At 83, Charles Rockey is Manitou Springs' most beloved artist and a living symbol of the town's colorful past. He's made art in his comfortably cluttered Cañon Avenue storefront studio for more than half a century, with hundreds of light-filled impressionist canvases depicting scenes around town.
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 simply invites to a gallery 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 [at the Manitou Art Center, then the Business of Art Center, in 2001] was quite sad," he says. "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."
Since then, Rockey hasn't done much painting. For 14 years, he's focused on an ambitious publishing project.
It's a profusely illustrated book of love stories, which will be released in an initial run of 1,000 copies this weekend. The work is extraordinarily beautiful, with an elaborately embossed cover and gorgeous binding, and utterly unlike anything Rockey has ever attempted.
Rockey's title suggests this is no ordinary volume: Love Songs of Middle Time Echoed through Illuminations and Fables — by C.H. Rockey together with Friendfolk.
"I liked 'illuminations' instead of 'illustrations,'" says Rockey, "because that's what I want to do. The book is about one thing — love."
He created more than 100 original illustrations for the book, which accompany written "fables."
"I wrote about 60," he says, "my daughter Hannah wrote about 30, and friends wrote — I don't know, 25 or 30."
How many words?
"About 3½ pounds," Rockey answers, hoisting the massive tome from his lap.
Love Songs may be Rockey's swan song. His face is as craggy and weathered as the Pikes Peak granite that underlies his beloved Manitou Springs. But his clear blue eyes still sparkle with mischievous delight. He might be Gandalf, or Gimli, or the benevolent ruler of an ancient kingdom.
"I used to have my bed right there next to the [storefront] window," he says, "and look at the view I had! That lilac bush across the street, the mountains, and look at that tree — that new green, it changes every minute. I give nature an A-plus."
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 says, "you're not an artist, but a manufacturer."
As Rockey explains the book's cover, his finger traces the journey of life, from infancy to adulthood, to death and beyond.
"You see that couple going into the light in the center?" he asks. "I hope that people will see that as entering the book and experiencing love. Love is the foundation of living."
At $385 per copy, the book won't be cheap.
"I don't care about the money," Rockey says, "but it was very expensive to produce. The printing and binding will cost $200,000, so we have to get that back. The printer told me that I had to pay it all up front, but I told him, 'Wait a minute — that's not the way things work.'"
The printer relented, and the books are now safely ensconced.
"The guy who owns Garden of the Gods Trading Post — Tim Haas Jr. — heard that I needed some space, and he just let me use his building," says Rockey. "That's the way people are in Manitou, and that's why I love this place so much."
The book will be released for sale on May 30. The release will anchor a citywide, weekend-long "Celebration of Love" (on.fb.me/1cgqxDb), to include a "Bike Ride of Love" delivering goods to animal shelters, the "Art with Passion" special exhibit at the Manitou Art Center, and many other events.
Rockey's book will be on sale at the MAC, the Manitou Springs Library, SunWater Spa, Miramont Castle, The Cliff House and several other venues. Ever the unconventional marketer, Rockey is optimistic.
"I think we'll sell a thousand books," he says. "I've been signing them all week. It's hard work, but I have help. You know, I'm not as sharp as I was."
He pauses for a minute. "There are lots of things I can't remember now," he says, pointing to the cherubs on the book's cover. "When all my memory goes, I want to go — just like this, pure love, like an infant when he's first born, just love, up there with the angels."
A reporter observes that he doesn't look much like a cherub. Maybe God instead?
"Nope!" Rockey replies with a smile. "Maybe an assistant God, though."