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For Art's Sake

Before his current exhibit, Joe Rode had sold exactly two pieces in his 40-year career. And he wouldn't mind having those back.

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Joe Rode spent many years working as a CTA bus driver, so it's only fitting that Jesus Just Left Chicago (1989), one of the art assemblages he's currently exhibiting at the Jettsett Gallery & Cafe in Lakeview, includes a bus window with a Chicago skyline outlined in tape on the glass. There's also part of a car door, telephone poles that recall the Crucifixion, and red forms above the skyline that represent the apocalypse. "I did not steal it," he says of the bus window, explaining that he found it on a parkway.

Rode's colorful, satiric, sometimes goofy assemblages date back to the 1960s, but the show at Jettsett is his first in more than 20 years. After his own gallery went under in the 70s he got his job with the CTA, where he's now a driving instructor, and despite work and family commitments, the untrained artist has continued to fill up his home with sculptures. Some months ago he was walking around his neighborhood when he noticed the odd little gallery on Paulina near Lincoln; it was showing assemblage art by Jim Zimmer, and Rode told the gallery owner, Jeannett Walczak, that he was looking for a place to show his "weird stuff." More than three dozen examples are on display through January 5.

Little about Rode's early life suggests that he'd become an artist. Born an only child in 1944, he grew up in Niles, which was still semirural. "I always say we lived in the first building in Niles that ever got condemned," he says. His parents, a second-generation Polish couple by the name of Rodenski, lived at the corner of Touhy and Milwaukee in a two-bedroom apartment, sleeping in front of the gas heater during the winter. Joe heard that his father had been a bootlegger, but by that time the elder Rodenski was doing tree, road, and sewer work for the village. "There were only about five of them," says Rode. "They had an old truck they would drive around and do what had to be done."

His parents often fought. "My family life was a lot of punching walls when I was younger," he recalls. "There was constant arguing, fighting, slapping, hitting, spitting at each other. Jim Beam was a friend of dad's, and they argued about everything, from his drinking to his possible womanizing. The neighbors heard yelling and screaming, but there was nothing that left her with black-and-blue marks, and she would slap too. As a kid, it's hard for you to figure out what the heck this is all about. Ozzie & Harriet was on our little TV, and this wasn't it."

When Rode was in seventh or eighth grade his father died. He and his mother had to work to pay the bills, and he spent his afternoons sweeping up at a tool-and-die company. While a student at the newly opened Niles West Township High School, he worked as a busboy, well aware that he was on "the poor end of the scale." The Rodenskis moved into another apartment, on the second floor of a house owned by a couple who were artistically inclined. His mother hooked up with another man who liked to hit, and Rode, by then a senior, found himself breaking up fights. Eventually his mother moved out to live with her boyfriend, and Rode had his own place. "I became the single teenager, with all the Playboy girls on one wall because that was the thing then."

His downstairs neighbors knew a lot of artists, and they'd invite Rode along to visit their homes. "I started thinking, 'I could do stuff like that.' That's when I really started thinking about art. Before that I was just thinking about going out, having fun, dancing, finding women. I bought some prestretched canvas and started trying to do some painting as best I could. It was very difficult because, without having the education for it, just mixing color, trying to get the right color, became an experiment. But it was something that I could do that made me feel good when I finished with it. As frustrating as it was, I would, and I still do, chuckle all the time to myself at the end: 'Ah ha ha, look at that, I got that one.'"

He abandoned the greaser look and became more of a beatnik, checking out rock clubs and dance clubs in the city. His uncle, who'd worked on the road crew back in the old days, was now head of the public works department in Niles, and Rode spent the next four years working for him. Similar jobs in Park Ridge and Mount Prospect followed, but by 1967 the draft had caught up with him. Inducted into the army and assigned to communications training in New Jersey, he did his best to fail the course. "It was hard to do," he says. "Day after day you would get the same test, and you kept going, 'Dang! I'd better change that answer or I'm going to pass this thing.' This was a time when the military itself lost control. They had so many draftees that didn't want to be there, and it was very hard to control those people. More than once we went to New York for three days and they never missed us. But what were they going to do--throw me out?"

The army managed to turn him into a clerk typist, but by then there wasn't enough time left for a tour of duty in Vietnam. He served most of his time in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he had his own room and again took up his art. Yet the army changed his social views. "Before, I didn't care what happened. I didn't care if Kennedy got shot. Then I came in and witnessed what Vietnam was about and how it was affecting the soldiers and life stateside. A lot of my works after the army were social-protest pieces. I did a lot of flags in '76 because of the bicentennial." (Two of them, So Much Garbage and So Much Shit, are in his current show.) He was discharged in 1969 and drifted for a while, crashing at friends' places and working on and off.

Eventually he got his own space, and his art began to pick up again. "I did my first boxed construction. It was a racial piece with a couple of mannequin hands, one white, one black, holding each other." Another construction showed Richard J. Daley, his sons, and a shoebox full of money--a reference to the notorious Illinois secretary of state Paul Powell. He says he exhibited the work at an art fair sponsored by Alderman Dick Simpson. "It didn't go over too big."

In 1973 Rode married a cocktail waitress he'd met at a nightclub in Niles. "Nancy supported me a lot of times," he says. "I was really starting to produce art." Two years later, with her encouragement, he quit his day job and opened his own gallery--"Z Poor Polish Art Museum"--in a $100-a-month storefront across the street from Wrigley Field. He hoped to make a living from sales of his work, but in the two years the gallery was open he didn't sell a single piece.

One year he made the Art Institute's "Chicago and Vicinity" show and was happy to discover other artists doing similar work. "There are other people just as crazy as I am. After that I tried to stay away from galleries or anything else. I might be influenced by what I see, so I try to keep to myself so it's only my thoughts that are coming out." A few years later the Art Institute started charging an application fee, and Rode says he picketed the main entrance with a piece called The Fabulous Flying Shitter, part of which looked like a flying saucer crowned by a toilet seat, with a cardboard model of the Art Institute building poking out of the bowl and stuffed with dollar bills.

Rents were rising across the north side, and the building that housed his gallery was sold; anticipating a higher rent, he closed his doors. By 1977 he and his wife were "digging in the sofa for change, as the saying goes." A friend offered to help Rode get a job with the CTA. "I said, 'I can do that for a while.' It seemed like good pay at the time. Believe me, it's not--it's hard work." That year he had his last full exhibition, at the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library.

Rode's comeback show at Jettsett spans three decades of his career; even by the standards of outsider art it's extremely raw, and Rode's love of excess would make some of the "Hairy Who" artists of the 60s seem mild by comparison. Yet his pieces are usually held together by some basic unifying principles: an underlying symmetry, a balance, a pattern of forms echoing each other. They're also carefully considered. "I have to sit and look at it from different angles," he says. "I have to say, 'No, that's not it.' And if you do find 'it,' how do you get each part so it stays in a certain spot, but without your seeing big screws hanging out from the sides."

And God Lost Sight of Earth (1994) was sparked by part of a shopping cart and by a Chicago neighborhood site plan that Rode found in an alley. The piece became "a site plan for the different gods"--three clownish figures visible beneath a piece of the cart. He calls them "a female, the goddess of the sun; the god of night, with the stars and a sleeping mask; and in the center, the god of earth. I had to find these big thick glasses, of course, and put a little earth [a disk with a photo of the planet] inside each one of them, and actually one of the lenses slipped down here because he's losing sight of earth. Somewhere down the line this isn't working out like this site plan is supposed to--there's a lot of strife in the world." Though he did stumble upon the items that inspired the piece, he responds to the phrase "found objects" by remarking, "If you only knew the trouble I had trying to get some of the 'found objects.'" Many, in fact, are purchased.

Other works were triggered by events in Rode's life. In Nova Rode (1983) small pencil marks in a drawing by his young daughter are echoed on a larger scale by the yellow and white tape used to divide the lanes on streets. Without a Song/Josh (1986) incorporates Rode's copy of graffiti made by his son's young friend who was accidentally electrocuted on the third rail of an el track. Berlin (1973) was triggered by an old Volkswagen painted with the stars and stripes, which he often saw driving around near Belmont and Broadway. "About the fifth or sixth time I saw it, I managed to flag him down and do a fast sketch."

Before his current exhibit Rode had sold only two pieces in his entire life, to a friend of his who's since disappeared. He misses the two works, which is one reason he stopped exhibiting. But after closing his gallery, he didn't make much effort to promote his art. "All I wanted to do was create and show, but the showing became a little more difficult," he recalls. "A couple of galleries that I attempted to go to, you had to bring your books in, your slides. It was very tough to find someone who would take a good picture." Yet he's still optimistic, as evidenced by the tattoos he's acquired in middle age. The first, commemorating his 40th year, reads "39 and holding." Another, marking his 50th birthday, is an image of a gas tank that's half full. One of his hands carries a tattoo that reads "enjoy," while the other announces, "It's a big ol' goofy world." The same sentiment speaks to his art. As Rode puts it, "I'm still trying to figure life out, I guess."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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