Opinion: Manitou loses its prince

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As the news of Manitou Springs artist Charles Rockey’s death erupted on social media Monday afternoon, I thought of the famous line from Julius Caesar: “When beggars die there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

Rockey wasn’t merely a prince. He was a man who embodied the spirit of his chosen city, an artist deeply and passionately engaged with his home. His was a cheerful, giving life. For nearly five decades, he painted scenes in and around Manitou, both celebrating and helping to create that quirky little city. He rarely sold his work, preferring to lend paintings out for indefinite periods. And he tended to lose track of the paintings.

“I suppose they’ll come back after I’m dead,” he told me years ago with a chuckle, “unless they’ve forgotten they have them.”

Nowadays, few ambitious artists stay anchored in in small cities (even ones as cool as Manitou). The accepted narrative: if you have talent and ambition, you need to head for the big city. You take your shot, living in the chaos and ferment of New York, L.A., London or Chicago, trying to separate yourself from thousands of other wannabe famous artists. With luck, talent, charisma and brilliance, you can make it big. You can be Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons or Cindy Sherman. You might rise to the top as Chris Ofili did in 1998, when then-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani tried ban Ofili’s painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” from a show at the Brooklyn Museum. Giuliani was offended because the painting included lumps of elephant dung on the canvas. Artists, museum curators and collectors didn’t care what Rudy thought. Billionaire hedge funder Steve Cohen eventually acquired the painting for $4.5 million and gave it to the Museum of Modern Art.

Of African/Caribbean origin, Ofili was born in 1968 in Manchester, England. He grew up there, moved to London at 20 to attend the Chelsea School of Art, and was already recognized internationally when Rudy went after him. Since 2005, Ofili has lived in Port of Spain, Trinidad, perhaps seeking a more authentic and welcoming place to live.

Most artists that settle down in a small city live in obscurity. They’re small business owners, selling their paintings, sculpture, jewelry or design skills to local buyers. Some can support themselves by selling their work, but most have other gigs. Healthy cities support and foster such creative webs, finding ways to nurture businesses, galleries, artists and collectors. Rockey was unique and irreplaceable, but he was also part of a vital, self-renewing Colorado creative universe.

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That symbiotic universe may have begun in 1820, when Samuel Seymour painted “View of James Peak.” Seymour was the artist accompanying Maj. Stephen Long’s expedition to Rockies. The subject of his painting, James Peak — named after the first European known to have scaled it, expedition botanist Edwin James — has a different name nowadays: Pikes Peak.

The expedition camped along Fountain Creek but decades would pass before there were resident artists in the Pikes Peak Region. Beginning around 1873, when Walter Paris came to town with the Hayden Survey, artists began to ply their trade in Colorado Springs and Manitou.

The facile Paris was the little city’s first resident artist, and his precise paintings show the early days of Colorado Springs and Manitou in color. Paris would soon be joined by dozens of others, including portraitists Anne and Tom Parrish, landscape artist Leslie Skelton and western fabulist Charles Craig, who opened his studio in the city’s downtown opera house in 1880. They were business-oriented entrepreneurs who understood that their success depended upon the city’s growth and prosperity.

The city thrived and they stayed. Twentieth century artists Archie Musick, Tabor Utley, Lew Tilley, Mary Chenoweth, Ernestine Parsons and Francis Drexel Smith lived most of their adult lives in Colorado Springs. Like scores of their peers, they were competent and successful artists. They built and sustained the community, but fame and fortune eluded them. That was probably OK with them — they were lively and active participants in a fun, supportive arts environment.

Today, our arts community is as strong as it has ever been. I try to do my part, collecting minor works by local artists from Walter Paris to Phil Lear. I don’t have one of Rockey’s works, though. Sure wish I’d settled in Manitou Springs in 1981 and borrowed a couple…

Photo courtesy of Eli Epstein.

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