‘Picasso of America’

Exhibit features works of Noel Rockmore from the Shirley Marvin collection

By Robin Miller

Arts writer

There was the time he was banned from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., for changing his name on his paintings.

He used Liquid Paper and a marker to do it, scratching out “Noel Davis” and replacing it with “Noel Rockmore.”

And then there was the time he asked her something that most married women would consider untoward. They were walking through the French Quarter at the time, and he said he had a lot of women friends who were married.

He said his arrangements were pleasant and didn’t interfere with their marriages.

“I said, ‘Thanks, but I would just rather be friends,’” Shirley Marvin said. “And he said, ‘OK.’”

And that was their relationship for 34 years — friends, with one friend believing so strongly in the other’s work that she bought piece after piece, knowing that one day he would be recognized as a great American artist.

The Picasso of New Orleans, as an Associated Press article would later refer to Rockmore.

“I believe he’s the Picasso of America,” Tee Marvin said.

Tee Marvin is married to Shirley Marvin’s son Rich Marvin. The couple’s discovery of Shirley Marvin’s devotion to Rockmore and his work has carved out a journey whose latest stop is the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, which opened the exhibit “The Faith & The Fury: Noel Rockmore & His Patron” on July 20.

The show runs through Oct. 6, and through some 60 paintings tells the story of Rockmore’s career, his various painting styles, the people he knew and, most importantly, the Baton Rouge patron who believed in him.

So strong was her belief that she collected 1,400 of his works. That’s the number Rich and Tee Marvin counted after opening the storage unit Shirley Marvin rented in an old New Orleans warehouse in 2005.

Shirley Marvin was concerned about the storage unit during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. She lived in Baton Rouge, where she and husband, Bill, had raised their three children.

She’d grown up in Newton, Mass., and attended Wellesley College. She was a political activist in Baton Rouge, which landed her in a photograph in The Advocate after speaking against Gov. Earl Long’s policies in a hearing.

“He presided over that hearing,” she said. “I knew from studying political science at Wellesley that he wasn’t supposed to be doing that, but I didn’t say anything. He was very polite and respectful, and afterward, someone said to my husband, ‘Bill, don’t you know that women here don’t do that sort of thing?’ He said, ‘Well, I’d rather have her at the Capitol fussing at Earl Long than at home fussing at me.’”

Shirley Marvin laughs at the memory. It’s an example of how she’s always held her ground, for even Noel Rockmore knew and respected her boundaries.

Genius is a word most often used to describe the artist, along with all the eccentricities that usually accompany this state of mind.

Rockmore was born Noel Davis on Dec. 15, 1928, in New York to painter Gladys Rockmore Davis and magazine illustrator Floyd Davis. Gladys Davis was regarded as one of the country’s top artists, and Floyd Davis was recognized in 1943 by Life Magazine as the No. 1 illustrator of that era.

The couple knew everyone who was anyone at the time, their house guest list often including such names as Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. So maybe it was only natural that Rockmore would start out studying music.

“His mother picked out the violin for him,” Shirley Marvin said. “He played it quite well. He was good at playing any instrument he tried.”

Rockmore learned to play piano, guitar and banjo. His younger sister, Deborah, also was learning music at the time, but both contracted polio at age 11.

“He began drawing while he was confined to bed,” said Elizabeth Weinstein, the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s curator who put the exhibit together after meeting with Shirley Marvin after a luncheon.

Shirley Marvin and Weinstein’s mother both live in the St. James retirement community on Lee Drive.

“Elizabeth was giving a talk, and my mom and her mom began talking to her about having a Rockmore show,” Rich Marvin said. “Tee and I had talked about it before, but then she called and said, ‘I think we’re ready to do that Noel Rockmore show now.’ I asked, ‘What made you decide to do it now?’ She told me about our mothers’ conversation.”

Weinstein had plenty of material from which to choose. She borrowed from other collectors and collections, including that at the New Orleans Museum of Art. But the bulk of the pieces were chosen from Shirley Marvin’s 1,400 trove.

“I remember walking into that warehouse, and it was really kind of scary,” Rich Marvin said. “I didn’t realize there were that many pieces.”

Shirley Marvin had estimated there were about 700 art pieces in the warehouse. She called her son and daughter-in-law after the hurricane and asked if they would fly down and check on it.

“When we saw what was in the warehouse, we said, ‘What are we going to do?’” Tee Marvin recalled.

Rich Marvin, in a 2011 article author John Ed Bradley wrote for Garden and Gun magazine, referred to the storage unit as Noel Rockmore’s Tomb.

Think of Indiana Jones entering the chamber that holds the Ark of the Covenant. The only difference is Rich and Tee Marvin weren’t expecting to discover treasure in a chamber that not only held Rockmore’s paintings but his sketchbooks and some 35 years worth of handwritten correspondence between Shirley Marvin and the artist.

The unit contained more than the story of an artist. It was the story of a friendship that began when Shirley Marvin, in 1962, spotted a painting of a young boy in an abandoned car propped outside a French Quarter gallery. It spoke to Shirley Marvin, who bought it and tracked the artist to a gallery owned by Larry Borenstein, who had commissioned the artist to paint the jazz musicians who performed in Preservation Hall.

Borenstein also owned Preservation Hall, and he often had the musicians perform in “practice sessions” at his gallery.

“He called them practice sessions to avoid the union dues,” Weinstein said.

Rockmore often worked on the musicians’ portraits while they were in Borestein’s shop. He would create 750 of these portraits in two years.

“And then he stopped,” Weinstein said. “He and Larry Borenstein had sort of a falling out, because Larry wanted him to keep painting the portraits, but Rockmore was ready to move on to other things.”

Rockmore’s portraits still fill Preservation Hall’s walls, and they are represented in the museum’s exhibit.

Back to Shirley Marvin, who met Rockmore at Borenstein’s gallery and then later for coffee at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.

“He could get rude sometimes,” Shirley Marvin said. “I was a little late getting there one time, and he yelled at me. He said, ‘Where the hell have you been? I’ve been waiting here all morning.’ I turned around and left and didn’t speak to him for three or four weeks. But we started talking again.”

And Rockmore learned a lesson. As mentioned, he knew Shirley Marvin had boundaries, and when he later propositioned her, she set another boundary.

“We were friends,” she said.

She was a friend who recognized not only Rockmore’s talent but his genius. She knew he was always in need of money and many times bought works that she didn’t like. But she also knew that if she kept these works together, recognition would come his way.

“Sometimes, he’d call me late at night and read T.S. Eliot to me,” Shirley Marvin said. “I’d fall asleep, then wake up and he’d still be reading.”

But Shirley Marvin wasn’t Rockmore’s first art patron. That title would go to Joseph Hirshhorn, for whom the Washington museum is named. Rockmore was only 19 years old when Hirshhorn began collecting the artist’s works.

And later, when Noel changed his last name from Davis to Rockmore, he would be banned from his patron’s museum for walking in and changing the signatures on his paintings.

“He would walk into people’s homes and do it,” Rich Marvin said. “The word got out among collectors: don’t let Rockmore into your home.”

Rockmore moved to New Orleans in 1959, bunking with French Quarter artist Paul Ninas and leaving behind his wife, Frances Hunter, and their three young children.

“The abstract movement was taking over, and he worked in realism,” Weinstein said. “So it was suggested to him that he try New Orleans.”

That’s also when Rockmore exchanged his surname Davis for his mother’s maiden name with the explanation that there were too many artists with the name Davis. Rockmore was unusual, something more recognizable.

And Rockmore definitely wanted to be recognized.

“But it’s confusing to collectors when you change your name midway through your career,” Rich Marvin said.

Meanwhile, Rockmore commuted between New Orleans and New York for 20 years but never returned to his family. Still, he hated being alone, and his roster of girlfriends was many.

“His son and youngest daughter became artists, and they both sought him out when they were in their 20s,” Rich Marvin said. “His daughter even lived with him in New Orleans at one point. And his son said Rockmore saw his leaving as something of a favor to his family, that children shouldn’t have to experience what Rockmore’s artist’s lifestyle would put them through.”

And he always had a friend in Shirley Marvin.

“He came to visit us in Baton Rouge once,” she said. “That was a disaster.”

She laughs.

“He came to Cape Cod once,” she said. “That was a disaster, too.”

But the museum’s show won’t be. A disaster, that is.

“It’s the best of the best of Rockmore,” Rich Marvin said. “That was really a task for Elizabeth. There was so much to choose from, and this is definitely the best of the best.”

Rockmore worked in a variety of styles and produced some 15,000 pieces in his lifetime.

“It’s amazing how he could move from one style to the next,” Weinstein said. “And he was a master draughtsman. Now, this isn’t a retrospective show. I don’t think our museum would be the venue for that. Our show focuses on Shirley Marvin’s patronage of his work, the relationship between this collector and this artist.”

A retrospective exhibit of Rockmore’s work was staged in 1998 at the New Orleans Museum of Art, four years after Rockmore died at a Kenner hospital. The show was titled, Noel Rockmore: Fantasies and Realities and included a panel discussion with Shirley Marvin, Rita Posselt and George Wein.

Wein, who founded the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, commissioned Rockmore to design the festival’s first Jazz Fest poster.

Now the Marvins are working full time to realize Rockmore’s dream.

They, along with Shirley Marvin, created the Noel Rockmore Project in 2006. The project includes a website, noelrockmore.org, where they’ve posted Rockmore’s history, catalogued his paintings and continue to post articles about the artist. They’ve traveled the country visiting with museums and collectors, interviewing hundreds who knew Rockmore.

“And Shirley can talk the talk,” Rich Marvin said. “She goes everywhere with us, and she knows who to talk to and what to say.”

Shirley Marvin is in her 90s now, but her belief in Rockmore has never wavered. She even produced the documentary film, Rockmore in 1992 to highlight Rockmore and his work. That is available on the Marvins’ website.

Rockmore would die two years later. He was ill and afraid of doctors and hospitals. Shirley Marvin tried to intervene, and Rockmore eventually did visit a doctor.

“But the doctor was a psychiatrist,” Shirley Marvin said.

The psychiatrist finally put Rockmore in a taxi and sent him to the Kenner hospital.

“He told the taxi driver to tell the hospital that Rockmore was a street person,” Shirley Marvin said. “The taxi driver told them that Rockmore was a street person, and he lifted his head and said, ‘I am not a street person. I am a great artist.’ That’s the last thing he said.”

Shirley Marvin wasn’t there at that time; she was on a trip to the northeast. She asked Rockmore if he would still be there when she returned.

He wasn’t.

Now the Marvins are working on a book about their Rockmore journey titled “Noel Rockmore and Shirley Marvin: Our Journey to the Discovery of Rockmore.” Those interested can preorder a copy at kickstarter.com. Signed copies of this 100-page book are $40, and a minimum of 300 orders are needed for the book to be published.

But in the end, Shirley Marvin insists it’s all about the work. Rockmore’s work.

True, she and Rockmore shared an incredible friendship. She remembers visiting his studio, watching him work, listening as he played the violin.

“And he would say, ‘This isn’t the place for comments, everything turns out as it does, the art and the music,’” she said.

She misses that. And she misses him.

But the work is still here, and now the best of the best will be seen at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum.

And perhaps Noel Rockmore will finally receive the recognition he so wanted.

The recognition Shirley Marvin wanted for him.

She was his friend. She still is.