How Colorado Folk Artist Rod Rosebrook Became An Unlikely Sensation

"Wheel With Wooden Tools" by Rod Rosebrook (1977)
“Wheel with Wooden Tools” (Rod Rosebrook, 1977) | Smithsonian American Art Museum

A gold rush that never materialized led to the creation of the pioneer town Masonville, Colorado, where folk artist Rod Rosebrook was born in 1900. Cattleman J.R. Mason had cleaved off a portion of his ranch near Fort Collins in 1896 to form the town. He envisioned it would accommodate the onslaught of feverish prospectors, who would surely flock to the area when news of ore deposits found in the nearby hills got out. Masonville was bound to boom.

 

Except it never did. The gold deposits were small and the hills were depleted before any fortunes could be made. Defeated prospectors left Masonville as quickly as they’d arrived. Cows soon outnumbered people.

 

Around the time Rod Rosebrook celebrated his tenth birthday, his family packed up and trundled off to Oregon. Young Rosebrook never saw the dirt roads and one-room schoolhouse of Masonville again. His formative years spent in that pioneer town, however, left a lasting impression.

Masonville Colorado (1910)
Masonville Store and Dickerson House (c. 1910) | Fort Collins History Connection

Rod Rosebrook learned from a young age that everything had value: horseshoes, handsaws, wagon wheels, barbed wire, bits of castoff iron. He learned to work hard too. In his teenage years, Rosebrook became a cattle-herding buckaroo. On cattle drives, he picked up skills like shoeing horses and carpentry.

 

After marrying in 1931, Rosebrook took a job blacksmithing for a lumber mill in central Oregon. When mid-life rolled around, he began fabricating framed constructions of welded tools and farm implements found in his barn. Little did he know, these folk art creations from his “Old Time Museum” of ranching and pioneer life would make the rounds of New York art galleries.

 

The pivotal moment in Rosebrook’s unlikely rise to folk-art fame came in the 1970s, when he built a welded-tool gate and wagon-wheel fence for his property near Bend, Oregon. New York gallery owner Roger Ricco spotted the peculiar objects while passing through town in the 1980s. He bought them from Rosebrook, shipped them back to Manhattan, and showed them in his gallery.

"Buggy Wheel" by Rod Rosebrook (1979)
“Buggy Wheel” (Rod Rosebrook, 1979) | Smithsonian American Art Museum

Word of Rosebrook’s found-object metal creations spread through New York like wildlife. Gallery owners, magazine writers, and photographers came knocking on Rosebrook’s door. Museum curators were hot on their heels. Folk art had flourished in New York since its early days as a Dutch colony. The city was eager to embrace America’s newest folk-art sensation.

 

Private collectors snapped up Rosebrook’s welded works as quickly as he produced them. So did esteemed institutions, like the National Museum of American Art, now known as the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Even Fortune 500 companies acquired his metal creations to display in their lobbies.

 

Rosebrook sold hundreds of his framed constructions until his death at age 93. The pieces he held back continued to adorn his barn until his children sold the property in 2005. The bulk of Rosebrook’s remaining works were purchased by collectors.

"Gate" by Rod Rosebrook (1975)
“Gate” (Rod Rosebrook, 1975) | Smithsonian American Art Museum

While the name Rod Rosebrook isn’t frequently mentioned these days, this folk artist from the pioneer town Masonville, Colorado, left a lasting mark on the American folk-art scene.

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