Q&A: Colleen Rockey's Downtown Kalamazoo Mural

Posted by Brandi Engel on Jul 3, 2018 3:33:27 PM

Colleen Rockey, painter. 

Colleen Rockey graduated from Western Michigan University in 1974 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in painting. That year the city of Kalamazoo selected her to paint a mural downtown. The mural had faded and was peeling after years in the sun and elements. Colleen, now retired, took it upon herself to restore it.  The restoration project has been a nostalgic and sentimental trip for Colleen as she remembers where she was in her life and as a painter 44 years ago.  

What did you study at WMU and what year did you graduate?

entered WMU as a freshman in 1970 and in 1974 received a BFA degree with a concentration in painting. I also studied drawing, printmaking, sculpture, and ceramics. Ninety of my 120 credits for BFA graduation were in fine art studio classes or art history. At the time I received this degree, the next logical step would have been graduate school for an MFA. Instead, life happened. I started working and never did make it to graduate school. I learned the graphic design trade and made my living in that field. But I always painted. I entered shows whenever I could, joined fine art groups, discussed painting with other artists, and took life-drawing classes whenever possible. However, it was only when I retired from full-time work that I could I devoted myself to painting and the creation of artwork. So that is what I do now.

What was your favorite class at WMU? How did it shape your career and contribute to your successes?

I loved my art school at WMU and I loved student life. I loved all my college classes and learned so much from every single class that I simply cannot claim that any one class was my favorite or that any one classed shaped my career or successes. Whether it was geology or history of Islam, I appreciated those classes and really liked them. The conglomerate of my college experience prepared me for the rest of my life. 

What have you been doing since graduation? How has your career changed over time?

I started my working career with entry-level graphic production work and sign-making. After a year of that, I decided I needed a different set of skills so I re-enrolled at WMU to take graphic design and photography classes. I was mid-way through the program when I moved to the Detroit area. I found advertising agency work there and at the age of 26 I found myself Art Director to a staff of six. After juggling work with motherhood for three years, I moved to Grand Haven. I did freelance Graphic Design/Marketing/Advertising for seven years and had a wide variety of clients.
In 1991, I went to work for my largest client, Brilliance Audio, an audiobook publishing company. My career grew alongside the company’s growth. Starting as a single in-house designer, I developed the art department into a five-designer team to meet the needs of the company. I was also given the opportunity to manage the direct-to-consumer business for the company. In 2007, I assumed the leadership of the recording studio as well and became the Creative Director for Brilliance Audio. Later in that same year, Brilliance Audio was purchased by amazon.com. I remained in the capacity of Creative Director for Brilliance Audio/Amazon for seven years.
Rocke's painting Unbalanced Thoughts.

Rockey's painting MidwinterThaw.

What is next for you? 

I retired in 2014. Since that time, I have devoted myself to painting. I was accepted into a cooperative gallery in Grand Haven and exhibit my work there. I enter as many art shows as I can. I am also involved in an art collective that exhibits pop-up shows in unusual venues. If this is any measure of success, I have sold eleven paintings thus far in 2018. But I would continue to paint even if I sold none.

Why did you enter this image in the competition for an outdoor mural for this wall?

Frankly, I can’t remember much of my decision-making process. The image is an example of the kind of painting I was doing at the time. I was very interested in exploring color juxtaposition and compositional balance. I imagine that I thought the artwork to be suitable and doable for outdoor public art. I can tell you that there were four iterations. The first was a 9”x12” oil crayon study and that became a 48”x48” oil painting. After deciding that this was the image I would submit to the competition, I then recreated an acrylic 26”x18” version (scaled to the 26’x18’ outdoor wall) as my submitted entry. After winning the award and stipend for the wall, the fourth version was the painted wall itself.

Colleen and her husband painting on a scaffold.

Can you describe a bit about your process for restoring the mural and how this came about?

There were a lot of factors that have contributed to my mural’s durability: a good colorful design suitable for the space, the right paint, and a wall with brick in good condition that only received direct sunlight for two hours out of the day. While only I could tell that the colors had faded, nearly everyone could see that the paint was beginning to peel or at least crackle in the mortar joints by the mural’s fortieth year. Although aging provides a patina that is charming, I became concerned that the mural would soon be an eyesore
The original idea for restoring the mural came after I mentioned how sad I was about its deteriorating condition to friends. Who said, “Now that you are retired, you should restore that mural you painted in Kalamazoo.” The idea percolated for a few years. Then my husband and I said to each other, “We aren’t getting any younger. I don’t think there are many more years left that we could physically handle a project like that. We better get it done this year.”
If I did not have experience with project management, accomplishing the restoration would have been daunting. There were so many moving parts to the process that I felt like I was constantly juggling, in contrast to 44 years ago when all I had to do was buy the paint, some brushes, put up the scaffolding and paint the mural.


The more I have worked on the restoration of the 1974 mural, the more respect I have for my 21-year-old self. With very limited tools, I successful transferred an 18” x 26” design onto an 18’ high x 26’ wide outdoor brick wall. (I still have, and use, the 36” black metal ruler that was my friend and guide throughout that process. I brought the ruler along to help with restoration!) How did I become aware enough to buy the right paint to last 44 years? I remember that no one else used the high quality sign paint that I used, opting to use cheaper, regular house paint instead. While I had limited help for the original priming of the surface, I painted the entire mural myself. I had no idea I was so skilled at painting straight, smooth edges over a rough brick surface back then. I think my edging skills were better than they are today!


You can do anything you want to do. Don’t wait for opportunity; make opportunities for yourself. Sometimes you must be patient but if you work hard and seek continuous improvement, opportunity will come to you.


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Topics: The Student Experience, Frostic School of Art, Richmond Center for Visual Arts

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