Once upon a time in the early 1970s, an aspiring artist whose father had cautioned him against a life of frivolous pursuits headed slightly west and found his true north.
“The moment I got over that hill from the Springs and entered Manitou, it was like, ‘Hey, this is it. This is where I want to live,’ ” said Charles Rockey, the affectionate godfather of the Manitou Springs arts scene, who turned 87 last month. “Manitou is kind of fairy tale land for me. It’s just magical. I can’t imagine a better place to be.”
In the decades since Rockey settled his family and workshop in a historic three-story building fronting Cañon Avenue, the artist, writer and illustrator — who prefers to loan or give away his work, rather than sell it — estimates he has painted scenes of the town almost a thousand times.
“And none of them look the same,” he said, gazing out the big front window of his workshop and storefront-level apartment on an early May morning last year. “This is the best view of Manitou in town: Clock, mountains behind it, the birds, and the big tree right there that’s just starting to look green. I love it, and to me, that’s the bottom line. That’s where all the beauty comes from: Love.”
The handwritten sign taped to the window of Rockey’s shop reads “Artwork: intentional and unintentional.” But just to be clear: Nothing here is exactly accidental.
“It’s like everything he touches is a piece of art, something he made into a piece of art: The love seat, the windows that were broken that he turned into a beautiful design,” said longtime friend and fellow Manitou Springs artist Tina Riesterer. “It’s like his every breath is about making art.”
If not for the high ceilings and sidelong sunlight, the space inside Rockey’s workshop could be a dust-moted rummage shop in Middle Earth. The walls are stacked with paintings and every flat surface is choked with art, found and created. Much of the furniture has a face, somewhere. A 10-foot-tall statue of a dressed-down Zebulon Pike, the prototype for an erstwhile public installation that didn’t pan out, looms large beneath a dangling dragon-kite whose talons clutch a doll-damsel that, as Rockey explains it, is not in distress but freshly rescued from an unwelcome suitor.
“Everything here, they’re all good guys,” he said. “And everybody’s got a story.”
As for the artworks’ good-guy creator, his story begins in Baltimore, continues in the mountains of Evergreen and ultimately takes a pivotal twist in the Springs, where Rockey was living when he was drafted into the Army and wound up teaching pottery to troops at Fort Carson.
“I thought I was going to see the world, but they put me four miles away from home,” said Rockey, who went on to teach art at schools in the Springs for almost 30 years.
Even back then, he wasn’t the type to leave his “work” at the “office.” His daughter Hannah said she has no complaints about growing up in her dad’s Tolkienesque habitat, though it was an upbringing that nonetheless led to occasional awkward moments.
“I’d go to friends’ houses, and it’s, like, ‘Where’s your naked man and your gargoyle? Where’s the naked ladies in your furniture?’” said Hannah, an artist, actor and teacher, who fondly recalls family jaunts in a camper her father built, from scratch, and decked out with “beds and stoves and gargoyles.”
Back at their Cañon Ave. home, the decor was that, and then some.
“Our house is artwork. There is not a plumbing piece, not an inkwell, a bird nest, a rock, an egg carton, that is not artwork,” said Hannah, who now lives in the apartment upstairs. “Dad lives art. Dad is art.”
Linda Morlan moved to Manitou in 1978, and by the time her official introduction to Rockey happened a few years later, over a game of Ms. Pac-Man at a downtown watering hole, she said part of her felt like she already knew him.
“Everywhere you’d go, you’d see him painting, all over town, in any kind of weather. And his door was always open,” said Morlan, whose husband, Rob, began creating a life-sized sculpture of Rockey in 2006. The goal is to install the sculpture in a public location downtown once it's complete.
Rockey liked the idea of a sculpture being raised to celebrate art, and him by association, but making money from his creations is a thing that’s always rubbed him the wrong way.
“He’s always been very loving and giving and caring. He’d give you the shirt off his back, and he’d rather give away his art than sell it,” Linda Morlan said.
Rockey’s first, and only, public art show and sale, in 2001, left a lasting impression.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of people waiting in line in a blizzard, and everything sold out in maybe half an hour,” said Hannah. “Dad was really sad and said he’d never do that again. He wanted people to choose a painting because that was the one they were in love with, not because they better grab one before they all go. Giving away or selling a painting feels like giving up a child. He loves them that much.”
“Love Songs of Middle-Time” was, in a way, his solution. The elaborately inked three-pound tome, published in 2015, contains more than 115 love songs and fables.
“Love, to me, is the most essential thing in a person’s life,” Rockey said. “You’ve got to love life, love what you’re doing, love everything.”
Dave Ball joined Rockey to bring the book to life about 20 years ago, around the time Rockey put up his paintbrush (mostly) for good, to focus on writing and illustrating.
“It was great working with him. A lot of times, I would consider something finished and Rockey would add something to it I never would have considered,” said Ball, who did the book’s layout. “The thing about Rockey that inspires me is that he raised a family, was a teacher for 30 years and yet remained devoted to his creativity, which he shared with everybody. Everyone just loves him.”
Ball was in the basement when flood waters slammed down the mountain in 2013, temporarily trapping him and leaving four feet of smoke-smelling mud that threatened years of the artist’s stored paintings and drawings. Most of the pieces could be saved, but a collection of original detail illustrations Rockey created for the text of “Love Songs” were destroyed.
“We had maybe 200 people a day showing up down here to help clean up, all that week after,” Hannah said. “That’s Manitou for you.”
Surviving original illustrations created for “Love Songs” can be seen today at Miramont Castle, while Rockey’s landscapes hang at The Cliff House and Adam’s Mountain Cafe. His daughter and friends set up a side room to sell prints out of the Cañon Avenue space, but Rockey doesn’t market his work and isn’t represented by a gallery. He also never kept records of the pieces he loaned out.
“He’s like a Van Gogh, not out to make a dollar, more about the inspiration and devotion to the art,” Ball said.
That devotion remains, even though it’s been a few months since Rockey has felt up to doing the sketches and poems that used to flow through every free moment. He still has plans, though, including finishing a collection of wisdom he calls the Sixteen Manners of Being.
“If you were to have all these 16 with you, you’d be living the best life in the world,” he said. “You’d be the richest person that could be. Rich as in fulfilled, not like money.”