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Richard Saholt (1924–2014)

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Richard Saholt (1924–2014)

For Richard Saholt, the anger and rage have ended. The emotional torment that marked his earliest years, the demonic voices that accompanied him across the war-torn ski slopes of the Italian alps during World War II and followed him back home to Minnesota – along with a mounting resentment that fueled the expression of more than a thousand anguished art works created over the past 40 years – has all, finally, been laid to rest. Saholt died at the age of 89 on Jan. 12, 2014 at Providence Place nursing home in Minneapolis. Cause of death: basil cell carcinoma (multiple sites); secondary cause: schizophrenia.

“Doctors told me I was born schizophrenic,” he said. By his own account, schizophrenia was present on both his mother’s and father’s sides of the family. Throughout his life, he railed against his sadistic, mentally-ill father who, among other things, forced him to be right-handed, despite his natural proclivity to be a lefty. His mortician father also once made him dress the cadaver of a young boy his own age and, another time, told him to take a bushel basket and collect the dismembered body parts of a man who had been hit by a train.

The psychologically damaged and stuttering 18-year-old Saholt enlisted in the U.S. Army’s elite Tenth Mountain Ski Troop Division during World War II. On more than one occasion, the voices in his head saved his life. They screamed “Duck!” at one point, and when he raised himself up he found that the heads of the infantrymen around him had been blown off by mortar fire. As he and his comrades approached a German fortification, the voices yelled “Charge!” and he, armed with a rifle, bayonet and hand grenades, singlehandedly attacked the compound and captured 13 German officers.

Although he received a Bronze Star for his actions, the Veterans Administration (VA) refused to award him any disability payments for his back and leg injuries, his blackouts stemming from concussions, or his post-traumatic stress disorder. After decades of writing letters, hiring lawyers and losing court cases, he finally discovered in 1969 that upon enlistment he had been diagnosed with chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia and labeled “one of the most bizarre and genuinely crazy” people to be admitted into the military. At long last in 1974, he was given a small monthly stipend and 3 years back pay, but Saholt continued to battle with the VA to the end of his life for financial restitution of the remaining 30 years he went without any disability.

By the 1990s, Saholt achieved a modest kind of fame with a growing and powerful body of collage art that combined lurid commercial illustrations with words or phrases appropriated from printed magazine and newspaper headlines. His arresting and obsessively composed images shrieked of the terror of war and horrors of mental illness, and resembled a cross between a National Enquirer cover and a ransom note writ large. What Saholt could not express verbally because of his stuttering and social ineptitude, he exhibited visually in a blazing and magnificent fashion. They were disturbing and uncomfortable to view, but no artist had ever made a more guileless cry for help.

Unfortunately, as the ravages of his mental illness took their toll over the years, Saholt saw himself not only as the victim of his father’s cruelty and the VA’s ingratitude, but increasingly he began to turn on the very people who tried to befriend and help him. Over the years, a number of well-intentioned acquaintances tried to serve as his agent or spokesperson, but were ultimately all rejected by the artist whose paranoia would invariably make him suspicious of what he saw as their “ulterior motives.” The only one who remained close to him and earned his unwavering trust was his wife of nearly 60 years, Doris, whom he had met in a class where he was taking voice lessons for his stuttering. Shortly after Doris died in 2011, Saholt wrote the following letter. Perhaps it serves as a fitting end to his obituary:

Dear Doris:
You were one in a million. I mean this sincerely. No other woman could have handled it. It was the best day of my life when I met you at that voice studio. You have saved my life hundreds of times over the years. I thank you tremendously for never running out on me. Thanks again for everything.
Your Most Loving Husband,
Richard Saholt
P.S. Till we meet again & I hope that day comes soon.

– Michael Bonesteel