Roy David Rogers: A Profile
As you can imagine, a name like Roy Rogers can cause quite a bit of kidding. But Roy David Rogers is no singing cowboy. In addition to being an accomplished artist, he’s also a professor at National University.
Rogers sits on a couch in the living room of his Escondido home, which offers panoramic views of the valley below. He’s dressed comfortably in a black shirt and blue jeans, which complement his silver hair and beard. Almost everywhere you look, there are examples of his creativity and eccentric personality. Above the fireplace, a model train is suspended in motion, coming out of a tunnel in the wall. It hangs in midair where the track ends. Upon closer inspection, you can see that Rogers has placed miniature passengers in the crazy scene, some of which are leaping from the doomed train. His eyes smile from behind his dark-rimmed glasses as he points out his creation.
Born in Lake Elsinore, CA in 1946 and raised in Los Angeles, Rogers majored in art in high school, but it was difficult for him to envision art as a profession at that time.
“My parents were normal working-class people, you know, my father built houses,” says Rogers. “So they didn’t actually encourage me.”
After graduating high school, Rogers attended a community college in Los Angeles, but did poorly and soon dropped out. It was the mid-1960’s, and the Vietnam War was in raging. Less than one year later, Rogers was drafted. Soon after, he joined the Navy.
After his service, Rogers decided to give college another shot. Using his GI Bill, he enrolled at Arizona State, this time majoring in architecture. He felt that architecture was a good way to make a real living while drawing upon his creative nature. But eventually Rogers grew weary of the program.
“At the time I was going to school there, the program was really more engineering than it was an art, and that didn’t interest me at all,” he says. “And everyone seemed to agree in the program that I had a lot of talent and that my buildings were very interesting, but they’d probably fall down.”
It was during this time that Rogers discovered the art department, and began taking classes in art education. In a way, his choice to study art education was an effort to show his parents that he was doing something that they may consider to be worthwhile. It was at this point in his life that Rogers decided that he would make a serious commitment to being an artist.
“I made a decision that no matter what happened to me or how my life played out, that’s what I was going to do,” he says. “And I just sort of went after it. Sink or swim, here I go.”
His studio, which is a converted garage he jokingly refers to as his “two-car studio”, Rogers shows his series of miniature homes. He’s dubbed them “One Hundred Days of Solitude”, after the novel of the same name by author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many of them are elaborately detailed, some sitting high atop pedestals or stands. One is covered with playing cards, another is surrounded by sand. The series was shown at Grossmont College in 2000.
“They’re meant to be funny in a way,” laughs Rogers. “Sort of little stories of my life.”
There are also a series of toys in the studio that Rogers has modified. A couple of years ago, he and some friends did a show of this series, which he describes as ”toys from toys.” He points out a black battleship with legs attached to it, and guns protruding from every conceivable spot.
Rogers also re-designed a Clue board game, which is complete with different characters and a more complex story than the original.
“In this game you don’t try to find out who the murderer is,” explains Rogers. “You may become the murderer.”
In the 1970’s, while working in a gallery and practicing an old form of print-making, he was introduced to Françoise Gilot, who had been Pablo Picasso’s lover, and the mother of two of his children. Rogers and Gilot soon became close friends. One day, Rogers confided in Gilot that he had decided to be a painter, and that he needed to go to Paris to study. She told him that he should stay at her home. He needed little convincing.
“So in 1978 or so, I packed up all my stuff and moved to Paris,” he says. “I really didn’t have any plans of coming back.”
Eventually he did return to the states. After working several part time jobs which allowed him to scrape by, Rogers really began to feel that he wasn’t getting anywhere. After some soul-searching and working in solitude, he began showing his work and experiencing success.
Soon after, Rogers began working as a substitute teacher. He found that the schedule worked well for him, and taught only Tuesday through Thursday, which allowed him four solid days to focus on his art.
At this juncture in his life, Rogers felt a creative shift take place within himself.
“Even though it was very personal and I knew the people I was painting and that kind of stuff, I had this nagging sense that I wasn’t really talking about anything that I wanted to talk about,” he says. “The thing that was really motivating me at that point was that I had this kind of skewed vision of family. I was adopted before I was born and I never knew who my biological parents were.”
Rogers feels that his adoption was the cause of his deep-rooted sense of abandonment. Later on, his adopted parents ended all contact, favoring his first wife over him.
“I started looking at family, emotionally, and what it meant, and in a way, it really didn’t mean anything to me because all the people I knew who were quote family, they’re not related to me,” he says.
Rogers then began collecting old black and white photographs, some of friends and family, while others were found in antique and thrift stores. And so he began a series of paintings about family, using the photographs as a way to express the fact that the people in them were family, but not his own.
From a distance, the paintings appear to be plain black and white photographs. But they certainly are not; Rogers has painted the pictures to look exactly like a photograph, in turn creating his idea of a “skewed vision of family.”
Several examples of this series hang on the walls of Rogers’ home, one of which took third place in a show in San Bernardino.
When the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art finally opened one of its shows to artists who lived and worked in San Diego, Rogers’ work was displayed.
“So I got into that show,” he says. “I was still pretty young then, like early thirties, and everyone who was in it, we all felt like, wow, we just got like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”
While Rogers was happy with the success of his family photo painting series, he didn’t want to be known for that alone, or to be expected to produce the same kind of work in the future.
So in order to prevent this from happening, Rogers stopped painting. He showed his work at some galleries in Los Angeles, but explains that it took him a couple of years to regenerate.
“I started working with the theoretical side of art,” he says. “And trying to understand it from a different perspective rather than what I had always read to believe and been taught to believe and what it was, and what it is.”
Rogers then embarked on what he called a “failed experiment to sort of re-invent the wheel”, in which he tried to work out a system that incorporated representation within abstraction. He was looking for an ideal balance between the two. And so he began painting still-life with a unique spin. Even though he wasn’t particularly happy with the outcome in the beginning, he did grow quite fond of the series of work that resulted.
After placing a piece in a show at Palomar College, Rogers was invited to teach painting and drawing classes there. He ended up staying for almost 15 years and enjoyed it, but he the administration was more interested in teaching art the traditional way, while he wanted to teach a more modern version.
In 1996, Rogers had a series of heart-attacks.
“I had angioplasty, then went back to work for about another month and I had another heart attack. I barely made it to the hospital on time to get the drug that could clear that up a bit otherwise I would have been a goner,” he says.
While in the hospital, Rogers came down with the flu. His doctors were leery of performing bypass surgery on him in his weakened state. Then, while he was recovering, he suffered another heart attack. Luckily, at the time of this third attack, the doctor on call was one of the best heart surgeons in the United States.
“They gave me all new wiring,” he says. “I woke up five days later from an induced coma with tubes running out of every orifice of my body. They told me later that they had put me on a drug with the initials LFD, and the doctors and nurses joked that it they called it ‘leave him for dead’. They didn’t think that I was going to come back, and for some reason I did.”
In 1990 a general rule was enacted requiring anyone teaching at the college level to have a master’s degree. At the time, Rogers was the only professor at Palomar College who was teaching with a BA. And so he applied for graduate school at UCSD, walking away three years later with his MFA.
Stacked neatly against one wall of his studio are many of Rogers’ paintings from the 1980’s.
“I guess it was sometime in the late 80’s that I gave up trying to sell to galleries,” he says. “And since then I haven’t shown many places other than schools, museums and exhibition spaces.”
A few years ago, however, he began showing a few things at the municipal gallery in Escondido. Rogers explains that he’s more interested in the art and personal satisfaction that it gives him rather than any financial rewards.
“I’d really rather kind of avoid it,” he says of fame and fortune. “Because it places all sorts of restrictions on you. And there are all sorts of people who want to make you do certain things.”
In a corner near the door of his studio is Rogers’ curious collection of bibles. He had been collecting them for some time and was planning to make a pillar of them, but it didn’t quite work out the way he wanted it to. He likes having them, but is still in the process of finding a creative use for the dozens of bibles.
After teaching at MiraCosta College for a bit, Rogers got a job teaching at National University, taking on some literature and adult experience courses. When art and art history classes began to be added, Rogers began teaching those, and has been doing so ever since.
“He’s a very engaging teacher,” says Professor Annette Cyr, who is the lead faculty of the arts department at NU. “He encourages his students. He even encourages me.”
Cyr also points out that Rogers was instrumental in the creation of the 214a Gallery, which utilized storage space in room 214 at NU’s La Mesa campus. The Spiral Bound opening resulted, and began June 18, 2011.
“I probably would never have thought about a closet as a gallery,” says Cyr. “But he was the one who said, ‘just get me a closet, and I’ll make something out of it.’”
Cyr also respects Rogers’ work as an artist.
“There’s always a lot of humor,” she says of his work that she’s seen. “And a lot of sophistication, conceptually.”
Rogers says that while has done many other things in his life, art is a necessity.
“I have to do it because I have to feel I’m doing something good,” he says.