The Tomb of Rockmore
Can the startling discovery of some 1,400 paintings bring a great New Orleans artist back from the dead?
They bought the gas masks and Hazmat suits at Home Depot.
This was fourteen months after Hurricane Katrina, when parts of New Orleans had already returned to normal, but Rich and Tee Marvin weren’t taking any chances.
Rich’s mother, Shirley Marvin, had asked them to travel to her former home in New Orleans and check on the things she’d packed away at a downtown storage facility. Shirley, who was eighty-four in October 2006, had been experiencing occasional memory lapses associated with old age, and she thought she had “between twenty and seventy paintings” in one unit, she’d told Rich, and furniture in another.
Most of the paintings were by somebody named Noel Rockmore.
Rich and Tee live in Cotuit, Massachusetts, a village on Cape Cod. They traveled about sixteen hundred miles to reach the nineteenth-century warehouse where Shirley had been renting space for twenty years. Covered from head to toe without an inch of flesh bare, they took a service elevator to the second floor and came to the first of the units. It was a large space, 20 feet by 10 feet, for which Shirley paid $250 a month. While helping with her bills, Rich had learned that his mother hadn’t paid for the storage in three months, giving the business the right to take possession of the property and auction it off. But Shirley had been a good customer, and so the place had cut her a break.
Rich and Tee swung the door open and stood stunned by what they saw. Boxes crowded every inch of space and pressed against the wire grid ceiling overhead. Rich pulled a box into the hallway, and he and his wife had a look inside. They found several paintings wrapped in brown kraft paper.
Shirley’s collection is yet one more story about the treasures that were discovered in New Orleans in the months after Katrina. Guided by a hopeless feeling that things would never be made right again, local residents dragged valuable flood-damaged furniture and art to the curbs in front of their homes for trash pickup. They chucked precious, mold-infested ephemera into Dumpsters—books, photographs, letters, maps, prints, paintings. They also abandoned or forgot about the things they’d put in storage, leaving them to be confiscated or thrown out.
The Marvins weren’t prepared to uncover “the tomb of Rockmore,” as Rich later described it. Rather than a manageable group of paintings, they found some fourteen hundred works of art, including sculptures, collages, portraits dating back to the 1950s, huge canvases supporting three-dimensional abstract constructions, and hundreds of watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings in some thirty sketchbooks that Shirley had squirreled away in a trunk.
The collection also included a large painting that Rich called “Shirley Marvin Discovers America,” which showed its bespectacled subject, dear Shirley herself, standing on a ship at sail with a billowing American flag in the background. Much of the work was gorgeous and profound, but some of it begged for an explanation, such as pieces from the artist’s Egyptian series, which Rockmore produced after engrossing himself in Egyptian history and literature and channeling pharaohs.
“Noel Rockmore was a fascinating, oddball, homegrown American surrealist,” says Dan Cameron, a curator of contemporary art best known for his work as artistic director of U.S. Biennial, the organization that produces Prospect New Orleans. “In the last year or so I’ve participated in some interesting discussions with friends and colleagues in New Orleans whom I respect, and there’s no denying what they think about him. These are people who don’t use the word genius very often, but they all use it when discussing Rockmore.”
The artist, it turns out, had often called on Shirley Marvin when he needed money over the course of their thirty-three-year friendship, and Rockmore, who died in 1995 at age sixty-six, seemed to always need money. The bulging contents in the storage unit were testament to his brilliance, but they also revealed Shirley’s devotion to an artist who produced some fifteen thousand works of art in his lifetime and who might have become America’s Picasso if not for crushing battles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder that, by the end of his days, had reduced him to a bona fide lunatic and a virtual pariah in the art world.