Visual Arts

Comeback Artist

On a recent Sunday evening, a good while after dusk, the artist known simply as Rodgell led a caravan of cyclists to his downtown Tempe studio to unveil his latest work, a mounted sculpture of a steam locomotive coming out of a wall, its headlight lit, and behind it a four-foot-diameter clock set at 1:45, glowing in a ghostly light. Constructed entirely of found materials -- heavy-duty plastics, wood, aluminum disks and sheet metal with jigsaw-cut detail -- the train was commissioned by a patron who lives next to the nearby railroad tracks in a house formerly used as a transient rail workers' crash pad. Rodgell, a 57-year-old with a graying ponytail and slight Kentucky drawl, chuckled as he plugged in the piece for its commissioner's first glimpse, remarking, "My ex-wife says it may be the best thing I've ever done."

In his Tempe 'hood, Rodgell's theories, molded over a lifetime of studying, practicing and teaching art, have made him something of the sage for younger artists. His work is the epitome of mixed media, utilizing materials like multicolored plastic dishware, birdcages, scrap metal and furniture legs. His creations include space-age lamps, woodcut abstract reliefs of musicians and their instruments, backlit silhouettes of spiders, birds and crosses. On Saturday, June 14, he opens his first one-man show since the '80s, titled "Anything Goes," at Tempe's reZurrection Gallery.

Rodgell first came to the Valley some 20 years ago. A graduate of the Louisville School for the Arts, he attended, then taught at, Al Collins Graphic Design School, eventually working there for seven and a half years. He also taught at the Art Institute for five years, spending the last two as head of its graphic design department. After a brief stint in IT work, Rodgell left the secular working world a year ago, renting a stand-alone garage in Tempe's Mitchell neighborhood and converting it to a live-in studio, determined to pursue art on his own terms.

"You can't teach all the time," he remarks. "You've got to get back out in the field and fill up your cup. I'd still like to teach some more, but after 15 years you want to teach by example." To that end, Rodgell is often in the company of young Tempe artists like Keith Dagen, John Rupp, and Rodgell's son, Givan Walton. "This last year having my own studio has been like being back in art school," he says, grinning. "Without a teacher."

A red cross backlit with fluorescent lights is mounted on the exterior wall of Rodgell's studio, and blue tube lights twisted into a stick figure hang from it. A ladder leaning onto the studio's roof has a life-size humanoid figure cut and bent from sheet aluminum hanging from the top rung, feet dangling in the air. Above the garage entrance a box fan has been installed with light bulbs, its circular façade covered by a spider's silhouette. Abstract sculptures of rusted metal and wood are scattered among the gravel of his front yard.

"I'm a collector, so I just pick up whatever I think I might be able to use," he says. "Just pickin' up whatever, things that I don't even know why I like them. You never know what you're going to do with it, and then all at once it finds a home. There's like a universal design where things fit together, your job is just getting those things together. The creativity comes from somewhere else; your responsibility is to make sense of it."

You can see Rodgell's subconscious working in some of his more disturbing pieces -- a cherub being anally penetrated by a cross; a doll with blood dripping from between its legs; a black heart with rust-colored blood dripping from it, heater coils, piping, and a pressure gauge hanging from it. "I try to stay away from art that has any kind of political content, but I'm not saying I haven't fallen into that," he says. He cites the recent Catholic Church scandal as inspiration for the defiled cherub and doll. "I wasn't really thinking about it, and all at once I found myself doing these [pieces], knowing that I'm not religious at all."

Art is a full-time job for Rodgell, who confesses to missing meals and pulling all-nighters regularly while working. "I think a lot of artists think they have to be inspired to [work], but there are so many distractions and you're trying to do so many things, it's hard to come back to [art] and expect the creative genie to be there with you. So what I've tried to do is just get myself in a position where I get up every day and go to work. And after a while the genie is going, What the fuck? This guy's going to work, I better go with him!'"

Though Rodgell is proficient with pencils, ink and paints, he prefers endeavors that require manual labor -- cutting, sawing, riveting, gluing . . . "I like the physical part of it, there's nothing like it -- I'm just stoned from working all day on something. You look for that high from doing it all day long. I like to draw when I'm sick and I can't do anything else. To me, hard-core art is just getting dirty and getting cut up and straining and stressing and fuckin' kickin' and throwin' and cussin' and working through all that -- it's just fuckin' life."

Not every artist would decide to relaunch a career nearing 60, but few probably have Rodgell's energy level. When he opened his studio, he gave himself a year to pursue art full time and see if he could subsist on it. A year later, it seems to be paying off, and Rodgell's flow of creativity is far from waning.

"If you don't love the process of doing it, you're never going to do it. You know when you're connected. Even something as simple as you're working on something and you turn on the radio and it's just the right song. You know you're at the right place doing the right thing at the right time."