ARIZONA IN A BOX: Rodell dioramas on display at Phippen
Runar Gustav (R.G.) Rodell, who was famous worldwide for the miniature outdoor settings he created, remains larger than life in the memories of those who knew him in Prescott.
His name has come up again in the circle of his friends because his works of art - dioramas - are on exhibit at the Phippen Museum.
Each diorama he created was one of a kind and offered a window into the natural wonders of the West. He combined painting, carvings and natural materials inside a glass-covered box to create an outdoor scene.
Rodell's three-dimensional dioramas became coveted collectors' items not only in museums around the country, but also were sought after by such celebrities as President Ronald Reagan, Andy Devine and Bing Crosby. One of his best customers was comedian Bob Hope.
Here in Prescott, Rodell's friends and fellow artists called him "Rodee," and they remember him for his art genius, his sense of humor, his love for the outdoors and because he was a regular at the Pine Cone Inn, which served as a gallery for many of his dioramas.
W.C. "Willie" Rubottom, a local sculptor, played 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s dance music on the Pine Cone Inn's piano for 18 years, and the two became great friends.
Rodell "was a nut for fishing," he said. "He would go down to the desert floor - from Yarnell to the bottom - to pick up twigs and little objects that he put in his dioramas. He carved his own animals out of balsa or boxwood - coyotes, birds and whatever creatures" he planned for his scenes.
In fact, Rubottom sat in Rodell's studio, practiced his sculpting in clay and eventually polished his own talent, so much so that he, too, has enjoyed a long career in the art world. A bust that he sculpted of Rodell sits among the dioramas in the Phippen show.
Another well known Prescott artist, Bruce Fee, said Rodell "would give me advice about my work, constantly getting on me that I was too slow. He never claimed to be an artist, but he certainly was."
Fee recalls spending a lot of time on fishing trips with Rodell. "We had a ball together in my '67 Jeep Wagoneer and camping trailer," Fee, adding that he took a recorder on these trips so that he could tape Rodell's stories.
"He said such funny things," Fee said. "I knew these stories by heart, because he told them again and again. He told me all kinds of stories about his childhood. They were good stories."
Rodell was born in Medelpad, Sweden, and came to the United States in 1924. He opened a studio in Wilmette, Ill., in the mid-1930s, making dioramas of local birds and fish found in the area. These miniature wildlife dioramas that he made for sportsmen began as a hobby but, in fact, they launched his career.
In the 1940s, Rodell and his wife, Alice, were looking for property that would be good for his respiratory problems and heard about Prescott. They moved to a home on White Spar Road in 1953, just across the street from the historic Pine Cone Inn. His friends say Rodell usually spent five nights a week at the Pine Cone, socializing and enjoying a glass of port.
"He always drove over" to the Pine Cone, said friend Treva Clevenger. "He said it was no use to have a car if you don't drive it and that it would keep the battery up." As soon as patrons walked into the Pine Cone, they knew Rodee was there "telling stories," she said, because they could hear him in the bar.
Clevenger had an open invitation to watch him work in his studio, because he loved that she recited poetry to him. "He loved anything," she said, from Milton to Longfellow.
Rodell created a diorama for Clevenger, and she asked that he put a deer in hers.
"The deer's ears were laid back," she said, and when she commented on that, Rodell responded, "Sure, she's listening to your poetry."
Rodell's dioramas sold fast, Clevenger said, and over the span of his career, he made thousands of them - no two alike - that gave viewers a slice of the great outdoors through his eyes.
Rodell died in 1983 at 85. Fee said of his friend, "He loved life and good food. He loved good companionship and was a great admirer of other artists. His work is very accomplished."
Rodell's dioramas will be on display at the Phippen Museum, 4701 Highway 89 North, through Dec. 2. For more information, call the museum at 778-1385.