by Dennis Dalman
When part of the Verso paper mill exploded on Memorial Day, one Sartell resident at the scene just minutes after the disaster was so stunned by what he saw that he decided later to paint a picture of it.
Bud Netka, a long-time artist, lives in Fischer’s Gardens, a mobile-home park about a quarter mile south of Verso on Benton Drive. At about 11:20 a.m. Monday, May 28, Netka heard a loud explosion that rocked his double-wide mobile home. He grabbed his camera, jumped into his truck and drove to within five blocks of the Verso plant. He walked for several blocks until he was just about across the street from the paper warehouse that exploded.
“It was like being at the State Fair because there were so many people gathered there,” Netka recalled. “I saw the flames and all the black smoke. I took a couple pictures.”
Back home, some days later, he looked at the photos and decided to paint the catastrophic scene.
Even though the explosion was a tragedy in which a worker died, it oddly enough brought Netka out of what he calls a “slouch” – a dry spell during which he didn’t do any paintings. He found a smallish canvas in his house. Using his acrylic paints, he began to paint and finished the painting with no hesitations. He realized he had conquered the “slouch,” ready to do more paintings.
Netka, 58, has been painting for 37 years. And even before he ever handled a paint brush, he had been an excellent pencil-sketcher.
One day, in seventh grade, a friend showed him a painting of a sailboat he’d created. Netka was impressed, so much so he decided to try painting himself. He went and bought a veritable suitcase full of oil paints and launched into what would become a lifetime hobby. His first picture was a still life of fruit – pineapple, apples, oranges.
He was happy to realize he had a knack for painting, a hobby to which he brought a deep and abiding passion.
Born in Minneapolis, Netka lived in several Twin Cities suburbs while growing up. He moved from St. Cloud to Sartell six years ago after an acquaintance suggested he buy a mobile home in Fischer’s Gardens.
His home, which is virtually an art museum, is practically wall-to-wall paintings – art by Bud Netka. Mostly, his paintings are depictions of northern outdoor scenes: lakes, rock outcroppings, hills, fields, deep woods, moose, deer, eagles and other flora and fauna. To this day, some of his outdoor paintings are inspired by memories of when he camped and fished on lake islands in Canada when he was a boy.
Netka is constantly inventive with his painting hobby. One time, for instance, he found a rock about the size of a small fist that looked so much like a shoe he painted it as a “shoe” – shoelaces and all. Two years later, he found another rock that looked like a virtual twin of his other shoe-rock. Now he’s got a matching pair. Another painted rock looks like a baseball that went a little haywire.
Now retired because of a bad back, Netka has worked nearly every kind of labor job imaginable, most often as a custodian. He also did an 18-month stint as a firefighter in Punta Gorda, Fla. when he lived in nearby Port Charlotte.
Tragedy struck his life when his wife, Dawn, gave birth to a baby girl with spina bifida. Even though doctors said the girl, Vanessa, would not live much longer than two years, she defied those gloomy expectations and went on to live until age 7, when she died in 1993.
“She had a happy life,” Nettka said. “We took her everywhere with us and didn’t treat her any different(ly)w than we would any child.”
Vanessa’s demise was heartbreaking because she was in need of an intestinal operation and a kidney transplant. The Netkas and their friends did a series of frantic fundraisers to try to come up with the $500,000 they were told the operations would cost. The media broadcast their plight, and one day a place in Philadelphia called the Netkas, a place called The Baby Factory that would do the operations. Vanessa was all ready to go after a kidney became available. However, famed baseball star Mickey Mantle received the kidney rather than Vanessa. Mantle died a week later. Vanessa also died that same week.
“She was the only child we had,” Netka said. “Vanessa had a happy life, and that makes me happy.”
Through all of his life, through the highs and the lows, Netka found a sustaining solace through his painting hobby.
“I’ll paint on anything,” he said.
And he’s not kidding. His truck is a veritable mobile art work. On the back is a scene of a guy in a raincoat camping on an island. On one side is a couple of people in a canoe. On a door there is an air-brushed painting of two deer. And also on that same side are two moose.
His mobile art work is a real head-turner. He likes to tell people the truck is his business card. And when people see that truck, they have no doubt the guy driving it really, really loves to paint.