Rockey's Last Major Exhibit - January 2001



The Rockey Road to Art - Part A

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

By Bob Campbell - 2001

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.

The Artist - His Art - Love Songs of Middle-Time Book - Manitou Springs