Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A family of artists: Rohrbachers are rich in talent

Charles Rohrbacher's studio in Douglas  Courtney Nelson / Juneau Empire

Courtney Nelson / Juneau Empire
Charles Rohrbacher's studio in Douglas

Deacon Charles Rohrbacher and his daughter Phoebe Rohrbacher both have artist’s spaces in Juneau and shows opening this November.
Charles is an iconographer with a studio in a converted garage at his home on Douglas, while Phoebe, primarily an oil painter, has a space on Seward Street.

About 10 years ago, Charles, with the help of his father and other friends, stripped his garage down to the beams and built a heated room with lots of lights to serve as his studio. There are flat files, books and drawers that help the Deacon stay organized. It’s here that he makes his own egg tempera paint from a powder.
“The advantage of tempera paint is you can paint rather transparently,” Charles said.
Charles came to Juneau in 1982 from San Francisco and married his wife, Paula, a Jesuit volunteer.
He had always done art, including woodcuts, relief prints and drawings, but he became interested in iconography when he realized he could bring his faith and his art together.
In icon paintings, the artist is not supposed to be represented. Icons are meant to be a locus for prayer and, as such, belong to the church.
They have certain general characteristics that distinguish them from religious paintings: their lines are deliberately frontal, and they often have halos and inscriptions. Icons are designed to get past linguistics and draw the viewer in, becoming a still point in a tumultuous world.
Charles had the opportunity to study abroad on three separate occasions with the great iconic artist Egon Sendler, a Byzantine Catholic priest. He also studied with about 25 other iconographers in Évian-les-Bains, on the south shore of Lake Geneva.
“I showered in Evian water,” he joked.
In addition to technical direction, he says the experience introduced him to other iconographers, which was very confirming, and a testament to the iconographer explosion that has occurred in the last 20 years.
He’s painted hundreds of pieces for Catholic, Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches, including many private commissions.
Charles just became a member of the Juneau Artists Gallery cooperative and has a show scheduled in November at the Canvas featuring the original artwork from his soon to be released book “The Illuminated Easter Proclamation.” It is being released by Liturgical Press and has been 10 years in the making.

Phoebe, who was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from Juneau Douglas High School, received a Rasmuson Foundation Emerging Artist Award in 2010 and secured a downtown studio space with part of her award money.
Phoebe currently has two pieces hanging at Alana Ballam-Schwan and Chad Medel’s new Figment art gallery in the Senate Building, and will have a solo show opening there in November.
Phoebe also has a job working at a REACH group home.
Phoebe has painted from old family photographs in the past but takes creative license.
“I’m interested in conveying the emotion of the image as opposed to being completely visually accurate.”
“I looked at photos of my mother’s family and I picked images I found to be visually compelling with a lot of emotion in them,” Phoebe said in reference to her last show at the city museum.
Phoebe went to college in Seattle and says that one of the most valuable things she learned in art school was to loosen up a little. Paintings were frequently seen as exercises in technique, so there wasn’t pressure for each painting to be a masterpiece.
This skill came in handy right away.
While Phoebe was preparing for her last show, four of her paintings were stolen two months before her opening. She quickly had to double her output.
“They took most of the work I had done and left me with 2 ½ paintings, my goal was 10.” 
The robbery was shocking and confusing to Phoebe.
“It’s not like there’s a black market for paintings by pretty unknown artists.”
A small part of her thinks she might find them at the Salvation Army at some point in the future.
For emerging artists, Phoebe advises finding a space dedicated to artwork, a place that is comfortable and where the artist wants to spend time.
She said she wants to continue improving technically and conceptually as an artist, and become more disciplined. She is considering graduate school because she finds value in being immersed with other artists, getting support from teachers and receiving thorough critiques.
Phoebe’s solo show at Figment, located in the Senate Building, opens Nov. 4.

Paula Rohrbacher, Charles’ wife and Phoebe’s mother, has also jumped in the creative flow, making portable prayer shrines in re-covered Altoid tins using Charles’ icon prints. Light and portable, these tins hold a tea light candle, colored icon and a prayer for women fighting breast cancer – an inspired idea.
“We had a reception at the cathedral at Parish Hall, to view an icon, and Paula had this great idea and paired up with Team Survivor, a support group for women fighting breast cancer, to help them get active and back into good health. Some women take the shrines with them for their treatments,” Charles said.
“It was the kind of thing that would never occur to me, but this just came to her and it has been a blessing,” he said, adding that Paula is much better at marketing then he is.
“To give you an example of why I shouldn’t be allowed to market anything, we printed up biblical cards of Jesus and Mary, and for some reason, I had 200 crucifixion cards made up. When we got them Paula said, ‘For what occasion are people going to be sending these cards?’” Charles recalled with a laugh. “So we have about 195 crucifixion cards left.”
“People don’t send ‘Happy Good Friday’ cards, they just don’t,” said Paula.
• Contact freelance writer Courtney Nelson at roughhouseboxing@gmail.com.

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