Sheffield sculptor plies his art despite disability


“You’ve got to meet this incredible artist,” a Sheffield friend told me fifteen years ago,” when I was writing features for the now-defunct Lyndon Independent weekly. Those words were the introduction to one of the most unique people I have ever met in the Northeast Kingdom. Recently, I learned that he had joined the community effort to save the ridges nearby from the intrusion of wind towers. I telephoned and asked if I could come up for a visit again and was warmly welcomed.

Don Rodenhaven had arrived in Sheffield from Wellfleet, Mass., in 1987, a 50-year-old artist who had become a mythical figure in his community;“Zap” was the name he was known by in Wellfleet where he had a one-man welding business for 20 years. The Wellfleet Public Library had done a half-hour testimonial video of the man who is described as“a complex, lovable man who was both a unique and valuable presence in the town.”

He had made sculptures from sheet metal parts of old automobiles and trucks into bear, moose, roosters, fish, pigs and owls.

Among the admirers of the artist was world-famous novelist Norman Mailer.

A picture of Rodenhaven and Mailer is attached to the wall of the sculptor’s work shed, showing the two arm-wrestling in a popular restaurant in a restaurant.

 “Then the town’s zoning cracked down on businesses in its residential areas,” the sculptor told me,“and it became more and more difficult to work there.

They were charging a fine of one hundred dollars a day just to live there if you owned a business. Within about four years they chased out the trades people, carpenters, anybody who had trucks in their driveways, and a junkyard which would make property values drop.”

He and his companion, artist and teacher Mary Lou Bard, packed up and headed for Vermont.“We were looking for a little open land for our eight horses and privacy,” Rodenhaven explains.“We just kept moving north and came up to Sheffield where the land fit the pocketbook.” The distant view of Cannon Mountain capped their dream of rustic surroundings.

There are no horses now up on their hillside and no pet goose, which I remembered from my first visit. A tri-colored Maine Coon cat named Harriet greeted me from the porch step and sleek black“Catty” perched warily on the grill nearby.

With his salt-and-pepper beard and burly build, Rodenhaven had changed very little, except for a pronounced limp. Ten years ago, on a January day his 10-month-old Newfoundland puppy Igor had lurched suddenly toward him, resulting in a violent fall that shattered his leg. The couple was sad to have to find another home for their beloved dog. It was the beginning of a drastic change for the sculptor’s typical routine of working with his metal parts six hours in a row.“Now I’m lucky if I can work two hours in a row.”

Bard understands how important her companion’s artwork is to him, having spent many years herself developing as a fabric artist. During the 20 years she lived in Wellfleet, she had her own gallery with partners, made big batik wall hangings in the abstract mode, featuring landscapes, among them purple mountains and green velvet pine forests. Her devotion to art makes her determined to help Rodenhaven any way she can,“such as hauling tools, all those menial practical things,” she says.

“When I’m trying not to go in the shop,” he retorts,“she gives me encouragement, like a boot out the door to get to work.”

Rodenhaven considers himself lucky the state of Vermont offers funding for artists with disabilities to help them continue their work.“I’ve been able to fix up the shed where I work where it used to have a dirt floor, now there’s a real one and I could pay a carpenter to put a tin roof on it and to insulate it with a wood stove for heat.”

The accident meant a drastic change from hauling old cars and trucks to the hilltop to be used for sheet metal parts in his sculptures.“Now a friend stops by with his pickup truck once or twice a year and we drive to Montpelier where I can buy four by eight sheets of twenty-gauge metal from‘Capital Steel.’”

A Weston customer recently bought a great blue heron sculpture.“A great blue heron has four thousand feathers,” he explained.“Even the teensy weensy feathers are hand cut and each one individually welded to the armature.” 

His doctor recently commissioned him to make a snowy egret.

He explained his family history in his typical, jovial manner,“I was born in Boston and incarcerated for the first eighteen months. I was in an orphanage, a warden of the state. I don’t think I was in solitary.” Their adoptive parents, the Rodenhavens took him to live in Needham, and later adopted a girl, Nancy, who now lives in Yarmouth, Maine. His father, who worked for Ciba Pharmaceuticals, wanted him to go into the sciences, his mother, a public stenographer and a public stunt flyer, entertaining at carnivals, liked the fact that he was a naturalist and an artist.“I got a paint-by-numbers kit when I was a little boy. I started out doing it as you’re supposed to, then started blending the colors, then changed the artwork in the book and stopped doing the numbers. That got me started. I did comic strips, too.” All his friends and relatives get cartoons for special occasions.

 “I like wild life and animals– dogs, octopuses, turtles, squids, snakes, frogs, owls.  I’ve done lots of fish. The only thing I haven’t really done is an amoeba” he said, looking at me with a grin.“I could do that by dropping an egg on the floor.”

Rodenhaven ran a welding shop, and“I was two kinds of fishermen. When the wind blew, I cohogged and shell-fished. When the wind was not blowing I took my commercial boat out after cod, haddock, hake and cusk.” Cowboy years were part of his life out west in Monterey, California.“I rode the fence lines, mending them, and at every gate I would stop and repaint the black and white lines. I did tree surgery– many people don’t realize a wealthy person might object to leaves in the swimming pool, so I’d go up a tree, hang by a rope and cut down all the branches that might send down leaves.”

I asked him about the concerns he and Bard have about wind towers on the ridges near Sheffield, knowing they had gone to all the community meetings and expressed their thoughts against the idea.

He turned to Bard and asked,“We’re not big cause people, are we?” She gave a“no” nod.“She and I agree they wouldn’t work here. I think there is an underlying bad thing with companies that are putting them up and don’t go to places like Stowe, Woodstock and Jay Peak that have higher mountains. The wind tower thing has been a battle for many years. On the Cape they wanted to take prime fishing grounds to put them up. In places like Iowa, the farmers can still do their million-acre fields. It doesn’t hurt agriculture– in a way it’s kind of pretty.”