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Judith Roode, artist and former MCAD professor, dies at 75

September 11, 2018

Minneapolis artist Judith Roode drew like she was pumping iron: She bore down and put her whole body into each bold charcoal stroke, then repeated the gesture again. The expressive figures she hashed into form exude a brash power. In works where two figures are positioned in relation to one another, the charged space between them crackles with tension.

In life, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) professor had the same effect as her drawings, with a full-bodied laugh that announced her presence and a spirit that electrified a room.

When she died on Aug. 25 at age 75, Roode left behind an inspiring body of work and a lasting influence on many other artists.

From 1977-1992, Roode’s Life Drawing and Visual Journals courses at MCAD made a strong impression. West St. Paul artist Carolyn Swiszcz, an MCAD alumna and friend of Roode’s, recalled thinking she’d aced a simple assignment on her first day of class — only to be mortified when Roode erased her work.

Swiszcz quickly realized Roode was simply pushing her to improve her drawing by looking closely at her subjects and measuring with her eye. “She was really strict and intimidating and was a fantastic teacher,” Swiszcz recalled. After Roode’s “drawing boot camp,” she said, “I felt like I could draw anything.”

Another former student and friend, St. Paul artist Mary Esch, remembered Roode as “a spitfire, no-nonsense person who whipped me into shape.” But Roode’s pupils knew her intensity was rooted in affection as soft as the puffy down slippers she wore in the classroom. And they appreciated her assistance in honing their artistic skills — and the motivation behind their work. “That was the one-two punch, of the technique and of finding your core as an artist,” Swiszcz noted.

During one of many walks around Lake Harriet with her longtime friend Joyce Lyon, a University of Minnesota art professor, Roode conceived of a mentorship program for the feminist art collective WARM, which created a support network for hundreds of women. Lyon noted that the rigorous, demanding aspects of Roode’s personality “were to help people find the richest expression of themselves.”

Roode’s own work was exhibited widely, published in drawing guides, and included in the collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Walker Art Center and Weisman Art Museum, among other institutions.

Former Star Tribune art critic Mary Abbe described Roode’s ability to eye her subjects with unsparing honesty and wrote that her drawings “command attention with the brio of their draftsmanship and the energetic elegance of her designs and details.”

Roode’s former MCAD colleague, David Rich, a New York-based painter, admired her intensity, tenacity and fearlessness, as well as the way she inspired her students to create intimate, truth-telling work. “You almost feel her drawings in a way as much as see them,” he said.

In the 1990s, Roode retired from teaching to manage a painful medical condition that limited her mobility, reflex sympathetic dystrophy. But she taught herself to draw with her left hand, and would make what Lyon described as “delicious” little illustrations of jokes and send them out as Valentine cards.

Her laugh remained life-affirming, and despite her physical limitations, Roode never gave up her creative practice. “She thought about making art in her head,” Lyon noted. “Her inner art life continued.”

Roode was preceded in death by her parents, Lucille Grace Musolf and Elmer Severin Johnson. A celebration of her life is planned for Nov. 4 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at MCAD, 2501 Stevens Av., Minneapolis

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