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Feeding Frenzy 

Art lovers snap up a handful of Charles Rockey originals

It is difficult to conceive of one local man's monthlong exhibit as being the art event of the year. But, by almost any objective standard, the Charles H. Rockey show currently at the Business of Art Center is exactly that.

In fact, some would argue that the showing of his work is the exhibition of the decade. That's because this is the first time in nine years that the longtime Manitou Springs resident has treated the public to a full-blown exhibit. According to BAC Executive Director Rodney Wood, Rockey has said that this may even be his last one.

Many of the 120 items for sale in the show had been reserved prior to the opening, and every sale piece was purchased within the first two-and-a-half hours. Those who were at the opening agree that it was an art feeding frenzy the likes of which may not reoccur at the BAC or anywhere else this side of New York for a long time. Potential buyers watched the progress of the sale on a big board in the front hallway while others waited until the capacity of the BAC slackened to below its legal limit. "People got caught up in the immediacy of the moment," Wood said. "It was like watching traders on the stock market."

There are over 220 articles in the exhibit, consuming all three galleries at the BAC. There are another 84 Rockey fantasy works on display down the street at Adam's Mountain Cafe, as well as a number of pieces at the Cliff House farther on.

Nonetheless, it would be difficult to saturate oneself with Rockey work because of its incredible diversity. At the BAC there are paintings from 1961, at least; Rockey says the show covers the last 50 years.

The majority of his work is two-dimensional with oil, pencil and mixed media represented. Those works fall predominantly into three categories: landscape, double imagery and fantasy. But even within the two-dimensional categories the artist shows off his mastery of a variety of techniques. For example, the landscape pieces include selections characterized by thickly applied oils, layered to give the viewer a feel for the depth of Rockey's beloved natural world. Other landscape works are portrayed flatly, in a pointillist style reminiscent of Georges Seurat.

The fantasy and double imagery works are precise and evocative, giving a glimpse into the recesses of the artist's multifaceted imagination. "It's like stepping into another universe," said BAC Exhibitions Director Heather Merriam. "It's like walking into someone's mind."

There are magnificent wood carvings and glass pieces to divert the eye as well, carefully crafted miniature villages and large furniture items. There are also a number of renderings of Rockey by other local artists like Ken and Tina Riesterer of Manitou Springs. The variety of the show makes it difficult to remember that all the work is by -- or about -- one local artist.

In spite of Rockey's amazing diversity and obvious talent, selling $285,000 worth of moderately priced artwork in less than a three-hour span is remarkable in any town. And, while the art market in Colorado Springs is developing, it doesn't come close to the art markets of Santa Fe or Dallas or Los Angeles.

But, according to Rodney Wood, Rockey is uniquely disinterested in the commercial aspects of his profession. "He doesn't paint for sales," Wood said. "He paints to paint."

In contrast to many accomplished local artists who go to great lengths to market their work, Rockey seems to take an "anti-marketing" approach to selling his pieces. Although he has a gallery in Manitou, he rarely allows visitors to purchase a piece on the spot. Rather, they are instructed to put their name on the back in anticipation of the piece being up for sale in the future.

According to Gordon Black, one of the lucky few able to purchase a Rockey piece this time around, that kind of reserve system contributes to the success of a Rockey sale. "He controls supplies so carefully," Black said. "He's saved up all the sales. Many of his paintings could have been sold years ago." Black's wife, Tracy Brogan, agrees. "I thought it might be our only opportunity to buy something," she said.

Wood says Rockey paints what he wants to paint rather than what might be popular at the time. "He never paints something because he thinks a particular gallery might be looking for smaller pieces, or because purple is hot right now," Wood said.

That doesn't mean that Rockey's subject matter is not a selling point for many of his buyers. Brogan points to the accessibility of a Rockey landscape as being a factor in his popularity. "I think his work is friendly to the public and gentle to the eye. Most of it is not hard to understand," she said. "It's visually digestible."

Rockey loves to paint the scenes around Manitou and many local buyers are drawn to the familiarity of his landscapes. Indeed, some buyers are drawn to the familiarity of the artist himself. "He's been around for 30 or 40 years and everyone knows him," Black said. "It's good to support local artists."

In addition to spending time at his Cañon Avenue studio, Rockey is something of a fixture at Adam's where he has a breakfast entree named after him. "Scrambled eggs, toast and fruit," said General Manager Farley Kaminer. "He likes it with lots of cheese," added a passing waitress.

While Adam's houses a more or less permanent collection of Rockey works, the number is up to 82 this month and most have a special caption written by Rockey's daughter Hannah.

Of course, Manitou scenes and Rockey's work also appeal to a broader range of buyers. According to Merriam, purchases were made this time by collectors from as far away as Florida.

The timing of this show may also have been fortuitous, according to some of those who bought Rockey works. Many of the landscapes are dominated by the lush greens and blues of a Manitou spring and Brogan speculates that the contrast might serve to trigger additional interest. "They portray a heady time in the dark of a frozen snowy winter," she said.

Last Thursday, a group of seniors came from Wheat Ridge to see the show and Rockey was there, shaking hands and accepting compliments, while BAC office manager David Ball tried to convince others in the group that none of the original works were available. Everything that was for sale in the show has been sold," Ball said. "But we do have prints and postcards you can buy."

"But what do all those little red dots on the tags mean?" one gentleman asked. And, looking around, it did seem surprising -- even knowing galleries mark pieces in such a way when they sell -- that there could be 120 little red dots gleaming from the walls of our humble BAC.

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