Apologizing that he can’t find words to describe what he puts in paint, Mark Rohrig suggests going to his website and reading an interview he gave in the dark, which he thinks is bound to be closer to capturing the spirit of his work than the interview he's about to give right now in daylight, on the phone, from his studio in Grand Junction, Colorado. “It’s feelings,” he says. “It’s inexplicable. Finding words for it — why bother when you can look at the paintings and feel?”
Point taken. This is art that is meant not just to be hung and admired but also to be felt.
As usual, Rohrig’s been busy painting, happily holed up. “I just come in here and hibernate,” he says. “Sometimes for me it’s almost more home than home. I'm a recluse anyway.” It’s not that he’s alone. “I have two daughters,” he says. “One works with the elderly; the other is an artist in Paonia [Colorado] in the mountains, Raven Rohrig, who paints a lot of women and birds and does very well. And I have five grandkids under 10 that I’m close to. I bring the little ones out here and let them paint. They love it.”
We talked to Rohrig about the mystery of art and the heart and soul he puts into it.
Cowboys & Indians: You were raised in Grand Junction. What made you drive with your paintings to a gallery in Taos, New Mexico, when you were only 19?
Mark Rohrig: I had a mentor/instructor who I had worked with since I was about 12 who liked going to Taos and taking in the art community there. She was an award-winning art teacher, and she liked taking classes from artists in Taos. She took photos of my pieces and took them with her when she went there for a seminar. At a certain point, I went to Taos with some of my paintings. I really admired Frank Howell’s portraits of Native Americans and stopped at a gallery where I saw some of his paintings in the window. I nervously walked in and talked to the director, then Frank Howell himself emerged from the back. That was a very mystical happening and the beginning of my professional career.
C&I: Do you still describe your work as mystical realism?
Rohrig: It’s the go-to term I use because there’s realism and emotional mind-flow to it, too. Most of the stuff is just dreamed up.
C&I: What are you working on right now?
Rohrig: I just finished a piece called Hawk, a very noble face with lots of neat color. You can feel there’s life and a sense of freedom. There’s an element of an emotion that is solemn yet noble. That nobility seems to show up in most of my work.
C&I: Are your Native American portraits based on models, or do their likenesses come to you in some other way?
Rohrig: It happens so fast when an idea comes to me. I’ve been drawing so many years it comes very automatically. In the early years, in my early teens, I probably looked at books with Indians in them and just formulated my own view. Today it just shows up.
C&I: How about music to paint by?
Rohrig: In the studio I like favorite music from the ’60s maybe up to the early ’80s. I like rock ’n’ roll, easy rock. Neil Young, that kind of thing. Crosby, Stills & Nash — some of the Woodstock people.
C&I: Some famous folks own your paintings. Any names you want to drop?
Rohrig: The truth of all that is I'm not absolutely sure. Mariah Carey’s home in Aspen had a big painting of mine. But these are rumors. I heard a rumor that Eric Clapton might have purchased something. Galleries don’t disclose these things; they protect their collectors. David Coverdale from Whitesnake — I know he owns some of my stuff. I can tell you I’ve sold every painting I’ve ever painted, but it’s best to be humble about these things.
C&I: What do you mean by “capturing the universe of love,” and how do you go about doing that?
Rohrig: The work I do today is a very spiritual process. I’m not a sage or anything. I’m just a person who listens carefully inside. I’ve spent a lot of time by myself. I’m a person who believes in love. It happens as I’m flowing — it’s a mystery. It’s not calculated. It happens. It happens to the colors, the shapes, the people’s faced. I use the Indian as a vehicle of love, to express love. It’s like a symbol, an embodiment.
C&I: In addition to love, what do you hope people will experience when looking at your paintings?
Rohrig: Each person gathers their own feeling. What I hope to convey to people is an art expression of what’s going through my heart and soul. I want them to enjoy the art, feel an uplifting spirit, feel a rising of spirit. I want to give a painting of freedom where people can look at it and let it be a window.
Mark Rohrig is represented by Wind River Gallery in Aspen, Colorado, and The Main St. Gallery in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Images courtesy the artist
From our October 2020 issue.