Richard Marvin and his wife, Tee, had no idea the treasure trove they were about to uncover. In 2006, the couple agreed to assist Richard’s mother, Shirley, in helping her catalog her art collection. Shirley Marvin, then 85, was in need of help with what Richard expected to be a lot of twenty to seventy paintings by a relatively forgotten artist named Noel Rockmore. Instead, they discovered over 1,400 paintings, spread out across three storage units.
“We were stunned,” Richard said. “I knew she collected some, but I did not know she was his patron for life. We decided to research and try to find out who this guy was, but Shirley had just started having memory problems. When we looked him up, he had no electronic footprint.”
At the time, there were only two or three sites on the Internet giving information about Rockmore, one of which was his obituary. When Richard asked his mother why she had collected so much work by a virtual unknown, she told him that she had felt Rockmore was an “undiscovered master” and had thus felt it important to keep the bulk of the works together.
The Louisiana Art & Science Museum is currently hosting an exhibit dedicated to Rockmore and Shirley Marvin, entitled “The Faith & the Fury: Noel Rockmore and His Patron.” It is scheduled to run through Oct. 6.
Shirley Marvin and Noel Rockmore met in the 1960s, as members of “Father of Preservation Hall” Larry Borenstein’s inner circle of artists and musicians. This circle also included such notable persons as Ellis Marsalis, Jr., and Bill Russell. It was there that Shirley became his patron, and she remained so until his passing in 1995.
What Richard and Tee had not yet realized, however, was that Rockmore’s life story was as fascinating as his paintings.
Rockmore was born Noel Montgomery Davis in the winter of 1928, the son of painter and illustrator Floyd MacMillan Davis and his wife Gladys, née Rockmore, who was also a painter. The couple was well established in the art scene both in New York and abroad. They were the first husband and wife correspondent team ever assigned to cover a war together, as they were commissioned by Life magazine in 1944 and 1945 to paint liberated Paris.
Noel Davis gained his own notoriety, both as an artistic prodigy and an inveterate rapscallion. Before making his way to New Orleans in 1959, he had already been part of a group exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, had sixteen works on display in the Hirshhorn Museum (from which he was later banned for attempting to change his name from Davis to Rockmore on a piece of his artwork. Another story - possibly apocryphal – says it was for vandalizing another artist’s work).
According to Richard, with the rise of the abstract movement, in which “he did not want to compete,” Noel Davis moved to New Orleans and changed his name to Rockmore - a strange concept, given his prior fame. This made it difficult when the Marvin family sought to help Rockmore gain the posthumous recognition they felt he so rightly deserved.
“‘We have a Noel Davis, but not a Rockmore,’ we were told,” Richard said. “Rockmore certainly was an undiscovered master, but his alcoholism and his name change had cost him his recognition. So [we] could not get past the ‘gatekeepers’ of the New York museums.”
Those barriers meant a tough task ahead for the Marvins, but Rockmore’s personality had left an indelible impression. Shirley’s neighbor happened to be George Wein, the founder of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, who was enlisted in what Richard calls “the quest” to get Rockmore recognized.
The Marvin family also caught a break when they met John Ed Bradley, whose involvement in the preservation of a WPA mural in New Orleans had inspired him to write the novel Restoration, which featured Rockmore.
“Bradley really became sort of our mentor and champion in the New Orleans community,” Richard said. “We had a little meeting at Preservation Hall, and we started getting e-mails from all of the big museums. There were Rockmores in every New Orleans museum; it wasn’t that he wasn’t known, it was that he had disappeared after dying in 1995.”
Once visibility increased, more Rockmore works were discovered in various and far-flung locales. They include another trove of paintings in LaGrange, GA, which had been purchased by a captain of industry, as well as several that belonged to Baton Rouge art collector Don Fuson.
In the 35 years she served as Rockmore’s patron, Shirley Marvin kept all of her correspondence with the artist, including drafts of her own letters, as well as posters and brochures from any and all exhibits.
These items are part of the exhibit currently on display at LASM. Curator Elizabeth Weinstein told Richard she wanted to “celebrate the faith of his mother as a believer, and the fury that was Rockmore; because he would have disappeared off of the face of the earth if she had not believed in him.”
“If you did not make it in your lifetime and you do not have a champion to carry the ball, you disappear off the face of the earth,” Richard said. “There were only two Internet search results – his obituary and one photo – when this started. He was outrageous and eccentric and easy to distract; if you focus on his life and exploits, he modeled himself after Picasso in that way. Finally, his art gets to tell the story and not his personality.”