Manitou artist on quest for lost painting

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Artist Charles Rockey in his Manitou Springs studio.

Artist Charles Rockey in his Manitou Springs studio.

Charles Rockey’s face is as weathered and comfortable as the Manitou Springs studio where he has produced countless paintings of the town over the past 50 years.

His artwork has brought him much fame and certainly a bit of fortune. The Canon Avenue studio, which doubles as living quarters and a card shop, has been a landmark for decades. It is where he typically chats with visitors, seated in a 19th century English Windsor chair and surrounded by some of his works and furniture featuring nymphs and other fantastical creatures.

Letters, notebooks, cards and a stack of unopened bills cover an ancient oak table. “These come last,” he says with a gentle smile. “I really don’t like (dealing with) money.”

Indeed. As has been his custom, no sign advertises Rockey’s paintings; no prices are posted. His works cannot be purchased except during a sale that he holds every 10 years or so.

Instead, as he has over the decades, Rockey loans his paintings to restaurants, to churches, to friends and even to casual acquaintances. Of the “thousand or so” paintings that he has created, as many as 300 are out on loan at the moment.

The former North Junior High School art teacher records the loans on ledger books, or on scraps of paper that he sometimes misplaces.

That is how he lost track of his favorite painting, a 36-inch-by-24-inch rendition of a woman sitting in the lush, light-filled gardens of Manitou’s Miramont Castle on a long-vanished summer day.

“Her name was Jan,” Rockey says, showing a greeting card. “This is just a reproduction of part of the painting. I painted that scene other times, but she was in this one … she was a friend.”

Rockey loaned the painting “to someone” 15 years ago.

“It was to a man,” he said, “but that’s all I can remember. Maybe if you publish the photo in your paper, someone will recognize it.”

An unorthodox approach

Most professional artists spend as much time marketing their creations as they do making them. The quest for shows, for gallery representation and for affluent collectors is part of the package. Yet Rockey, arguably the region’s most successful artist, hardly markets his paintings at all.

And when he does, he invites everyone who has asked to buy a painting from him, as well as his friends and neighbors from a lifetime spent in the Pikes Peak region.

“The last one (held at the Business of Arts center on Jan. 27, 2001) was quite sad,” he said. “People flew out from California and arrived just before the sale. It had snowed, and there wasn’t enough room inside, so they had to wait in the snow. When they finally got in, there was no more art. I felt terrible.”

To a point, of course, because, after all, art is about making money, too.

Yet perhaps not to Rockey.

“Money has nothing to do with art,” he says. “I didn’t want my art mixed up with money. I want my art where people can see it, not hidden away.”

That’s why 47 of his paintings are on loan to Adam’s Mountain Café, another 21 to the Cliff House, a dozen to the Congregational Church, and as many to the Olive Branch restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs.

He doesn’t charge for the paintings, or ask for a security deposit, or even ask the recipients to insure them.

Some of the recipients of Rockey’s casual generosity have taken advantage of the artist’s goodwill.

“The other day someone called me and said that he’d inherited a painting from his mother, and wanted me to buy it back,” Rockey said. “When he told me more, I knew it was a loan — but he just hung up. He never told me his name.”

A book in the making

Because his Canon Avenue address gets so many visitors, Rockey no longer uses the building to paint.

“You see how it is,” he says. “People walk in, and when they walk out, other people walk in, so I have another little place around the corner.”

In his working studio, reached by crossing a rickety bridge over Fountain Creek, Rockey shows a visitor his current project.

It’s a profusely illustrated book of love stories, which will be published next March in an edition of 1,000 copies. The release party is scheduled to be held at the Cliff House.

It may also coincide with Rockey’s next decennial sale.

The book’s swirling, complex images, influenced by artists Alphonse Mucha, William Morris and 1960s psychedelia, are very unlike Rockey’s gentle Manitou landscapes.

“If you paint the same thing over and over,” Rockey said, “you’re not an artist, but a manufacturer.”

“I’ve been working on it for 10 years,” he said. “It’s not corny love stuff. We’re talking about the real thing.”

Unlike his paintings, the books will be available for sale, not as loaners.