Ruohomaa exhibit at Finnish House
South Thomaston — The Finnish Heritage House on Route 131 will feature Finnish-American photojournalist Kosti Ruohomaa as the subject of its 10th anniversary summer exhibit. “Kosti Ruohomaa and Maine: A Special Relationship” will open for the season Saturday, June 21.
Most people are aware of Ruohomaa’s wonderful photographs featured in Life, Down East and many other national magazines during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, but few are aware that he worked for Walt Disney as a cartoonist during the late 1930s and early 1940s and then did illustrations for three comic book series from 1942 to 1943, while living in New York City.
This summer’s exhibit will be available for viewing Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon until the middle of October. For more information, abou the Finnish Heritage House, visit finnheritage.org. Special thanks are due to Joe Anderson of Down East Magazine, Deanna Bonner-Ganter of the Maine State Museum and Ilpo Lagerstedt of Helsinki, Finland, for their support of this project. Previous exhibits at FHH have included “Maine Finns and Blueberries in the Mid-Coast,” “Pillars of the Earth: Finns and Granite,” “Finns and Feathers: The Poultry Industry in the Mid-Coast,” “Finnish-American Music,” “Sauna: A Gift from the Finns,” “Remembering Grand-mother and Grandfather,” “Finnish-American Handicrafts” and “Finnish-American Veterans of World War II.”
Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115; or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following is an interesting biography of Ruohomaa focusing on his animation and comic art, sent from Finland and lightly edited - DCE
by Ilpo Lagerstedt, who also translated from Finnish to English
More than 30 years ago professor Jerry Bails of Detroit sent me — here to Finland — his four-volume book “Who is Who of the American Comics.” In the third volume, there was a short chapter about the artist with name Kosti Ruamonaa. His only known comics then were published in Timely/Marvel Joker comic books in 1942-1943. Some years later I got to know that there is famous American photographer with Finnish roots, whose name is Kosti Ruohomaa. It was not difficult to combine these two names.
Kosti is a shortened form of name Konstantin. Not so usual a name in Finland either. In high school in Rockland, Kosti’s nickname had been Gus, which rhymed fairly or at least enough well with the name Kosti. Ruohomaa was for an American a difficult name to pronounce and even to write. Kosti advised people that Ruohomaa is pronounced almost the same way as the "row a (boat) home.” In the 1930 census, the family´s name was Rohoma. He used to sign his work under the Ruamonaa name at Disney and Timely/Marvel; and Kosti name when doing Koo Koo Kapers and Penniless Palmer comics.
Kosti Ruohomaa was born in Quincy, Mass. Nov. 25, 1913. There were a lot of Finns in this area. His parents were Selim and Sophia Ruohomaa. Sophia was born Kartano and she was born in Lappi town in South West Finland. Selim was born in Kiukainen in same area. The Ruohomaa family moved during the First World War from Quincy to Rockland where Selim began to grow blueberries. Kosti was the family's only child. He walked three miles to the one-room schoolhouse in Rockport. Later, Kosti graduated from the Rockland high school in 1931
The high school yearbook “The Cauldron” said that Kosti was been very active in various leisure activities. He belonged, among others, to Press Club, Editorial Board and Aviation Club and he had been entertainment manager of Kippy Karnival. In the yearbook he had been devoted the words of English poet John Dryden (1631-1700):
“Whate´er he did was done so much ease
In him alone, ‘twas natural to please.”
After high school, Kosti continued his studies at Boston College of Art. After the college he worked as a commercial artist in Boston and New York. Not very much is known about those years of his life. But on the West Coast, something was happening. In Hollywood there was shortage of animators in late 1930s. Walt Disney had started to make long animation films. He needed the qualified cartoonists.
Jack Kinney worked as animator and director at Walt Disney Studios in Hollywood 1931-1957. Just before his death in 1988, he published a book with the title “Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters,” in which he told about the colorful life at Disney Studios and about “Uncle Walt” too. Kinney also said that Disney was hunting/searching for the cartoonists from East Coast in the late 1930s for his animated movies. In Kinneys book there is his drawing of five anonymous animators from New York, one with dark face that could very well be Kosti Ruohomaa. Too bad that Kinney didn’t mention Kosti’s name in his book.
I don’t know when Kosti left the East Coast for West, but he was in Hollywood when Disney people celebrated the completion of the “Snow White,” which was the first long animated movie, in 1938. There is one photo from this party where Kosti with rugged profile is seen watching other people from the edge of photo. Disney animator Willis Pyle owned this photo. He told me: "Kosti was a good friend. We shared an apartment in Hollywood in 1938. It is sad that his life was so short. His talent was great."
Ruohomaa worked for Disney from March 1938 to January 1943. He was an effects animator. I haven’t found very much information about his Disney years, but Jack Kinney has told something. He was the director of Disney’s short films. “Pluto’s Bone Trouble” was the first short under Kinney’s leadership and it was also the first known short film to which Kosti Ruohomaa was involved. World famous Donald Duck artist Carl Barks made the script of that short.
Kinney told in his book that studio staff gave good reviews for “Pluto’s Bone Trouble.” All were satisfied with it, even Uncle Walt, which means plenty. Another Disney short Kosti was doing was “A Good Time for a Dime” starring Donald Duck. Dick Lundy was director and Donald’s voice was Clarence Nash. The short was a somewhat daring, as the name suggests. Daisy Duck performs the dance of seven veils.
“There were no credits on Disney cartoons in those days. I have no further information on his work here,” said Disney archivist Dave Smith.
But it is said that Kosti was doing Disney's first “Fantasia” movie too? Maybe, but then he has not worked as animator, but a photographer and special effects expert. Colin Emery, who also had a Finnish roots, worked at Ruohomaa farm in the late 1950s through Kosti. He said that Kosti, who was older, was treating him always like an adult: “We worked together lining rows for the rakers, working the winnowing machine and keeping track of the number of baskets each worker brought in. During these times and at lunch we were able to talk. Even though I was only a teenager he treated me as an adult, he loved children and I think he would have made a great father. To my knowledge I don't think he was ever married.”
Emery also said that Kosti would have worked with “Fantasia”: "I do remember seeing a parrot he had drawn and I wonder if it might have been something from the Disney days. There were many drawings after his death ntaken to the dump. Selim, his father, wanted Kosti to be a farmer like him, he thought being an artist and photographer was a waste of time and they argued a number of times. Selim would walk off grumbling and Kosti would walk off with his camera and take photos.”
During his Disney years, Kosti had taken up photography as a hobby. In that Donald Duck short “A Good Time for a Dime” there is a very interesting scene. Donald tries to get the camera from game machine, but instead he gets ink jet from the pen to his eyes. The scene suggests that Kosti’s future career is changing. He will soon change his pen to camera.
Why did Kosti left Disney? The 1930s led to a rise of labor unions in motion pictures. The Screen Actors Guild was formed in 1933. Many of the Disney animators joined the Screen Cartoonists Guild. One of them was Art Babbitt who became one of the union leaders Babbitt started questioning Walt's authority. Disney didn’t like that and fired Babbit, whom he regarded as a "troublemaker" and a "Bolshevik."
Firing Babbitt and many other conflicts in combination led the famous strike of Disney Studios in 1941. Striking animators and other professionals marched in front of the studio calling for justice. Jack Kinney said that Disney had hired a photographer to take photographs of the demonstrators. Then Disney looked at the photos to find out who of his animators were involved in the demonstration march, who were "the sonofabitches" who have betrayed him.
What was Kosti Ruohomaa’s share in this strike? Michael Barrier, who had studied and written plenty about the American animation art, remembers having talked with Art Babbitt about Kosti. According to Babbitt, Ruohomaa was one of the photographers who took the pictures about striking artists.
Kosti Ruohomaa actually did take photos of the marching and striking animators, not for Disney, but for the counterparty. Newspaper Labor published his pictures July 22, 1941. In those photos we can see disguised Disney animators wearing a hood and bearing the sign on which they wish Gunther Lessing and Walt Disney “happy birthday.” After them came other disguised hooded men, who bore guillotines. This caption of the photo says that the images took Kosti Ruohomaa, striking artist! Kosti was one of the strikers. Those important photos taken by Kosti submitted to me by Timo Ronkanen, whom I thank very much.
Walt Disney himself left for South America before the strike ended. His lawyer Gunther Lessing and his brother Roy Disney handled the labor negotiations. After five weeks the strike was over and Disney studio signed a contract and has been a union shop ever since.
Not all strikers and demonstrators were able to work for Disney after the strike. And those who worked noticed soon Disney's was no longer the same “happy family” as they had felt it maybe had been.
It may be that this strike and these photos were the reason why Kosti Ruohomaa left Disney Studios. It is one reason, but there are others. Vive Risto and many others artists had left the animation to make comic books during the years 1941-1942. Superheroes had been big hit in the comics since the first Superman in 1938. Now in early ‘40s humor comics and comics with funny animals were popular. Western company was successful in publishing the comic books with Disney and Warner animation/cartoons characters.
New York’s Marvel comics, whose name was then Timely, was still publishing superhero comics. But they noticed, as Les Daniels had written in his Marvel´s history, that the comic book market was changing. So Marvel/Timely decided to create their own versions of funny animals comics and needed skilled people to draw those comics.
Was Timely/Marvel actively hunting for the Disney artists? The question remains in this context certainly unanswered, but maybe it is so. In any case, Kosti Ruohomaa made his first ever known comics during the time when he was still working at Disney. Jerry Bails in his book “Who is Who of American Comics” is the only one who ever knew that Kosti Ruohomaa had made any comics. Kosti himself ignored those comics, because he did not mention this phase of his life in his short biography, published in 1949.
According to Jerry Bails, Timely/Marvel published the Joker comic book in 1942-1943. The first Joker comic book is dated April 1942. This included comics by many artists who later became very noted: Powerhouse Pepper and Stuporman by Basil Wolverton; and Hey look by Harvey Kurtzman, who later made comics for Mad Magazine and Playboy. Also Mad Magazine artist Al Jaffee made screwball comics for Joker comic book. Kosti Ruohomaa was in good company. Jaffee does not remember if he ever met Kosti, which is not surprising, since Kosti lived still in California.
Kosti made other comics too. DC Comics was the publisher of Superman and Batman. For this company, Kosti Ruohomaa made Penniless Palmer comic. For Ace Periodcals company, Kosti made Koo Koo Kapers — known comic, only one page slightly.
There is a third reason why Kosti would have left Disney. World War II was on. According to New York Times, a total of 80 percent of Disney's activities went to war propaganda in 1942. In one interview, Kosti said that the Army Signal Corps lent him from Disney for some time to make cartoon training films for military. Disney had something to do with these training movies. Kosti was not the only one who left Disney to make military training cartoons. Lars Calonius was born in Helsinki. He had been involved in Disney's 1942 animated “Bambi” movie. After “Bambi,” Calonius left Disney to make those military training films. Also Mort Walker, the creator of famous Beetle Bailey comic strip, was at Army Signal Corps. Wonder if the gentlemen ever met?
I haven’t got any information about the training films Kosti did for Army Signal Corps. It seems that Kosti did not miss his Disney years. He later explained his relationship with the world of Disney: “One mouse can be interesting but a million mouses are a bore."
After the war, Kosti had changed completely his tool. Pen and ink was replaced by the camera. Kosti bought a Rolleflex and started a new career of a photographer. He worked on the staff of Life magazine for a while, but during the ‘40s he turned to freelance assignments, represented by Black Star photo agency. He worked with Rolleiflex, Rolleicord and Linfoff cameras.
His topical photographs received prompt attention and demand and ended up in covers and pages of Life magazine, Collier’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Down East, Yankee, Parade and other pictorials of the post war era. Kosti’s photos were pure Americana.
Kosti’s first break came when he was assigned to a big story with an agricultural background. He found himself developing a news feeling for the country he had left with disgust a few years earlier. Kosti returned to East Coast. He had lived shortly in New York, but returned then to Rockland. His base was a small camp on Ruohomaa farm. Lew Dietz remembers that Kosti never stayed far, or for long, from that eyrie overlooking the sea and backed up to his father’s blueberry lands: “He made several unsuccessful attempts to tear himself away and find new roots. Perhaps his mind told him that a boyhood home is no more than a womb and that a man can never go home again. The need of his heart overruled his mind.”
Kosti concentrated on photographing the lost or changed landscape of Maine, images that were was most celebrated. Says Lew Dietz: “I know no one who caught Maine more truthfully.”
Although Kosti had achieved national and international fame as a photographer, he also became a part of the Maine community. Maine people accepted his faults, the heaviest of which was that Kosti had a drinking problem. Dietz said: “He was an alcoholic and he knew it.” But Kosti was scrupulously honest about himself. William Allen Shevis wrote: “Kosti was quite, considerate, shy … and gentle when he was sober. When he had bottle in hand he seemed more assured, more in command of his life and his calling. I’m not knocking Kosti. Alcoholism is sickness, an addiction, and it was damn shame that he could not break it grip on him.”
Jill Delaney, a former Farrell, said that Kosti was a friend of the family who visited them often. She also remembers that Kosti was different from other people, inscrutable even the mysterious figure. Dietz wrote: “He was tall, lithe and handsome young man, cunning cap cocked his head, camera slung from his head.”
Other photographers had noticed Kosti’s talent very fast. Todd Walker has said: “I was in a couple of the inter-studio salons, in one of which was a man named Kosti Ruohomaa who later on became a very well-known photographer in the East. He was at Disney working as one of the animators and his work was really quite different from the others, most of whom did just stock portraits. His work really fascinated me.”
For Black Star’s Howard Chapnick, Kosti was moody and brooding Finn, who had great sense of composition and mood and ability to capture subtle nuances. Chapnick called Kosti a true artist: "The word is thrown around with gay abandon in photography — this picture looks like a Rembrandt, that one like a Renoir. Kosti’s photographs do not have to be compared to the work of painters. A Ruohomaa picture looks like a Ruohomaa!"
Kosti once said to Howard Chapnick about being photojournalist: “… Young photographers have to be educated in the arts, sciences and humanities, so that they can bring understanding and intelligence to every assignment. Each assignment is a new challenge with new people to relate to. You can’t relate to them unless you have an open, receptive, inquiring and trained mind. That’s secret of being a journalist.”
Sauna was everything to Kosti. Shevis said: “We used to go up to his place on Dodge’s Mountain with Dietz to the sauna. Kosti would have the stove stoked up and the carrel of rocks already hot.” It is “kiuas,” as we says here in Finland. But let Shevis continue: “He’d be dressed in ritual towel round the waist and as we stripped he’d toss ceremonial cup of water on to the rocks. The water would hiss and bubble and turn in a blistering flash into steam obscuring out nakedness and we’d sit ourselves on the cedar benches, the higher the hotter, to soak and sweat. When we couldn’t stand it anymore, we’d gallop outdoors to cool off.”
Kosti had visited his father’s old home at Kiukainen in Finland with his parents in 1915, when he was less than 2 years old. In 1948, Kosti travelled to Europe and the Middle East. He visited England and Ireland, Austria and Switzerland. He also has paid a visit to Finland, where his parents were born. He spent six weeks in Finland taking photos. It was an account of the visit of the American-born son of Finnish immigrants to the land of his parents.
The Air Force took him in a special assignment, which carried him to Rome, Athens and into Arabia. The State Department has selected his work for its publications distributed in foreign countries.
Blood clots in the brain paralyzed Kosti in February 1961. Lew Dietz met Kosti when October turned November. He said that Kosti was a shattered man, bedridden and paralyzed: “He was propped up before a box with broken glass. With effort he was able to articulate one hand and arm. He managed to operate his cameras as he sought abstract beauty in the light refractions of the shards beside his bed.”
Kosti Ruohomaa died Nov. 5 of that year only 47 years old, unmarried and without children. His days at Disney were limited and his comic book career was even more marginal but for the sake of his photographer's career and photographs, Kosti Ruohomaa is very noted and even here in Finland too. Kosti Ruohomaa is still highly valued in Maine, also called a legend. It is said that God created Maine and Kosti photographed it.
I thank everyone who helped me to write my Kosti Ruohomaa biography: Jill Delaney, June Ranta Wilcox, Colin Emery, William Allen Shevis, Art Jura, Mark Haskell and Steven Gifford. Kiitos!
Dated May 21, 2014, which is Konstantin’s and Kosti’s day in Finland. Copyright is held by Ilpo Lagerstedt, who has written plenty about the history of comics and American Finns, among other the book about the Finnish American comic book artists and cartoonists, published by Tampere University Press 2008.