written by Courtney Tait photographed by Tim Sugden
In his early 20s, Alexander Rokoff found a book of paintings at a Barnes & Noble bookstore by the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum. “It was the closest thing I had to a religious experience,” he says. “It gave me hope for my own direction.”
As evident in the artist’s body of widely-exhibited large-scale oil works created in the two decades since, this direction led to a moody, evocative style centered largely on the human figure, with emotion and expression at the forefront. It also led to an old-school apprenticeship with Nerdum himself. Rokoff sent the painter a portfolio, and three months later accepted an invitation to live with Nerdrum and his wife on the coast of Norway. For several months, Rokoff spent his days building studio tools and creating enlargements of Nerdrum’s work; in return, Nerdrum shared his wisdom of the craft. “I hear his words in my head all the time while I’m painting,” says Rokoff.
These days Rokoff divides his time between Portland and Hawaii, where he’s building a studio on a raw acre of land. Passionate, energetic, and disciplined, he approaches the easel, he says, like he’s “getting into the ring with a gorilla.” Here, he opens up about his early years in Santa Fe, why Portland is like Shangri-La, and teaching the painting class he could never find.
You grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. How did that environment shape you as an artist?
In my family, everybody is a creative person of one kind or another. Growing up in Santa Fe I was surrounded by art and artists all the time. My family collected art, and they had lots of artist friends, so for me this was life. Santa Fe’s a strange place; even back then, everybody was an artist.
And of course the landscape is stunningly beautiful and there’s an incredible amount of cultural diversity. That adds to a lot of different vision coming out of that place. It’s gone through some touristy southwestern art periods, but it’s emerged as a vibrant creative hub as people from all over the world have been moving there to take advantage of the beautiful light, the amazing landscape and the incredible diversity.
So your family supported your interest in art, being artists themselves.
They didn’t support it monetarily, but my parents would have supported me in doing whatever I truly wanted to do. I happened to choose becoming an artist, and they were in full support of that, which felt like a big advantage. When it came time to drop out of art school I really saw their support because I was on a full scholarship and I left it after three semesters to travel, and they were in support of that.
What art school did you go to?
I was a metalsmithing major at Arizona State. I always drew and painted growing up because my father was a cartoonist, so for the longest time I wanted to be a cartoonist. In my teenage years I saw some amazing drawings by a Russian painter named Nicolai Fechin. I was blown away by them and decided, “Wow, that’s what I want to do.” I got into metalsmithing because I like tools and fire and making things. I was looking at it as making sculpture on a small scale with precious metals. It was my way of going through craftsmanship boot camp, and got me into art school so I could study drawing, painting, and sculpture.
Why did you drop out?
I didn’t feel at home there at all. There was very little support for the history of drawing, painting, and sculpture. Everything was focused on modernism and postmodernism, and there was a general disdain for wanting to really cultivate your skills.
That seems very counterintuitive.
It does. This trend is changing, but it’s been a trend since the advent of modernism. To be a modern artist meant that you needed to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The history didn’t matter anymore. It was a full on revolution. It’s come full circle now, and it seems there are far more representational affiliates than there have ever been. Since the crash of the economy I’ve noticed a resurgence in representational work. There’s more of a balance. The war for aesthetic freedom is totally over. Everybody’s an artist, everything is art.
What brought you to Portland?
Fecundity, water, sustenance. I left New Mexico when it was on fire—literally. Right around 2000 when the droughts had gotten so severe, we no longer had summer, we had the fire season. Coming up here was like Shangri-La to me. Everything was green and growing and it rained. When I heard people cursing about blackberries, I knew I was in the right place.
The human figure is prevalent in your work. Where does your interest in this subject come from?
I’m very much an introverted extrovert or extroverted introvert. I love people. I get a lot from people’s stories and body language. As a family, we would take people-watching trips because my dad was a cartoonist working with the human condition. I became an obsessive people watcher. The body, facial expression, gesticulation of hands—in concert these come together and speak volumes. I’m intrigued by that hidden language that’s universal.
How do you choose who you want to paint? Do you paint from live models, photographs, or imagination?
My eyes are always open, and certain people strike me in a certain way. Everyone I paint is at arm’s length—people in my neighborhood, in my life, friends of friends, or complete strangers in my community. Then I have to approach them with confidence and a clear vision. Depending on the particular project, I want to do it all from life. The unspoken dialogue between you and the subject is palpable; that energy in the room is exciting. But often times the person is not available at four in the morning when I need to paint. So I bring them in, work it from life, back it up with photo reference, and bring them in again at the end to work it from life. In there is a heavy degree of imagination. Some of them are like pulling teeth and some paint themselves.
What are your creative habits?
I’ll get up extremely early to paint. I approach the easel like I’m getting into the ring with a gorilla. I need to be fed and caffeinated and rested. Then I go for an intense three to four-hour bout. I’ll work in shifts like this. Under deadline, I may work a twelve-hour day, but I’ll break it up with with naps and bike rides and fresh air. When I’m not at the easel I’m doing everything to prepare to get back to the easel.
Has it taken you a while to find that rhythm?
In the earlier part of my career I would become a studio monk, never leave, and work endless stretches of time. I felt like the work was getting compromised. It wasn’t yielding better results. The fresh eyes I can get by changing my context really helps me at the easel.
How do you spend your time when you’re not painting?
I do a lot of building and inventing. I have a shop in the back of my house with welding and woodworking equipment and everything I need to create things. It’s a great way to decompress from painting. Painting is so cerebral. There are endless questions. It’s wonderful, but I need some significant physical activity as well. I definitely cook a lot. It’s edible painting.
photo by Öde Spildo Nerdrum
How does your mood impact your work?
I usually want to paint regardless of the mood. Emotional stress can be difficult. I keep people around me that love and support me. Curveballs gotta go because that’s the kind of stuff that really affects me. I’m taking in a lot all the time, and I need to keep myself exposed to remain sensitive to the world around me. If I’m in some kind of emotional turmoil I can’t do anything. That’s an arena I’ve had a pretty steep learning curve with over the years.
Art is so subjective. What do you hope people come away with after viewing something you’ve painted, and do you care what they think?
In terms of whether people like it or not, I’ve lost the energy to care that much. If they love it or hate it, I don’t let it go to my head. I have my intentions of what I want the painting to do, but these days I don’t distill it down to any specific narrative, I just hope they’re evocative and pose more questions than they supply answers for. The viewer is going to see a reflection of their own personal experience in there no matter what.
What have people told you about what your art has meant to them?
The idea of being able to capture a soul or a spirit has come up many times. One friend described me as a painter of souls. That’s a description that I would certainly want to live up to.
You teach painting as well. How do the courses work?
I teach six-week workshops at Falcon Arts at 321 NW Glisan. I provide all the materials, brushes, canvasses, paint, everything. It’s never more than a dozen at a time, so I’m able to really be effective as a teacher. I deal with absolute beginners, and will throw them in the same class with people who have been painting for years. It’s a craftsmanship bootcamp so that people can truly realize their vision.
Do you think everyone can learn to paint well?
Some people seem to have more a facility for it than other people, but I absolutely believe I can teach anybody to paint. That quote—”talent limps behind dedication and determination.” I believe wholeheartedly in the process. I’m trying to teach the class I could never find.
What’s the most freeing piece of advice you’ve had on your creative path?
I had a painter friend in Santa Fe that was forty years my senior. If he saw me on the street. He’d say, “Are you painting?” He wouldn’t engage with me unless I was painting. One day I was sketching in a cafe, and he came up and pointed to the sketch book, and said, “You see this motherfucker? This will either keep you alive or you can die a spiritual death on your feet. That is your choice.” Those were motivating words.
What advice would you give to others?
I would go back to Michelangelo’s dying words to his apprentice, “Draw, Antonio, draw, Draw and do not waste time.” That’s the cornerstone of all of it. I believe it takes a lifetime to get your wings.