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What will Dena Rothman paint next?

Dena Rothman stands in front of the mural she painted at the Wabegon Bar and Restaurant in Fond du Lac. Jana Peterson/

Wrenshall resident Dena Rothman can paint on just about anything. Bar tops, snowmobiles, saw blades, ax heads, guitars, gigantic fishing lures, windows, deer skulls, drum heads ... she covers them all with images of anything from favored family pets to idyllic scenes from nature.

Rothman has even designed - although not done the needlework - a couple of tattoos for friends.

This talented woman has left a trail of art behind her in her five decades, much of it in numerous bars and restaurants across the Northland.

A gigantic mural of the Fond du Lac dam spans an entire wall in the dining room at the Wabegon Bar and Supper Club on the east side of Jay Cooke State Park on scenic Highway 23.

At the Foundry bar in Cloquet, Rothman woodburned scenes - based on historical photographs - of the bars and bordellos that occupied Dunlap Island in the 1920s, including the Foundry. At the other end of the bar top, she sketched and then burned in a Native American village. Other scenes etched into the bar top include an eagle, a logging scene and an old steam train.

Foundry owner Michelle Kolodge said she gets lots of compliments on the bar.

"People just love it," Kolodge said. "The detail in the faces of the people, it's really quite amazing."

Rothman also woodburned images into every door at the Choo Choo bar in East Superior, Wis., along with a number of table tops. A three-foot painted table saw blade hangs on one wall and the surface of the bar itself is a collection of notable scenes involving steam locomotives. In one, Rothman depicted the outlaw Jesse James robbing a train that looks like the steam engine at the Depot in Duluth, another shows the land-speed record being set.

"I learn a lot when I do these things," said Rothman during an interview at the Wabegon Monday. Then she gestures at the mural on the wall behind her. "Even this, I had guys coming in who would tell me they had worked on that dam for 30 years, promising 'We'll tell you if you get it right.'"

In the weeks that she was painting the large mural, Rothman heard stories about trees that jammed the dam during a massive flood, forcing workers to go down with chain saws and cut them up before they could raise or lower the dam. She discovered the cabins that sit on top of the dam were built to be moved to different locations. She learned the sharp rocks below the dam were added only a few years ago, to help create walleye and sturgeon habitat.

Although she chose to portray the dam and its picture-perfect

surroundings in calmer weather and with rounder rocks, Rothman did get a thumbs-up from her potential critics when the image was


Except for one thing.

"Last month they asked me to throw a little deer in there," she said with a chuckle, pointing to a buck approaching the water's edge in the lower right quadrant of the painting.

Although much of her artwork features wildlife, Rothman doesn't limit herself to pastoral scenes. A pair of drum heads she painted for a local band member would fit right into a graphic novel, while the pirate woman she painted on her cousin's guitar looks like a page out of a Conan comic book.

But she excels at wildlife, with deer, fish, eagles, moose and wolves making repeated visits to whatever she's currently using as a canvas.

Rothman even painted the Wrenshall deer.

"You wouldn't believe how many people were honking," she said, adding that a few even shouted their approval for "finally getting rid of the white deer."

It's in the genes

Rothman was born of a long line of artistically talented folk. Her mother owns Minnesota Gifts by Sandra Dee in the Dewitt-Seitz building at Canal Park, but got her start as a dancer in the Caravan of Stars when she was young, designing her own fashions even then. Her paternal grandmother was a watercolor painter; she has aunts who make jewelry in California and amazing artwork in Alaska. Her sisters are very artistic as well.

"Around and round it goes," she said. "We all find our niche, though. Everyone is a little bit different."

Her dad - whom Rothman said is her biggest collector - put his artistic talents to more practical use as a contractor, as did another uncle who was busy working on a more efficient design for fan blades last she heard.

"There's a lot of engineers, architects, more mathematically inclined family on that side," she said. "That skipped over me. I can see math, but that whole "X + Y" thing was a struggle."

Art, on the other hand, wasn't a struggle. She took to painting as a child, with the complete support of her parents and other friends and family who also painted.

"I would just sit in the basement and paint away, and behave," she said with a big laugh. "At least until I was a teenager."

Growing up in Duluth, Rothman said she laid the educational base for her career at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, which she attended for two years before dropping out of school because there were too many other demands,

including being mother to two little girls and working three jobs. At UWS she learned about photography, sculpture and more. While painting was still her first love, she embraced her new skills, turning her bathroom into a darkroom at times.

"It was a good thing we lived in a more rural setting then," she said, with a chuckle. "The kids could just go outside if they really had to go to the bathroom when I was working in there."

Expanding her horizons was also good for Rothman, who admitted to getting bored easily.

Although she makes her living selling - and raffling - her artwork now, Rothman was involved in the local music scene for a long time, working as a musician, sound technician, promoter, booking agent, and often all of the above. The last band she was with was "Midnite White" out of


"I love music, but I'd put all this [art] on the back burner for a long time," she said. "I really wanted to try this, full-time, before I ended up with arthritis or bad eyesight."

Talking to her now, it seems as though Rothman is confident in her skills as an artist.

It wasn't always that way.

"I was always giving my stuff away," she said. "I guess I always felt like it wasn't good enough. You know, I'd been doing it since I was a child, and I've always been my own worst critic. I don't think anyone could be harsher."

Luckily, Rothman got to know Kim Kastem, who owns the Choo Choo with her husband, Steve. Rothman said it was Kim who made all the difference.

"She was actually the one who got me brave enough to go out and sell my artwork," she said, adding that Kim "went nuts" over Rothman's stuff when she first laid eyes on it. "She took it and starting putting it in raffles and it was flying out the door."

Rothman did some work for the Kastems at the Choo Choo and more at the Kopper Kettle, Kim's parents' restaurant in South Range.

"They gave me the courage to branch out," Rothman said.

Still, it hasn't been easy.

Two steps forward

Just after she started painting the mural of the Fond du Lac dam at the Wabegon last year, Rothman got terrible news. Her oldest daughter, Alisa, was in a Tampa hospital in a medically induced coma because of a blood infection. Rothman flew to Florida, but her daughter didn't recover and died five days later.

She was only 30 years old, with a four-year-old son.

"It was hard for me to get back to this [mural]," Rothman said, talking through the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. "My kids, they were night and day, always scuffling when they were little. But both of them were really creative and musically inclined. They didn't play with Barbies when they were little, they'd rather get into my tools.

"I dedicated this painting to her."

Rothman still doesn't know exactly what happened in the hospital before she got there, why her daughter was in a coma and the answers to a hundred other questions. She's still hoping to get some of her questions answered, hoping her daughter's ex-boyfriend is taking good care of her grandson, hoping her youngest daughter Shenelle will live a long and happy life.

One day at a time, things get better.

After losing her Saginaw home in something she describes as a "real estate scam," Rothman now has a place to paint, a studio upstairs in a barn owned by her partner Tom O'Connell. Downstairs in the barn, she can do stained glass work, along with "carving, cutting and mess making" wood work.

They are a team. When Rothman does a drop-leaf table, O'Connell does the legs and base. When she paints an ax head, he does the shaft, out of diamond willow.

"We're so fortunate to have such a talented person in Carlton County, people should know more about her," said Wabegon bartender Bob Francisco. "I look at the pictures of the things she does and it just blows me away. I have one of her canoe paddles; I love it."

While her marketing methods are not exactly conventional - in addition to word of mouth, Rothman also sells a lot of her pieces through raffles - they seem to work.

"It seems like for every one piece I sell, I get 10 people who want me to do something for them," she said.

What exactly it will be, is anybody's guess.

And that's exactly how Rothman likes it.

Editor's note: Want to know more? Contact Rothman at or 218-384-4030.