Nature Is His Muse

August 31, 2017

By Katherine Keller

 Jef Raasch — a world of beauty and delight

Often Jef Raasch’s work is a collage of creatures or botanical elements like The Faun, where the figure possesses a human face but its body is constructed or clad with birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. PHOTO William Lemke

The beauty and beings of the natural world inform and suffuse the work of Jef Raasch, a sculptor in clay.

Creatures of the water, air, wetlands, forest, and savannah are represented in his work, as are leaves, mushrooms, ferns, tree trunks, branches, and moss. He works with the human form, interpreted, often, as a supernatural wood nymph, faun, dryad, or the little woodland folk of fable and lore.

Sometimes his object is a single creature — a frog, a turtle, a koi, or a chair and divan, as in his “Fernichair” series.

But often his object is a collage of creatures or botanical elements like his Faun or Earth Mother, where the faun has a human face but his body is constructed or clad with birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians. Earth Mother’s form is human and incorporated with geological strata. Her breasts and shoulders are the lush green that blankets sections of Earth. The tree that erupts from the green forms her neck and head.

Bay View resident Jef Raasch and his boyhood friends ran free when he was a child for he lived in a place surrounded by woodland and farms.

“Oh, my goodness, what a different age we live in now,” mused Raash. “I grew up in Brown Deer and it was developing at the time. I, and my friends, starting at age 6, traveled miles in a day, and we weren’t supervised by our parents. We certainly weren’t forced to play soccer. All this stuff where you’ve gotta find things for your kids to do to make them safe. I just remember the woods were an amazing place to be. There used to be a creek in it and we caught baby crayfish. It was always the quest to find the ultimate creature.”

Twenty-two baby garter snakes for example. Inside his parents’ home.

Garter snakes are ovoviviparous meaning they give birth to live young. Raasch brought a garter snake into his bedroom where he’d set up a reptile aquarium with what he thought was an escape-proof cover.

His snake gave birth to 22 young. They all escaped. He recovered all but six snakes, which were never found.

Jef Raasch and his husband Jay Hunkins with their dog Bruno photographed in the Japanese teahouse Raasch built. Raasch owns a cottage near his home that he converted to a studio. PHOTO Katherine Keller


His mother Kathleen Raasch was not an animal-loving person. She grew up on a farm near Decorah, Iowa, where she became terrified of birds after encounters with hens. One of her tasks was gathering eggs, even those still under a hen. Yet, she and her husband William (Bud) Raasch tolerated their son’s proclivity and fascination with wildlife.

His toys and hobbies reflected his keen interest in nature.

“When I was a kid, models were the craze. Everyone was building model cars and helicopters. I was doing the horror picture monsters. There was a series of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures I was putting together. It was all natural. They were animals or people. They weren’t cars,” he said.

Raasch remembers that he began working with clay when he was six years old. He found clay in a ditch and began modeling bird nests.

He attended Algonquin Elementary, Brown Deer Middle, and Brown Deer High School. He doesn’t remember that his artistic ability was “so defined” but he liked art and had above average ability.

Jef Raasch, The Flock, Clay, 24” x 18” x 18”. PHOTO William Lemke

Raasch said he was a bullied kid, sometimes belittled as gay. Art and his high school art room became his “saving grace.” The art teacher was William
Panaro, who he sees every year when he visits the Morning Glory Fine Art Fair at the Marcus Center.

His teacher stopped at his booth this summer. “I sat and talked to him, reminiscing about those days. Every time I see him, I tell him he saved my life. ‘You gave me something. I hated high school but the art room was my place to be, my safe place where I could just express myself.’”

When he and Mr. Panaro discussed potential careers, Raasch said, his teacher asked, “What’s wrong with going into art?”

As appealing as that may have been, Raasch felt compelled to pursue a more traditional path. His oldest brother was in veterinary school. His mother said she would not pay for his college tuition if he chose to pursue art.

He chose premed, although he also took some art classes. “Physiology…oh, my goodness! I got through it. That was supposed to be the hardest. You had to learn every bone and every attachment and every muscle. I made it through that! And it really helped with my anatomy later on (art career).”

Raasch had enrolled at UW-La Crosse but transferred to UW-Milwaukee when he began his sophomore year. By his third year, he changed his major to art and dispensed with thoughts of a career in dentistry or optometry. “I thought, you know what? I’m really going to do what strikes my fancy. So screw it, if I’m poor, or whatever,” he reflected.

Raasch’s work has been commissioned, including the notable Bibliopile, an 11-foot installation (clay) in the children’s room of the Elisha D. Smith Public Library in Menasha, Wis. PHOTO Jef Raasch

He financed his education by working at the Tripoli Country Club. Beginning in 1977 while he was still in high school, he was employed by the golf club for 17 years, except for the months he lived in La Crosse. “I paid as I went.” Raasch said. “When I got out of school I was debt free but it took me seven years. But I decided I was lovin’ it in school, so the last year or two, it was almost all ceramic classes, and I was able to make up my own classes because I’d fulfilled all my requirements.”

He studied with ceramics professors Karen Gunderman, his primary professor, and also Paula Rice and Dick Evans, graduating with Bachelor of Fine Arts — Ceramics degree in 1987.

A turning point for Raasch was 1992 when he was able to walk away from the restaurant industry and support himself instead with his work.

He attends 10 to 15 fine art and crafts shows annually within Wisconsin and beyond.

His work has attracted collectors including Judy Faulkner, the founder and CEO of Epic Systems, a healthcare software company located in Verona, Wis.

Jef Raasch, Botanical Dodo, 24″ x 18″ x 18″, clay and acrylic paint. PHOTO William Lemke

His work has been commissioned, as well, such as the notable work Bibliopile, an 11-foot installation in the children’s room of the Elisha D. Smith Public Library in Menasha, Wis.

Bibliopile is delightful, if slightly dizzying mélange of books, a bookcase, animals, shells, and musical instruments piled from floor to ceiling. The work is built around a support column.

Raasch’s large scale works are made in 27-inch-high sections, the maximum height that his kiln accommodates. When working on a large scale piece, Raasch breaks his design into 24-inch sections.

When clay is fired, it shrinks about 10 percent. Years of practice have bestowed the skill required to make sections that fit together after firing. When they don’t perfectly fit, Raasch said he has developed techniques to compensate.

Raasch colored his early work with glaze but more and more, paints it instead.

He is finding that he’s working more and more with a green palette as his work has become more focused on the botanical.

“It’s not that I don’t want to do more animals, it’s just that I need to feel fresh. Right now I am so much into moss and mushrooms and green. My work is really green right now,” he said.

Currently, he makes a lot of clay koi because they sell. Craftshow-goers love —and buy — them. He paints the fired clay with acrylic paint and finishes it with a polymer gloss varnish. His work ranges from $40 for small pieces to $20,000 for the large.

Raasch’s work is not confined to work that’s baked in a kiln. He has transformed the exterior and interior of his home on Bay Street, and created a beguiling secret garden behind his home.

“This is my very secret garden,” he said, looking over a spiral walk walled with ferns. “No one would have a clue what’s back here. I love this space. It’s my staycation. It’s my little paradise.”

He has been working on it for two decades. When he purchased the property, he said “the backyard was grass and a maple tree pruned like a Tootsie Pop. Everything was exposed to the whole neighborhood. He began by planting poplar trees to create privacy. They’re long gone, replaced with tulip and other trees, and “a strange little crazy juniper.” He recently completed constructing a Japanese teahouse that’s tucked in a corner of his garden, right behind his waterfall and koi pond.

Jef Raasch recently completed building a Japanese teahouse in a corner of the secret garden behind his home. PHOTO Katherine Keller

When asked what he would do with his life if he didn’t have to support himself, he replied, “Not art!” with uproarious laughter.

He’d like to make environments, as he did in his backyard.

Raasch and his husband Jay Hunkins live in the home Raasch purchased in 1996 for $26,000. He also owns a cottage near his home that he converted into a studio.

He maintains a vegetable garden next to his studio, where, in addition to several raised beds, he planted apple trees that he espaliered.

Raasch recently led an unsuccessful movement on behalf of himself and neighbors to oppose the six-story mixed-use residential and retail development that is planned for the Hamburger Mary’s site on the northeast corner of Bay Street and Kinnickinnic Avenue. He and his neighbors objected to the scale of the building and were concerned about parking problems they fear will accompany the development in their neighborhood where many residents must park on the street.

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