Lee Rogers ~A Renaissance Artist~

Story by Jeannie Stone

Lee Rogers of Russellville is a man of many talents. He is an artist, gardener, horseman and a medical wonder. In addition to his ongoing projects Rogers is a conversationalist and enjoys visiting with his friends and neighbors. He is a natural-born social connector. 

To visit his home is to experience a life of love rich in experience and laced in humor. Every inch of every wall displays memories from a life well lived. His renderings of western themes, mostly detailed portraits, take one’s breath away. There are animal portraits of bird dogs and horses and, the wildlife landscapes so realistic that the viewer is drawn into the scenery.

There are lots of momentos and photographs of him and his wife of 47 years, Sarah, sharing good times. One photograph shows them dressed for a costume party and laughing.

That’s the thing about Lee. People love him, and he loves life.

“I was born down around Brownsville, Texas,” he said. “My daddy worked on bulldozers out in the open air, and he had a way of finding animals which he brought home to us. That’s the way we grew up and partly my fascination with wildlife.”

Lee recalls a fawn his father rescued. Its mother had been killed. “That fawn laid her head on Daddy’s lap during the trip home in his pick up, and we took care of her until she died a couple of years later. She broke into the screened in porch and got sick on buttermilk.”

Those are the type stories that make Lee such an interesting person and could partly explain his insatiable appetite for life.

Lee’s father was drafted, and the family’s lifestyle changed dramatically as a result of that. His father was wounded, and when he returned home, the family packed up and left Texas. Lee’s father moved his family to Northeast Arkansas where he helped his father farm.

“The farm was in the river bottoms,” Lee said, “and one day a guy drove by our house and told us to get out because the levee was going to flood. They had been blasting around there. Sure enough, by the time we were driving out water was seeping into the floorboards of the truck. We lost everything.”

The family relocated to nearby Blytheville where Lee’s father secured a job at the Air Force base.

“We had plastic airplanes and toy bombers. It was great,” he said. “My brother and I could go to the movies for 10 cents each.

After the war the base was closed and Lee’s father moved the family to Russellville where he planned to go to school on the GI bill. Along the way, they stopped in Beebe, living in tents, to harvest strawberries to pay for their living expenses.

“You did what you could to survive,” he said. “Mother got onto me and my brother once for eating the strawberries, but the supervisor told her we could eat all we wanted. Well, we never ate strawberries and we pigged out. I thought they were fantastic. That man knew what he was talking about because we got sick and sure didn’t want any more after that.”

At Tech, Lee’s father studied drafting, and his brother started football and also took a drawing class. Lee followed the trend. “Well, none of us had any experience with art,” Lee said, “then, all of a sudden, here we are all doing some kind of art. One thing just led to another.”

The family lived in government housing, and when Lee’s father completed school he found employment at Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center as a maintenance engineer.

Russellville native turned NYC socialite Barbara Norris Church Mailer was a 16-year-old fellow student when Lee asked her to model for him. He was studying photography. “I took the first professional pictures of her,” he said. “Her mother sent a chaperone with her.”

Norris became part of the fabric of Lee’s life just as every friend he’s ever made has left an imprint on him. “I ended up taking her wedding pictures later,” he said.

Lee and Sarah, now retired from Regions Bank, met and married before he’d finished his degree.

“I was drawing and drafting at AVI (Arkansas Valley Industries, now Tyson’s) when we got married,” he said. “I knew I wanted to go into photography, so we checked out a school in Santa Barbara but it was way too expensive. A friend of mine who I’d gone to grade school with was working at a mental institution in Missouri and told me about a job they had open for an art teacher, so I went up there. They had an awesome set-up with huge kilns for throwing pots…”

But Lee witnessed a frightening encounter among the residents and realized he wasn’t cut out to work in that setting. Unsure of what to do, he saw an advertisement for an artist at the Commerce and Industrial Development department in Missouri.

“I got that job and because they had state of the art photography equipment and a darkroom I got my schooling there. I produced their magazine.”

When the job requirements changed to include a college degree Lee and Sarah came home to finish his degree at Tech. Working on commissions from the contacts he made during his four years in Missouri, Lee enrolled in an art class taught by Helen Marshall.

“She was a wonderful woman, bless her heart,” Lee said, “but she took one look at me and told me since I was a realist painter, I was going to have to work double hard in her class. Helen was an abstract painter, and that’s all that class was about.”

Lee ended up dropping her class even though he gave a solid performance.

“I was on campus all day long doing the extra work she required on top of my other classes,” he said, “and I had commissions I had to do. My wife was working at the bank, but we needed those commission sales, so I let the class go. It made me stretch and try things I’d never tried before, and that was good because artists can get too comfortable doing the same thing.”

Upon graduation Lee took a public relations and later an advertising job at Murphy Oil.

“They were really good about sending me to photography school, and I had some awesome experiences flying in the corporate jet to cover stories for the company. They put me in the League of Artists and I served on the Southern Region Board of Ballet.”

Lee was responsible for putting out a monthly newsletter and made an annual trek to Chicago to print the annual report. His artistic repertoire greatly expanded, however, when it was announced that he would be creating commercials for the company. “That’s when they sent me to cinematography school,” he said.

The two-week hands-on crash course in filming was staged at a YMCA camp outside San Francisco.

“It was a serious class,” he said. “Nothing prepared me for the final assignment, though.”

The students were paired off and directed to go out and make a film. “My partner and I went to the coast,” he began, obviously in the throes of another adventure. Lee decided to take advantage of some hippies living out of a Volkswagon bus. While he was filming one of the girls took off her top.

“I just kept filming,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. It was a lot for this ole boy from Arkansas to deal with, I can tell you that.”

Though his fellow male students cheered when they saw his movie, the instructor decided he was too artsy.

After Murphy Oil, Lee moved his young family to Ashland, Ken., to work for the oil company there, but his daughter, Elizabeth, developed severe asthma.

“That air was so congested,” he said. They made the decision to return home.

For the next six years, Lee worked for the Frank Lyon Company in Little Rock before starting his own advertising agency.

During those ventures, he worked on roughly 40 commercials a year rubbing elbows with some of the legends in the entertainment industry like Ed McMahon, Jodie Foster, Ben Johnson, Sally Fields, Robert Urich, Bud Taylor and Buck Taylor. “I even met President Carter,” he said.

Wanderlust got the better of him, and for 12 years he rambled around the countryside drumming up commissions and living on the fly.

“See every town with bold print on the map?” he asked. “That’s where I went. All over Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, and up to South Dakota, North Dakota, over to Michigan and to the east coast. I called on every bold-typed town on the map.”

“I slept in barns, spent a weekend in Notre Dame and slept in a teepee with seven buffalo robes. I have lived life,” he said.

During his travels, Lee entered and won art shows, gathered clients, made friends and made a name for himself in some influential circles. In the West, in particular, there are a number of genres for artists such as the Native Americans, Civil War re- enactments, and cowboys and all that goes with that – cattle, horses and trail rides.

He pointed to a striking Native American warrior on a black background.

“I went to an Indian Pow-wow, and this guy is in his full dress. He told me that anybody going into battle dressed in black and white was prepared to die and commanded a lot of respect. I entered this one in the Trail of Tears art show in Tahlequah,” he said.

“I’m Cherokee on my grandmother’s side, but they didn’t get on the roll, so I can’t claim it. Anyway, I won awards with that one at the show and then took the painting to Lawrence, Kan., and won an award there too. It sold to a man in NYC for $4,000. I even sold the edition completely out. I made 950 copies.”

Lee’s father-in-law introduced him to the world of bird hunting, and he received quite a number of commissions to paint various dogs some of them champions.

“I painted several famous dogs, and one trainer had me paint a 14’ x 16’ long painting on the side of his barn to advertise his business. One person would like my work and tell another. That’s how my name got circulated around.”

Lee also lent his talent to the cattle industry. “For years I painted portraits of the incoming presidents of the Brangus Association,” he said. “There was one guy who owned a lot of jewelry stores in Texas, and he commissioned me to paint a portrait of him and another of Brangus cattle over in Truth of Consequences in New Mexico. When he passed away, his wife told me they put my portrait up in front of the casket because she wanted a closed casket. That meant a lot to me.”

Another customer requested a painting of a particular cliff in Durango, Colo., and while Lee was there he drove to Roswell, N.M., to paint a portrait of another cowboy who had commissioned him. “Everybody leads to somebody else,” he said.

Part of his success has come from his uncanny knack for remembering faces. He is perpetually keeping an eye out for potential models for his many projects. While sketching a Sheridan family, he ran into the brother of his subject and happened to see a photo of the man’s two daughters on his desk.

“I realized one of the girls, who was dark, would make a perfect model for my Sacagawea painting,” he said.

“If you’re going to be an artist you have to have determination,” he said. It seems Lee is not lacking in that department.

The Sacagawea painting took Lee an entire year to complete. “I researched everything,” he said. “She was a Shoshone Indian, and I had to find out what they wore, what kind of shoes, everything. The stick she is carrying had deer horns on the end. She used that to dig up leaves in the ground when she was scavenging for food.”

In keeping with the authenticity of the painting, Lee purchased animal hides and sewed her dress. “I didn’t have any clothes for this girl to wear, so I had to make it myself. I even had to tan the hides.”

“Do you know they tanned the hides using hog brains?” he asked. “It provides a chemical breakdown on the hides that softens them. Then, they would hang the hides on top of their tepees so the smoke from the fire would seal them and make them waterproof. I’ve learned so much.”

After his journey spreading art across the country, Lee concentrated on completing the steady stream of commissions. His works have graced several magazines. Twice his paintings have been featured on the cover of Quail Unlimited Magazine. He has been displayed on the cover of International Brangus Breeder and Texas Brangus magazine.

He has also illustrated a book about training Tennessee Walking Horses and is making plans to add a track to his farm in Dardanelle home to his beloved horses.

“I don’t take many commissions anymore,” he said. “I do what I want. My wife wants me to spend more time entering contests, but I can’t stop working with the horses. I’m obsessed with them.”

Lee’s world nearly came to an end when he contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever in 2001.

“I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I spiked a fever and went in to see Dr. Berner. By the middle of that night I was in the hospital. I was out for three and a half weeks,” he said.

His father had built the wing of the hospital, and Lee recognized the intensive care when he awoke.

“I was in there for 67 days. I was so weak I couldn’t move. I shut down three times. I kept getting infections. My heart stopped. My kidneys started failing me, and I had to go on dialysis. Then my liver started shutting down. My hands looked like rubber gloves blown up. I had bleeding ulcers and had to have over 20 some odd liters of blood.”

He still has trouble with balance. “I was in Rehab forever,” he said. “I had problems with my lungs and got pneumonia. Fortunately, I got everything back, and I got to where I could draw again. Actually, my Rehab therapist told me one day I was going to draw again. I thought she was kidding, but here I am. I think I’m even better than before.”

Garden work has helped Lee strengthen his back and has provided exercise. He is the voluntary grounds keeper at his home church, First Presbyterian Church of Dardanelle.

“I’ve really gotten into propagating plants,” he said. “It all started with daylilies, and I just love it.” Lee built a fence around his garden to keep the deer away. Deer are the main carriers of the tick disease. “Most people aren’t aware of how prevalent the ticks are in this area.”

“My wife and daughter don’t want to hear any stories anymore because I can talk forever, so I’m in solitary confinement in my studio working on my paintings,” he said, and laughed.

“This time eight years ago I was laying in the ICU at Saint Mary’s, and they had pretty much given up on me. The doctor recently told me that he’d already told Sarah to start planning by funeral.”

I’ve had a second chance in life. I’m a lucky guy.

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