Rohde’s artistic facet showed up early. Skip’s father was a career officer in the United States Navy. His parents found it necessary to provide him with butcher paper for his large-scale crayon artwork. Otherwise, his art would appear on the walls of the many houses they occupied.
Rohde’s analytic facet dominated when he chose to study engineering at Tennessee Technological University. His artistic facet resurfaced and he transferred to Memphis State University as a fine arts major, but he was uncomfortable with undisciplined “touchy-feely” instruction. His view of art is different. “Painting requires an analytic side, and then a lot of trusting your gut,” he has explained. He wanted the formal technique. He returned to Tennessee Tech and completed an engineering degree.
His patriotism surfaced upon graduation. He became a Naval officer, spent several years at sea and then transferred to Naval Intelligence. He studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California and later served in San Diego (where he met his wife Janis, also the child of a Navy family) and other locations including Misawa, Japan.
His service to humanity began during his 22-year naval career. He was a peacekeeper in Grenada and in Sarajevo. Reflecting on Sarajevo, Rohde says, “I think a lot about photojournalist James Nachtwey, who produces photos with a viewpoint. I want to make pictures that make a difference.” From Sarajevo is his “Grand Re-Opening,” demonstrating hope through the gaily-colored awnings at the outdoor restaurant, alongside jarring signs of artillery damage and a yellow tape indicating that the building in the left foreground might fall down at any moment.
Retiring in 1999, Skip and Janis moved to our area. Skip added a BFA in painting (UNC-Asheville) to his BS and MBA, and began working in a roomy and inviting studio in the River Arts District where he creates narrative art. An early critic of the Iraqi War (which he states was promoted through the flawed use of hand-picked raw intelligence against the advice of the professional intelligence community), he drew notice locally with his Bush League political satire series. At the same time, he visited local retirement communities and painted the Old Times series that depicts aging in America. “The Dancers” shows a real couple that met late in life. Dancing dangerously (she in heels) on the side of a craggy hill, the painting is an appreciation of late love.
All these facets then came together, when Rohde was asked to assist in redevelopment in Iraq. Not only did he go, but he later extended his tour and will not be back to stay in Western North Carolina until April 2010.
Recently, he visited home, wife and friends during a two-week furlough. I caught up with him dusting cobwebs from the large windows of his Cotton Mill studio, giving his two dogs the pleasure of visiting the location in which they have spent many happy hours, and stretching a couple of small format paintings that he had brought home in his luggage. He told me “It feels good to be slinging paint again.” One new painting shows a coffee shop with pastries in a display case and a sign “Please Keep Weapons Away from Glass.” An acrylic entitled “Waiting” depicts a woman and her son awaiting action on a visa request.
Commenting on the effect on his art of several years spent improving the infrastructure of a backward and corrupt country, Skip says, “My approach will not change at all, but my subject matter will.” He mused that after he returns in April for good, it will take months or even years for the full experience to be incorporated into his art.
Rohde’s art is direct, clear and concise, leaving little room for ambiguity. “But there is a subversive element that will always come through in my work,” he says. Subversive, perhaps, in the eyes of those who believe in “my country right or wrong,” but profoundly patriotic to those of us who believe in the constant struggle to preserve the best of American democracy while improving the lot of humanity elsewhere. Skip Rohde is a remarkable human being, performing remarkable service and creating remarkable art.