Charles Rockey, Influential Manitou Springs Artist, Has Died

June 18, 2019
Charles Rockey in his Manitou Springs studio. (File photo, 2015)Credit Noel Black / 91.5 KRCC
Charles Rockey in his Manitou Springs studio. (File photo, 2015)

Charles Rockey, a beloved Manitou Springs painter known for his impressionistic depictions of the mountain town, died Sunday night. He was in his late 80s.

Rockey has long been a fixture of the Manitou Springs art community. His studio at the corner of Cañon Avenue and Lafayette Road -- with its blue facade and window displays full of fantastical sculptures -- is something of a local landmark.

Born in Baltimore, Rockey was raised in the suburbs of Denver and graduated from Evergreen High School, according to other local media profiles through the years. He made his way to the Art Institute of Chicago, then to Ohio State University for a master’s degree in art education. Eventually, he came to Colorado Springs, where he worked as a 7th grade art teacher for 25 years.

“7th graders were my joy, they were alive!” he told 91.5 KRCC in a 2015 interview. “We did Tiffany lamps and kites and airplanes and fantasy drawings and stuff. I was like a 7th grader, trying new things out just like they were.”

"I'm almost addicted to trying to get other people to realize that the foundation of your life is not built on money, or fame, or fortune. It's so much more," Rockey told 91.5 KRCC in a 2015 interview.

Rockey retired from teaching in the 1970s and moved to Manitou Springs, where he would spend the rest of his life devoted to his art. He developed a signature painting style: Van Gogh-like brushwork, intricate details, and subject matter ranging from Manitou Springs landscapes to Tolkien-esque fantasy scenes.

While his work was beloved -- in 2001, he sold more than 100 pieces in three hours at a rare solo show at the Business of Art Center (now the Manitou Art Center) -- he largely resisted the impulse to capitalize on his talent.

“Art and money don’t mix, I mean they really don’t,” he told 91.5 KRCC. “If you’re painting to make money, then the artwork is going to lose out. I painted because I had to paint.”

In his later years, Rockey dedicated much of his artistic energy to a book, Love Songs of Middle Time. The book consists of fables -- many written by Rockey, some penned by his daughter, Hannah, and others by friends -- which are accompanied by elaborate illustrations. It was published in 2015, and Rockey said the stories and images were all connected by the theme of love.

“To me, love has gotten to be... so significant in life,” he said in the 2015 interview with 91.5 KRCC. “I’m almost addicted to trying to get other people to realize that the foundation of your life is not built on money, or fame, or fortune. It’s so much more.”  

Across social media, friends and admirers of Charles Rockey are sharing remembrances. Adam’s Mountain Cafe, a restaurant in Manitou Springs where many of Rockey’s paintings hang on the walls, paid tribute to the artist on Facebook.

“You were as iconic to Manitou as the Springs themselves. You felt like you were part of the fabric of the town,” said the post. “Manitou Springs shines a little less brightly today.”

For Natalie Johnson, Executive Director of the Manitou Art Center and Manitou Springs Creative District, the impact of Rockey's art and spirit on the culture of Manitou Springs was profound. 

"What would Manitou Springs look like without Rockey? Would we be a certified creative district, would we have a Manitou Art Center?" she asked. "Can one person influence a community to such a degree that it really develops into a creative community? ... I think that's a possibility with Rockey, that he had that kind of influence."

In a Facebook post, Manitou Springs Mayor Ken Jaray described Rockey as “an icon.”

“Charles Rockey gave us love, art, friendship and so much more. His memory will live on and hopefully guide us forever,” wrote Jaray.