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January 11, 2001 News » Cover Story

The Rockey Road to Art 

Retrospective show of Manitou painter's work celebrates the life of a gentle giant and the tiny village he calls home.

Art bigwigs, scene aficionados and all the greater and lesser luminaries of the region's wine-and-cheese culturati are marking their calendars, marshalling their resources and wheeling out the big guns in preparation for one of the most-anticipated local art events of the past decade.

Come Jan. 27 through March 7, the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs will host atwo- to three-hundred-piece retrospective of the 50-year career of Charles Rockey, acclaimed Manitou Springs artist and favorite son.

This show figures to be for the Pikes Peak region what the Armory Show of 1913 (the one with Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase ") was for the Big Apple: a generator of legend, lore, gossip and memories for years to come.

This will be Rockey's first show in nine years, his largest and most comprehensive ever, and he says it's going to be his last. "This one," said Rockey in an interview with the Independent, "is the Big One."

The show will include the landscapes and townscapes for which he is best known, along with sculptures, carvings, an array of objets d'art and whimsical whatnots -- everything from carved eggs to pause-giving Halloween costumes and ceiling-high, Tolkein-esque tree villages -- and what he calls his "fantasies" and "double imageries."

"This really is a major event," said BAC Assistant Director Dave Ball. "Rockey has the talent and reputation to exhibit in the more prestigious galleries of Denver and Santa Fe, and they'd jump at the chance to do this show. It's a real honor for Manitou Springs and the BAC to get it."

The BAC is taking full advantage of its good fortune. "Our main gallery can exhibit 40 to 50 works," Ball related. "That's a substantial volume to devote to a single artist, but Rockey will get our entire exhibition space -- three galleries, a classroom and more. Wherever there's space to hang or display, he's going to get it."

The big one

Several factors combine to make this show memorable.

For one, most local cognoscenti deem Charles Rockey one of the two or three most important living painters of the Pikes Peak region.

"Rockey could probably have a national following if he wanted to go that route," said BAC director Rodney Wood, himself a professional artist and former gallery owner. "A career-encompassing, half-century retrospective of an artist of his magnitude is by definition 'major.'"

For another thing, Rockey meanders to a different bongoist than your typical artist. He avoids galleries, and he won't sell his work between shows.

"Artists of Rockey's talent and popularity typically show their work at several upper-tier galleries in artistically important locales," said Wood. "That's how you gain a following, sell your work and widen your reputation.

"Rockey, though, stays away from the galleries, and the only time he sells his work is when he shows it. Money just isn't that important to him. That's one of the facts making this show so anticipated -- it's the first opportunity in eight years for the public to view and purchase his work, and it may be our last."

Rockey attributes this no-gallery/no-sell policy to a horror of "going commercial."

"When I sit down to paint," he explained, "I want to go in whatever direction the moment takes me. Every endeavor should be a new challenge, each stroke of the brush leading to who knows where. That doesn't happen when I paint out of an awareness that what I'm doing will go up for sale. I start thinking about which scenes, subject matter and color schemes sell well.

"That's why I don't show at galleries or sell between shows. I want to make sure I keep taking risks, growing and developing."

This policy makes "a Rockey" hard to come by. Money alone won't get you one.

"We've joked for years about setting up a support group for people who really, really want to own a Rockey, but can't get one," Wood laughed. "And there'll be a lot more of them after this show. A lot more people will be hoping to buy than there'll be works available, and anyone missing his chance this time might not get another."

Wood predicts that Rockey fans and hopeful buyers will be lined up by the hundreds when the BAC doors open at 4:30 p.m. for the Jan. 27 opening.

"Thousands showed up for the opening of his 1992 showing, and there'll be even more this time," said Wood. "If you're hoping to buy -- especially if you have your eye on a particular work -- you're going to have to be at the front of the line, and you won't have time to browse and shop around once you get inside.

"It's nutty to have people lining up for a local art show as though it were a rock concert, but that's Rockey for you. We toyed with the idea of taking bids as a way to avoid a melee, but Rockey said no. He feels it would create a garage sale atmosphere instead of the celebration of art and community that he wants this show to be."

The realm of Rockey

Given the mostly highbrow, country-house-and-Chardonnay, High Church, L.L. Bean atmosphere more typical of the Fine Art milieu, it's hard to understand how a low-key, studiously uncommercial and deliberately local artist like Rockey can prompt such fervor.

It's easily explainable, though, if you're familiar with Rockey's work -- and doubly so if you're lucky enough to know him personally.

To begin with, Rockey is a striking physical presence. His face could serve as a model for an Albrecht Durer character study or an illustration from one of J.R.R. Tolkein's Middle Earth books. His balding dome, his eyes -- intermittently brooding and merry -- and his magnificent, Great Dane nose are framed by gray, shoulder-length hair and a wavy, chest-length beard that enthusiastically furthers the cause where the locks leave off.

That, combined with his bear-like frame, gentle bearing and patient demeanor brings to mind a 68-year-old, six-foot-two gnome -- but one who sips midnight absinthes while reading obscure Russian mystics by candlelight.

Secondly, Manitou Springs has always harbored a sizeable community of artisans, musicians, potters, healers, New Age masseurs, alternative gardeners, dharma motorcyclists, metaphysical high-techers and liberal-artsy bohemians of every stripe and hue.

As such, Rockey and Manitou are perfectly matched. It's as hard to imagine Rockey separately from Manitou Springs as it is Paul Gaugin from Tahiti, Robert Frost from New Hampshire, Henry David Thoreau from Concord, Georgia O'Keeffe from Ghost Ranch or Andrew Wyeth from Maine. If anybody is a Manitou symbol and fixture, it's Rockey.

Except when he's sleeping, out painting or gadding about, Rockey keeps the door to his studio at 20 Cañon Avenue open to any friend, raconteur, passing acquaintance or passerby with a notion to enter.

Step inside and you've entered the realm of Rockey, the domain of one who lives, breathes and totally immerses himself in art. The walls are a dense, floor-to-ceiling patchwork of paintings of all sizes with baroquely intricate frames he crafted himself. Numerous other canvases are stacked five-to-ten deep against various wall corners, partitions, chairs, chests, desks and dressers.

The studio is a rococco profusion of large-leaf plants, ornatelycarved furniture, sculptures, masks, costumes and a phantasmagoric array of whatnots and doodads. Hand-painted lampshades and fanciful light fixtures of strange devising dangle from the ceiling alongside Casablancan propeller-fans, as does a three-foot pterodactyl (a functional kite) with a maiden dangling from its beak, and a delightful DaVinci-like airplane fashioned out of twigs and leaves.

Over to the side, a Tolkein-esque treehouse twists like a helix from tabletop to ceiling alongside a magnificent wooden table with a rotund base into which Rockey has carved an ingenious series of gargolye-like figures he calls "The Three Egos." An arm's-length away sits an imposing, straight-backed love seat with its headboard and armrests carved into caricatures, nudes and leafy patterns.

Midroom is dominated by a nine-foot papier-mch torso of a nude Zeubulon Pike that Rockey says was intended to be, and will one day still be, a bronze statue. To its side is a six-foot-high dressing screen upon which Rockey has painted life-sized, Rubenesque-proportioned male and female nudes cavorting lasciviously against a backdrop of classical arcadia. Rockey cut out oval holes where their faces would be in hope of enticing visitors to peek out and ham it up.

Rockey's living quarters in the far back reaches of the studio consist mostly of a mattress on the floor adjacent to a simple, sparse and decidedly "rustic" kitchen. Fountain Creek flows by in melodious burble at the bottom of the backdoor steps.

These digs -- purchased by Rockey back in 1972 for $17,000 -- are a direct extension and manifestation of the playful irreverence and creative exuberance that drive his life and art.

If he had the inclination and were he to play his cards right, C.H. Rockey could be rich, but he lives happily in near-Franciscan frugality amid a cornucopia treasure trove of art. He still drives the red, 1954 Ford pickup he purchased back in 1957.

Becoming Rockey

Born in Baltimore in 1932, Charles Rockey came to Colorado at age 5 when his father, a career Naval officer and Annapolis graduate, contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Denver's Fitzsimmon's Army Hospital for treatment.

The family settled in Marshdale Park, a tiny mountain community near Evergreen. Rockey says it was a beautiful locale, but a tough place to grow up.

"I was a city kid suddenly thrown into the company of tough country kids who, at age 13, already had five-o'clock shadows and had been plowing fields since they could walk," he recalled. "Until the last year or so of high school, I was an outcast and source of ridicule."

The experience permanently stamped Rockey's personality, instilling a lifelong sympathy for anyone who, being different in one way or another, isn't accepted and doesn't fit in.

He found solace through art and a Thoreauvian love of nature that led him to hike, climb and roam the mountainsides every chance he got. He says he "fell into" art out of desire to capture and express his communion with nature.

"Art was my saving grace," he recalls. "It was my way of claiming legitimacy. It was how I overcame the feeling of being on the outside. To this day, I kind of connect to the world through my art."

Graduating from Evergreen High School in 1950, Rockey spent a disastrous semester at the University of Colorado -- living in a fraternity and putting far less effort into classes than into partying at Tulagi's, known at the time for selling more draft beer than any other college tavern in the United States.

When he refused to return to C.U. for the spring semester, his dad cut off financial support. Rockey's response was to finally do what he wanted above all else: head east to study art at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Supporting himself by loading freight trains all day, he attended classes at night. "I absolutely loved it," he remembers. "For the first time in my life, I was able to study art seriously in the company of committed artists."

He also reveled in "la vie de Bohme," paying $35 a month for a room in a derelict building that the city had condemned. "We had gas, but no lights or hot water," he recalls. "We lit candles when it got dark, and I rigged up some copper tubes over a stove burner to get tepid water for baths."

He remembers this interim as "a free, wild and crazy time. We had some truly memorable parties where we talked until dawn, drank all night and painted on the walls. I could have lived that life forever."

Life, however, took a more sober turn when he got married and moved into a "nicer, more normal" apartment. Acquiescing to ongoing, intense pressure from his father to "give up all this art silliness, get serious about life and become a man," Rockey enlisted in the Marines for a two-summer platoon leader's class that would culminate in a second lieutenant's commission.

In the year intervening between the first and second summer, however, Rockey's knees went bad. He was given an honorable discharge and went back to school full-time. Things looked pretty settled -- at which point Fate exercised some editorial powers and turned his life Kafkaesque.

"Here I was -- married, going to school, discharged from the Marines -- and I got a draft notice from the Army ordering me to report to such-and-such a place for induction," he explained. "It was ridiculous."

He showed up at the appointed time and place fully intending to straighten the matter out and return home by lunchtime. The Korean War was raging though, the United States was getting its tail kicked, and no wanted to hear anything about any honorable discharge, college or marriage.

"Before I knew it," he says, distress and disbelief audible in his voice, "I was being marched off to the train station along with everyone else, without so much as a toothbrush or change of clothes. I had to call my wife from the station to tell her I'd be gone for two years. To this day, I can't believe it happened. I still have nightmares about it."

He tried to get sent to Europe -- "At least I'd get to see the world a bit," he says -- but was stationed at Fort Carson for what he describes as "two of the worst years of his life."

For one, his wife disappeared without a word, prompting him to go AWOL in an unsuccessful attempt to find her.

For another, Rockey and the military are far from soulmates. "I'm not the military type," he said, "and the commanding officer was a gung-ho maniac who got off on calling us out at 3 a.m. to harangue us from the top of his jeep about being good soldiers."

Things improved a little toward the end of his Fort Carson stint when "Gung-Ho" was succeeded by "a levelheaded, basically good guy." The new commander, it turns out, was none other than Robert Isaac, a West Point grad who would go on serve as mayor of Colorado Springs from 1979 to 1997.

The teacher

Following his discharge, Rockey got married a second time and acquired an M.A. in Art Education at Ohio State.

A job in Chicago at a school for military dependents segued into a job heading up a crafts program at Fort Carson, which transitioned into a 25-year teaching career in District 11, most of it at North Junior High.

Rockey recalls these years with a mixture of fondness and trauma.

By all accounts, he was an outstanding teacher -- good with kids, patient with and sympathetic to the outsider mavericks that didn't "fit in."

"I wanted to make my students realize that art is the most important class they'd ever take," he explains. "I was less concerned with teaching them to be artists than with teaching them to be artistic -- to really pay attention, to care. In my view, artistry is a basic life skill, a tool for problem-solving, a way of living life. It doesn't matter whether you're a bricklayer, mechanic or bank robber -- if you bring attention and care to what you do, if you do it with finesse and class, that's your art."

Recalling his years of being an outsider at their age, Rockey devoted himself to reaching the kids who were hardest to reach. "I'd get all the last-chance kids no one else would take," he says.

"I put all my energies into figuring ways to reach them and help them link up to life," he said. "I would begin with a surefire success project that any student could perform, a project that would introduce him to artistry instead of convince him that it wasn't in the cards for him. We'd all bask in his feeling of accomplishment. And then, slowly, I'd expose him to more challenging projects to increase his experience of reward."

Rockey, meanwhile, never gave his students an assignment that he didn't do himself, too. Some of his most beautiful and memorable works -- a number of which will be on display at the upcoming exhibit -- are projects that he did in class in company with his students.

One such work was inspired when he was assigned a student whose face had been terribly disfigured by a fire.

"None of the kids would interact with him," he said, "so I came up with the idea a 'double-image' work wherein first glance reveals one thing, but closer inspection reveals something more interesting. The idea was to show the kids how there are different ways to look at things, and that surface appearance doesn't hold what's most interesting."

As a way of imparting this lesson, Rockey created a double-image he entitled "Azalea Fairy" wherein first glance reveals a bunch of azaleas, but closer inspection reveals a libidinous nymph in a stunning state of undress.

The lesson apparently took. The disfigured kid went on that year to be elected class president by his fellow students.

The highlight of his teaching career, said Rockey, was "the privilege of having all four of my kids -- Ivan, Noah, Sarah and Hannah -- as students during their junior high years. They all got A's. I was hoping one of them would eventually end up going out to sit with me and paint landscapes, but no such luck."

Eventually, however, the classroom left Rockey frazzled and burnt out. "I love to teach, and I gave it everything I had," he said, "but I didn't know what I was getting myself into. Anybody who thinks teachers have it easy doesn't have a clue. It's one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

"Those were tough, traumatic years," he added. "They taught me humility, survival tactics and how to derive good from extremely traumatic events."

Burnt out by teaching, left devastated by an increasing problem with alcoholism and a divorce that turned his life upside down, Rockey acted on a chance to take early retirement in 1972, moved to Manitou Springs and, for the first time in his life, devoted himself solely to art.

The upcoming show will exhibit the fruits of the 30-year love affair with the Manitou community that ensued. It will be as much Rockey's celebration of Manitou Springs as it will Manitou's celebration of Rockey.

Painter laureate

Rockey has devoted much of the past 29 years to painting, sketching and otherwise rendering the architectural oddities, winding stairways, sidestreet alleyways, out-of-the-way gardens, picturesque waysides and mountainside panoramas of Manitou Springs.

"Manitou," he explains, "combines great natural beauty with a funky, man-made beauty. I'll walk the town and a dozen scenes will call out to me, each with its own mood, aesthetic quality and unique interaction of trees, ground, houses and air. There're a million scenes to paint. I could live here three lifetimes and still not get it all down."

Similar observations and musings surface on nearly every page of the journal-notebook he religiously keeps -- as in the following entry:

"Charisma, storybook quality, charming, peaceful, quaint, picturesque, small-town flavor -- these are all words describing our town. Gentleness, empathy. The visual ingredients: winding roads, cottages facing every which way and stacked atop one another; curved stone walls, secret terraces and gardens, paths and stairs, iron and filigree. All this along with the feeling of coziness, nest-building, community and togetherness. It's wonderful to feel this good about a place. Manitou is my main reason to paint. I celebrate living here by painting it."

There are plenty of artists, though, who paint Manitou without exciting the flash of recognition, fellow-feeling and depth of response that Rockey's work almost invariably does.

That response is the key to what he wants his art to be and do. "Art isn't about making pretty things to hang on the wall," he insists. "It's a record of experience that's waiting to be re-experienced. A work of art sets up a kind of conversation between artist and viewer, and the viewer's response -- his part in the conversation -- is part of the work's meaning. The process elevates the viewer from passive observer to creative participant. It extends his being and strengthens his connection to the world."

Rockey claims that he learned this from Vincent Van Gogh when he had a chance to examine four of his works firsthand during an exhibit at the Toledo Museum.

"I spent an entire morning in mind-blown awe," he said, his eyes dancing. "I could see how every ounce of energy inside Van Gogh went into every stroke. I could feel his passion pouring out. Looking at that painting, I was able to experience what was in his heart while he painted, as though I were actually there with him.

"That's what I want my work to do," he explained. "I want to achieve that intensity of relationship, that intimate connection, with my viewers."

Admirers of Rockey's work argue that it is precisely this ability to nudge the viewer into participatory engagement that lends his work its distinctive charm, power and appeal. People respond to a Rockey painting.

As fellow-artist, Manitouan and admirer Tina Reisterer puts it, "Rockey is a great painter because everything he's ever been through up to that moment goes into his art. When you look at a Rockey, you're participating in piece of his life as it was at that moment on that afternoon. It's that quality that separates the person who paints from the person who is an artist."

Though he works in a variety of modes and genres -- landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, fantasies, double-images, sculpture, doodads -- everything Rockey produces resonates with a play of whimsy, sensual pleasure, cheerful irreverence and love for his subject.

"There's a certain character, a certain flair and attitude of adventurous play that makes anything by him instantly identifiable," agrees Wood. "You don't need a signature to absolutely know it's a Rockey."

Rockey's work is almost always animated and enlivened by a kind of double pull, a kind of arm wrestling between seriousness and whimsy, with the winner in doubt.

On the one hand, a Rockey always invites the viewer out to play. "Art," as he puts it, "shouldn't be held in such high regard that you whisper in its presence.

"I've learned," he adds in the same vein, "that there's something wrong with the painting if every stroke I'm making doesn't give me a kick."

On the other hand, Rockey always has something serious up his sleeve.

"Even at my most playful," he cautions, "there's always something sober going on. In my fantasy paintings, I journey to exotic places filled with romance, grand adventure and visual delight, but I'm also making a moral point about how people treat each other.

"My double-images are meant to be fun, too, but they always illustrate the lesson that there are different ways to look at things and that you see the most interesting things by looking below the surface."

One "gets" Rockey, then, by picking up on and responding to the "play" -- the dialogue between artist and viewer, the healthy double pull of irreverence and faith, the Freudian tension between above-surface and below-surface -- integral to his style.

Rockey hopes, by means of that "play," to make the viewer understand the world as "a magical place" where his own daily experience is alive with delight, mystery and wonder.

"When people look at my Manitou paintings," he writes in his journal workbook, "I want them to say, 'Oh, yeah,' that's my street,' but I also want them to say, 'You know, I never thought of my street as an artistic scene before.' I hope my work makes them see how their own streets, towns and lives have beauty and interest. Also, though, I want them to experience the love I felt while painting mine."

By all appearances, Manitou is plenty willing to come out to play.

As noted by Wood, "This town is permeated with Rockey's vision, philosophy and personality. Restaurants, stores, churches, schools, libraries, private homes, even City Hall -- anywhere you go, there's a Rockey."

To Rockey, that's reward enough.

"I love it when people get off on seeing my stuff," he said. "That's my pay. I don't have life insurance or stocks. My paintings are what I'll have to leave my kids. My artwork is me."

People recognize in Rockey the embodiment of something fundamentally decent. They see a life lived with passion, finesse and honesty. They see "artistry."

"He's paid his dues and remained true to his vision," Tina Reisterer observes. "As popular as he is, I think few people recognize how good Rockey's work really is."

Wood, though, relates an anecdote that suggests the place Rockey has won for himself in Manitou life.

"Fountain Creek runs directly in back of Rockey's place," Wood says. "When flooding back in the spring of 1998 put his place in jeopardy, a whole bunch of people showed up spontaneously -- boom! instantly! -- to help haul his hundreds and hundreds of artworks out of harm's way.

"He didn't even know a lot of those people, and many of them didn't know each other. What brought them together was Rockey.

"That's what I call an important artist."

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