras Genet, the son of Ray Genet who climbed the very peak that had claimed his father decades earlier.

As I stated in the memorial service, Rod understood that the universe is in turmoil; it is always in a process of creation and destruction and that the human psyche was somehow squarely in the middle of the very far reaches of the cosmos and the deepest, smallest points within. My impression of Rod’s art is that it ran along the cosmic fault line formed of the forces that both tear us apart and bind us together. Rod hated conflict because he experienced it directly and unfiltered and saw it as the universe pulling itself apart. His love was urgent because the faults in our lives open too quickly and he wanted to bind it all together. Something in his background and experiences made this the prime objective of his art.

All of this brings me to the mountains that he loved so much. What is it about the mountains that Rod found so compelling? Mountains, he explained to me in his own unique fashion (I am paraphrasing here), are what remain after the forces of destruction and creation clash for an eon. They are proof that there is nothing to fear from the forces arrayed against us no matter how destructive — because look at the beautiful mountains those forces create.

So the next time you notice the sunset on the side of a mountain, take a moment and think about how much you have in common with that amazing monument — struggle, pain, growth and survival.

Rod Gonzales would call you a masterpiece of nature. Rest in peace, Rod.


Reader Comments

inseiner writes:

Great tribute to old Rod. Thanks!


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