Valley News – Bert Dodson, prolific Vermont artist, dies at 83

BRADFORD, Vt. — Bert Dodson, an influential artist and illustrator who spent the bulk of his prolific career in the Upper Valley, has died at the age of 83.

A draftsman of daunting skill, Dodson asserted that drawing, and art-making in general, is everyone’s birthright and wrote and illustrated two books on drawing meant to encourage people to take it up regardless of prior experience.

“Anyone who can hold a pencil can learn to draw with some degree of proficiency,” he wrote in Keys to Drawing, which came out in 1985.

By that time, he was well-ensconced in the Bradford area, having moved there in 1977. He would spend the rest of his career in Vermont, living in West Fairlee and drawing, painting and teaching mainly out of a studio in the Bradford Academy building.

Dodson died on Oct. 19 from complications from COVID-19, according to a death notice from Hale Funeral Home in Bradford. His health had been declining for several years after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease about a decade ago, and he died at a nursing home in central Vermont.

During a long, productive career, Dodson illustrated more than 80 books, most of them for children. In addition to drawing, he painted, particularly in oils and watercolors. And he was a sociable artist, joining others in weekly drawing and painting sessions for most of his adult life.

Born Feb. 23, 1938, Dodson grew up in Phoenix, where he showed an early interest and facility in art. After earning a bachelor’s degree in graphic arts at Arizona State University, he kept making art while serving in the U.S. Navy. He was a nuclear weapons officer, said Bud Haas, a longtime friend of Dodson’s from Bradford.

“I was pulled toward (art),” Dodson told the Valley News in 2009. “Everybody’s struggling to find an identity, and this gave me my identity.”

He moved to New York after the Navy because he thought it was where artists should live, but his break occurred in a Connecticut hospital. He’d been temporarily paralyzed in a car accident.

Among his hospital roommates was a neighbor of Stevan Dohanos, a celebrated illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post. Dohanos paid the young artist a visit and gave him a scholarship to, and later a job at, the Famous Artists School, a Westport, Conn., correspondence course for artists.

Dodson served as one of the art instructors who gave feedback to budding artists who sent their work to the school, then designed art courses, all while learning from professional illustrators.

“I loved it, I loved being mentored by them,” he said in 2009.

He worked there until 1970, then moved to Europe for a year with his wife and young son. When he came back, he went to work in commercial illustration and produced two or three books a year. He also co-founded a graphic arts and film company, Creative Partners, and taught illustration at Fashion Institute of Technology.

He and his first wife divorced in 1977, and Dodson moved to Vermont and built a house in West Fairlee.

The house, on Kidder Hood Road, was closer to Bradford, so he gravitated there. Dodson kept a studio there for many years, in the mill building, but mostly on the top floor of the Bradford Academy building.

He quickly was surrounded with creative endeavors. For a few years, he and other artists operated Orange Arts, which ran events and classes in the renovated mill building in the early 1980s.

He also wrote and drew a comic strip, Nuke, which satirized the arms race and other political happenings of the era. The main character was a nuclear warhead. They were collected in a pair of books, Nuke (which was labeled “An explosive new comic strip”), in 1988, and Nuke II in 1990.

The irony of a former nuclear weapons officer producing a comic about nuclear proliferation and other follies was not lost on him, Haas said.

Despite the influence of Keys to Drawing and its follow-up volume, Keys to Drawing with Imagination, the work that Dodson might be remembered for is The Way Life Works, a volume he collaborated on with pioneering microbiologist Mahlon Hoagland, who lived in Thetford.

Hoagland, who discovered the role of transfer RNA in forming proteins, “claimed that Bert was the smartest guy” he’d worked with, said John Douglas, a friend of both men who took photographs for The Way Life Works.

“He became an expert” in the complicated science that Hoagland boiled down for a general audience, Douglas said.

The book took them five years to produce, and it was both the hardest work of his career and the work he was most proud of, Dodson said in 2009.

For years, Hoagland, Douglas, Dodson and Charlie Berger, among others, gathered for breakfast Tuesday mornings at Isabell’s Café in East Thetford.

Dodson also was part of a Friday morning breakfast club that gathered at The Hungry Bear in Bradford for 25 years.

His gregariousness extended to his fellow artists. Dodson was part of a life-drawing group that met on Tuesday nights, and a painting group that met on Fridays.

The drawing group usually met for only an hour, Piermont artist Stephanie Gordon said. “We tried to rope friends and relatives into modeling for us,” she said.

The aim was to spend that hour just drawing and enjoying it, not fretting over the results, Gordon said.

“Some of the people who came to the group were less accomplished than others and at one point, people asked Bert to teach some of his drawing techniques,” Gordon said. So he set up a class for members of the group.

“He was just really a wonderful promoter of the arts and a wonderful guy,” she said.

Gordon also brought Dodson into her classes at Hanover High School, where she taught art for many years. “He was just unfailingly kind and patient and encouraging to the students,” she said.

Dodson kept working at a steady pace and turned out some Upper Valley classics, including a picture book of Favor Johnson, the Christmas tale by Willem Lange, originally based on an Etna farmer, that has aired on Vermont Public Radio for years. The publisher chose Dodson, Lange said.

“He was probably, among the hundreds of guys I worked with, in the top five,” Lange said. “He listened to what you were trying to convey. He read the story closely.” And he knew how to illustrate New England.

Lange still has Dodson’s original watercolor painting of Favor holding his hound, Hercules, in his arms.

In the past several years, Dodson shuttled among nursing homes in Berlin and an apartment in Montpelier. Two years ago, Haas picked Dodson up in Montpelier and took him to the Thanksgiving dinner at the capital city’s Bethany Church. But after a couple of falls, Dodson had to move back into a nursing home, Haas said.

He is survived by Scott Dodson, a son from his first marriage; and Zelma Loseke, his wife since 2005. Prior to Loseke, he had been married to Bonnie Dodson. Loseke, who lives on a farm in East Corinth, referred questions to Hale Funeral Home.

Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.

Kenneth Proto

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