Radio Maine Episode 46: Steve Roger

 

1/23/2022

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today, I have with me artist, Steve Rogers. Thanks for coming in today. 


 

Steve Rogers:

Oh, you're welcome.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I'm looking at this piece behind me in our studio and I love it. I think this is your Sea Bags painting as evidenced by the Sea Bags Maine sign in the background here. One of the reasons I love it is, as you and I were talking about, I love the ocean. I love Maine. And even though you didn't grow up in Maine, or on the ocean, you also share a love of the ocean. 


 

Steve Rogers:

I absolutely do. I grew up on a farm. We were in lovely rolling hills, but there was no ocean anywhere around me. My parents would take us to Ocean City, New Jersey for vacation. There weren't a lot of vacations but it was just a thrill to see the water, the bay, the marshes and the ocean. And so that kind of hooked me and I've loved it ever since. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did your parents have a connection to the water? Why was it that they wanted to go to Ocean City with you? 


 

Steve Rogers:

Because everybody in Eastern Pennsylvania goes to Ocean City. Basically it's a, when you get into Lancaster county, which is in the middle of Nao, go down to Delmarva, to Reboth with an ocean city, Maryland. It's just a pattern. We all spend a couple hours on the Schuylkill expressway. That was years ago, of course. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I think you're describing something that is universal;  this kind of migration towards water, that many people in many places experience. I suspect that's why a lot of people  come to Maine -  because of the water. 


 

Steve Rogers:

I think it's subliminal. It's just in your genes. And, it certainly is in mine, I love it. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That's kind of like the fish that swim up river. There's something in them that causes them to keep going back to the source and that's why they're doing it.


 

Steve Rogers:

Yes.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And I guess we're just like fish


 

Steve Rogers:

Probably more than we think. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Probably more than we think. Yes. So looking at this piece, tell me what it was about this particular boat that really caught your eye and caused you to want to focus on it for a painting. 


 

Steve Rogers:

The boat was less the subject than the whole environment of the water and the pier behind it. And the shapes of the images reflected in the water.  This is not the loveliest boat there. I had painted another one that was a classic 32-foot working lobster boat. And, this was my next choice. It had just enough interest. It didn't have the green trim on it but the green trim is pretty common. And, I use it a lot. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Why is that? 


 

Steve Rogers:

I see it a lot.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

But is there something about green trim?


 

Steve Rogers:

I don't know. In the Chesapeake, there are just some colors you don't use. You'll never see blue on a boat, maybe dark blue, but decks are often light green trim or black.  There are just some colors that  watermen and the boat builders like to use. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I'll have to pay attention to that during the next boating season and look for what you're talking about. I agree with you that in this painting the reflection is particularly important, especially in the foreground of the painting.  I know that structure for you is important. 


 

Steve Rogers:  

Yes. I am one of the well-known Freudian categories. I like details and I spend time on them and I go through quite a routine with my square and my level to make sure that the reflected item is directly below the object that is reflecting. So there's a little bit of technique to it as much as art. The other interesting thing about reflections is that the reflection sees things you don't know, particularly if you look at a dock, and the reflection of it, you'll see the underside of the dock in the reflection. You will not see that from where you're standing. It's just that you have a different point of view. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've always found it interesting when I'm down by the water; the idea that it's this continuation of sea and sky broken only on certain days, when it's very calm by the horizon line, and it gives you this sense of this infinite space. 


 

Steve Rogers:

It's just something that artists learn that the furthest of the horizon that you can see always reflects what's immediately above it. And then as it comes towards you it progressively reflects the things higher and higher up. So when something is right in front of you, when you look at it, sometimes you can even see through the reflection to the bottom below. And then when we, as artists, learn to paint that and that's when it really starts to be realistic, 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I would think that would be an interesting challenge because it's so layered. 


 

Steve Rogers:

Absolutely. It took me a long time to be good at it. And, then the other thing you notice is that when you're looking at reflective water and the reflections on it, the closer it gets to you, the darker it gets. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Because?

Steve Rogers:

The light is reflecting off it at a different angle, and it's not all going into your eyes. So, when you look at something directly in front of you and you look straight down, you often see the bottom. So with that many layers and angles and things to take into consideration.


 

Dr. Lisa Beisle:

I would think that there's a need for doing this over and over again before you get to a place where you start to feel that it does actually represent what you would like it to. 


 

Steve Rogers:

I've been a full-time professional artist for almost 30 years.  I have painted all my life. It's a process. I'm finally at the point where I'm comfortable with what I'm doing. A lot of things are just intuitive now.  I don't have to think really hard about them. I just see a scene. I like it.  It appeals to me and I know how to paint it. And I’ve changed things quite often. For example, the boat is not in front of the place where it really was. And there's probably a foreground that wasn't there before, the sky's different, these are all things you just put together. It just appeals to me.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

For many years, you taught a very different sort of skill, also artistic, but with more of a craft element to it. 


 

Steve Rogers:

Yes. I was trying to think how many years I taught up at the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine.  They first asked me about 20 years ago. There had been an article in Wooden Boat magazine about my work and Rich Helsinger called me up and said “Would you think about coming up and teaching?”

 And I thought, there's a way to get to Maine and be paid for it?  And, they include room and board? It's just a good deal. Any excuse as far as I'm concerned. But I had no idea how much work it was. The very first year that I taught there,  the very first Monday that I taught, at five o'clock when the class was over, I thought my brains had been sucked out of my head. It was exhausting. 


 

Steve Rogers:

My wife came by the shop to pick me up and I couldn't have driven the car.  At that moment in time, I just got a whole new appreciation for teachers.  I'd made all the classic mistakes. I gave the students choices and I didn't prepare materials ahead of time. You know, there's a bunch of easy mistakes to make. And, fortunately, I figured some of that stuff out and the class got easier and easier.  I basically taught a simple boat that included a few wrinkles. There was a little trick to building it. It was a wooden skiff, which doesn't sound like much, but it's an 18 foot sailboat from the Outer Banks in North Carolina. 


 

Steve Rogers:

I had a great plan done by Mike Alford of the Beaufort Maritime Museum. It was just a really well done plan. All the details were there and it was easy for the students to see it but then figuring out how to translate the plan into the model was something else.  One year a friend of mine from Mystic seaport. He also came up and taught every year. We both taught the same boat. I taught it as a model and he taught it as a full-size boat and he was in the next studio. The students’ work is going back and forth the whole time during the process on both sides. Because we were ahead of them time-wise, we were making more progress  but in the other studio it was the real thing. 


 

Steve Rogers:

His class was two weeks and mine was one week so we didn't get to see him finish it. But we had a big ceremony at the end of the week where we turned it over, because it was built up upside down and the bottom was applied, and then we turned it over and then they started putting in the interior structures. And, I think if I remember correctly,  the students drew lots to see who would be able to buy the boat. You had to pay the cost of materials which was probably a thousand dollars. It was all beautiful white cedar. I don't know where they found it. They have guys up there who know where it is and it's all the best materials. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What is it about wooden boats that keeps people so interested in learning how to build them? 


 

Steve Rogers:

I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. I think it's the connection with the past. For me, it's always been to show appreciation for the lives of the watermen; the people that work on the water and what it was like. It really wasn't that long ago, you're only talking a generation or two. You're talking about your grandfather and the way that it has changed since 40 years ago, had a 32 foot lobster boat.  You could just go out and work around your island or off-shore. And now, you know, the temperature is very important to the lobsters and the Gulf of Maine is warming up. So they're not coming in the numbers that they once did. So what do you do?  Well,  you have to go further out.  And that's more time consuming. It's two and a half hours to get out to your traps and then you're hauling 800 traps. And that takes a while. So now they're using bigger boats and bigger boats are more money and there is more equipment. And now it's overnight. Everything has gotten more complicated. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So it's the connection to the past  but could it also be the simplicity? 


 

Steve Rogers:

I think so. And I just love the craftsmanship involved in building the lobster boat. I honestly can’t say that I watched it being done but I know how it's done. And I've been in a lot of shops where boatbuilding was going on. I didn't get to stay to see the whole process. It was before computers and slide rules and calculators. It was all done by ratios and eyesight. 

It's just incredible. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It kind of reminds me of the way that sailors used to navigate back before GPS and current technology when they would use the stars and a really complicated set of calculations to know how to get from point A to point B. But it worked.


 

Steve Rogers:

It did work. I think they used to have a little container of water and something iron and it always aligned with the north. And with that they could navigate. I think I read an article, it might've been in the Washington Post and Italians will have to accept this, but the Vikings probably got here first. They've discovered and they’ve timed a Viking settlement that was up in Labrador in 1021 CE.


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You're such an ocean oriented individual but you also spent some time in the US Air Force. 


 

Steve Rogers:

When I was in college, we were just oblivious to the fact that when we graduated we would be eligible for the draft.  We didn't know what that was going to bring.  This was before draft numbers and all that kind of stuff.  The draft board in my county did not consider my degrees in anthropology, which I loved by the way, a science. It was not then considered a science.  So it dawned on me that when I graduated, I was liable to be drafted. It seemed to make sense to enlist and at least have some control over what was going to happen. I was very fortunate. I got accepted at Air Force OTS (Officer Training School) and I went to Texas with everybody else and did my basic training. 


 

Steve Rogers:

I spent the next four years doing aircraft maintenance work which was very technical. When I finally got out, I knew what I was doing. It seems to be the way it works. It takes three to four years to learn how to do the job that you're in and then you leave. But it was fascinating.  I learned a lot and most of it from some great senior NCO’s (non-commissioned officers) that worked for me. I don't know if enough recognition has been given to the senior NCO’s in the services. They are amazing people.  One of them told me one time, he said, “We get the officers we deserve. They come into the service. They get their brown bar. They're a Lieutenant and we lie to them and we tell them wrong things and we make them look bad. But then they make first Lieutenant and they figured some things out and then they make captain and they know even more stuff. And then they can really mess with us.” So he said, “that's why we have to change the way we do things. “


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I know you also have an interest in leadership. So what you're talking to me about right now kind of reminds me of that fact. Tell me about why leadership is important to you? 


 

Steve Rogers:

 I just think it's fair to do your fair share of serving on commissions and stuff like that.  It's not that I think that artists should give back, but I do think everybody should take the opportunity to serve in a city government, on a commission, or on an AD HOC committee. I think it would help people appreciate how hard governance is. I've had several friends - mayors and councilmen and stuff - , and they're always wrestling with competing interests. Somebody is always going to be upset.  What they are they dealing with can be really hard. Things like when the sewer plant has a problem it has to be fixed. I just think if more people took their turn at governance, they would have a little more tolerance for when the government doesn't work that well.  I did two terms on a local arts organization. I enjoyed that because I was a member and I was very glad that they existed. They did a lot of nice things for me. So, I didn't mind serving on the board for awhile. So yes, I think participating is good.  I don't think leadership is hard. It's just that you should do it. So you can understand it. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I think the term VUCA comes from the military. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. And that's essentially what I think a lot of people within the military field acknowledge that the world is. And I think we all are starting to understand that that's actually what the greater world is at this point. Have you found that to be so over the years?  Have you seen that the world has perhaps become a place that is more uncertain? 


 

Steve Rogers:

I’m probably an optimist. I’ve been over to Europe a number of times and I've always enjoyed it.  I've been to France a couple of times, Italy, a couple of times, Portugal,  three times.  I love Portugal. I just find people pretty much the same and that they all want about the same things. I do love the food. That's the big benefit. No, I'm optimistic. And I think, you know, I think we're going to be fine. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I want to be clear. I, like you, am an optimist. I would consider myself to be by choice.  And I think sometimes it's important to acknowledge that things are complex and also be willing to find the strength in a situation. But it sounds like what you're saying is you're finding more similarities when you go to different places than you are differences?


 

Steve Rogers:

Yes, the differences aren't near as significant as the similarities and some of the different ways people approach things are interesting to see. And,  you might get phone calls on this, but this idea of American exceptionalism…I just don't see it. And it's a shame if it interferes with looking at the way other companies, countries and societies deal with their problems. You know, we can learn a lot.  It's almost like  ignoring the concept of best practices. You know, when you look around the country and you have an issue, you can look into other organizations just like you, if it's a state or a town or whatever, and find a really good solution to your problem. We shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel time after time after time. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. That's a really good point. And I think looking at the events over the past, we're heading into two years now, related to COVID, and it's become really clear that even from a public health standpoint we need to get a little bit better about understanding what is working well in some places that could be replicated in, in others. Do you have thoughts on that? 


 

Steve Rogers:

Well, every time I see a story on TV and they're showing graphs, Maine looks like they have really done a good job with this. I don't know if it's that people are more disciplined and accept the fact that they have to deal with something that's real and something that's dangerous.  I've lost two friends to Covid.  I don't question how serious it is. I don't think it's some conspiracy  made up by other people somewhere. I just know it is a pandemic, it does kill people and you have to respond to it with science and best practices. You know, best practices aren't that hard to figure out. There were two cities during the 1918 pandemic, Philadelphia and St. Louis, and Philadelphia didn't do very much. And they had hellacious fatalities from it. But St. Louis made people wear masks and social distance because that's all they could do. They didn't really have any other way to deal with it and they suffered much less. So that's a clue. I think that you just have to accept that there are some things that you are not going to like but you have to do them anyway. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, given that you have an undergraduate degree in anthropology and you are doing things that are very much connected to the past, it sounds like to you, the historical perspective is really very important to consider. 


 

Steve Rogers:

Yes.. I enjoy going places that haven't changed a lot.  I shouldn't be shocked by how fast things are changing, but I've lived long enough to  have seen places, for example, there is a little town, it's a small town. It's a Damariscotta (Maine) sized town and it's on the coast of Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula. It’s home to watermen and crabbers and clammers and people  like that.  I used to go down there often and the waterfront would be the original waterfront. I mean a lot of rot and pilings, old buildings, even older boats.  Well, then the state came in and pulled all that stuff out, cleaned it all up, put in all new docks and a new bulkhead and all that old stuff was gone. And, there were no boats in the grass anymore.  It's sort of disappointing. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. That's I can see that when we move forward with, on the one hand, what  might be progress, it does take away some of the history that we've experienced and evidence that people came before us. 


 

Steve Rogers:

There was a bridge in South Bristol, Maine that went from the mainland to Rutherford Island. It used to be a swing bridge and now it's not there.  It's gone. It's a whole new bridge. You know, it looks modern. It looks like the thing over the Hudson River in New York. Anyway, to me, it doesn't have the artistic and interesting look of the other one. And there was a family that ran it, you know, and I don't know where they are now. Who does that? 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's a little bit like the lighthouses. 


 

Steve Rogers:

Yes, yes. It is. We have two, in Lewis, the East End Light and the Harbor Refuge Light. The East End Light is not used now.  But fortunately for us, there's a nonprofit that's taken over management and maintenance of it and they have tours. It's interesting. It's a great subject to paint. And then the further one out,  the Harbor Refuge Light, I think that still works but needs work. It's pretty well beat up, cause it's just out there on a, on a jeddy and,  it's completely exposed all the way around, like the light houses here. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You've been a member of the Portland Art Gallery since 2018, 


 

Steve Rogers:

I think that's right. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Has it been important for you to experience that particular community of artists? 


 

Steve Rogers:

Well, I've always enjoyed it,  I've been part of two openings and I love the work of the other artists. I enjoy being around artists, period.  I'm in a small group at home.  I enjoy seeing the other work that they bring in.  If I have any time I'm here. I come to the gallery and walk around and look at the other artists’ work. There's some really fine artists in the gallery. I'm really proud to be there. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And it's a broad range of different styles. There are quite a few people who do have a focus on the ocean, and are more representational, but then we also have people who are very abstract. We have sculptors. And I wonder sometimes,  as a painter, when you look at other people who, who have their own art, that's so different from yours, does it ever make you wonder how do, how do we as artists kind of get pulled in one direction or the other? 


 

Steve Rogers:

You know, I think it's just simply a matter of what, what you want to paint and what you enjoy doing. And, I'm in a group of professional artists at home and I'm in the minority.  There's 13 of us and two of us are representational painters, everybody else's abstract or,  various derivatives of that. And,  you know, the whole goal is we critique each other's work and that can be painful. It's usually worthwhile.  I have learned that when I'll put a piece up and, one person will say, oh, that doesn't read right to me, you know,  I just cringe. I really do, you know, I try not to show it, but I'm not perfect. But that being said, when I go home and I take some of their suggestions, the painting ends up being successful and sells. So, I've just reached the conclusion I'm going to listen. It's a good thing. And they are, you know, simply because these other artists paint abstract and various forms of art,  doesn't mean they're not artists they're there. And they understand all of the rules that I should be following and, not like rules, but I mean, just the things I should be doing. And, I've gotten great advice. 


 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with artist Steve Rogers. I encourage you to go to the Portland Art Gallery to experience his work in person.  Also, potentially come to one of our openings at which Steve will be there. So it'd be fun for you to meet him. He's obviously a very interesting person as you can tell from our conversation. Also, go to the website where you can see more of his work. Steve, it's really been a great conversation. Thank you for coming in today.


 

Steve Rogers:

I've enjoyed it.