By James J. Gillis
Daily News staff
September 5-7, 2009
A retrospective exhibit at Newport Art
Museum gathers pieces from throughout
Newport artist Rita Roger’s long career.
NEWPORT — Rita Rogers lives close to the things she loves.
Her art studio essentially is her home, gobbling
up square footage in the house on the
Point where she’s lived for 25 years. Another
room is devoted to shelves and shelves of
books, another passion.
“I like to have the things I care about close
by,” she said. “My studio has always been the
center of my life.”
Rogers is displaying works from her lengthy
career starting today at the Newport Art
Museum in an exhibit called “Rita Rogers:
Selected Paintings” that runs through Jan. 3.
The works date back to 1977, when a fire
changed Rogers’ life.
She was married at the time, living on the
grounds of the Portsmouth Abbey School,
when a fire destroyed her home, including her
artwork. “The whole place burned to the
ground in about four minutes,” she said. “It
In putting together her new show, Rogers
has revisited previous work — some of which
tends to be abstract and dark — in trying to
decide what to include. She admits she’s lousy
at judging her own work.
“I prefer to let someone else evaluate it,” she
said. “I don’t think I can ever possibly have the
Let Rogers talk, and you’ll end up on a verbal
carousel, as she talks about movies, books
— she’s re-reading Dostoyevksy’s The Idiot
because it’s a fresh translation — fellow artists
in the community, how society fails to appreciate
older women and her own colorful childhood
growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y.
What you won’t get is a lot of deep analysis
of her artwork — which includes printmaking
as well as painting. Let the art speak for
itself, she said. “If you need to explain it, you
should do something else, go tell stories.”
Rogers never set out to become an artist. Her
childhood dream was to become a dancer —
and at 73, she moves lithely around her studio.
For a while she thought about medicine, but
art grabbed her anyway.
Rogers earned her bachelor’s degree at Bard
College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and
studied contemporary literature in graduate
school at Columbia University. As a girl, her
library card was her salvation.
She was an only child, whose mother was a
onetime flapper and whose father ran a luncheonette.
It featured a Damon Runyan-ish cast
of street characters roaming and out. “They
all called me Smiley, because I never cracked
a smile. I was this chubby girl with my hair in
braids. I was terrified. The best thing for me was my
library card. I could lose myself in books.”
In the early 1980s, Rogers — the mother of six —
found herself divorced and living on the Point, which
was a less trendy neighborhood than it is today. An
award from the New York-based Arthur and Esther
Gottlieb Foundation helped her buy the house and she’s
received grants and fellowships through the years.
It may be that art chose Rogers as much as she chose
art. But she’s managed to get by as an artist most of
her adult life, but makes most of her living restoring
“I’ve never been that into money, but I’ve spent a lifetime
worrying about it,” she said. “But you make choices.
If you are an artist, you have to make choices. Perhaps
they’re not easy choices, but you make them.”
Local artist Sue McNally is a friend of Rogers and
helped her spruce up some of the works in the show,
helping Rogers go through her basement and ready
old paintings. McNally said Rogers is a bright woman
with great talent, someone who has points to make —
and a quick ability to make them.
“Given her age and experience, I’m looking to see
how her work has changed through the years,” McNally
said of Rogers’ exhibit. “I’m looking for a sense of
progress, where she’s been. I know there was a gap
because of the fire, but I want to see the things she’s
done since that time. I’ve seen more of her current
work, but I know she’s accomplished a lot throughout
Because she has trouble evaluating her work, Rogers
said it’s hard to detect a linear trajectory of artistic
improvement. She remembers the time period she
painted certain pieces, but not the process itself.
“But it’s definitely been a life and definitely been an
interesting life,” she said.
Rogers spends much of her time with partner
Charles Y. Duncan, a member of the Newport City
Council, and her Portuguese hunting dog, Ecco. Her
children and grandchildren are a bit spread out. “I’m
afraid I don’t get to see them as much as I’d like to,”
She is not big on politics, but enjoys Duncan’s passion
for local issues. Duncan, she said, is not a big fan
of art, but appreciates her devotion to her work.
The 1977 fire may have wiped out her work at the
time, but it also served as a jumping point.
“It was devastating at the time, losing everything,”
she said. “I won’t make light of that. But it was also
freeing. It was a terrible thing, but no one got hurt. It
took me a few years to get back to my work, but I did.”
Rogers initially was reluctant to feature a retrospective
of her work. But now she sees it as something
of an achievement, a long range of art from a veteran
artist who continues to work.
“To me, Rita is a painter, a very talented painter,”
McNally said. “I can’t picture her being anything else.”