A few weeks ago (April 2016) I was fortunate enough to visit the studio of Skip Rohde – Military Veteran and Artist and Teacher in Asheville, NC.
Skip Rohde was an officer in the U.S. Navy for over 22 years. After retiring, he went back to school and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Rohde had previously studied art in a number of venues, including Memphis State University, the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Gallerie Cujas in San Diego, and Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
Most of Rohde’s works are paintings, but he is also active in drawing and printmaking. His works in all three media have been critically acclaimed. His paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries across the eastern half of the country, and have won awards in national and regional competitions.
Inspired by his work and outlook on life I asked him several questions:
Q: Leadership comes in many forms and I am fond of saying it is ALSO a process not just a position. You have experienced leadership on many levels – in the military – as an Art Teacher and an Artist, how would you describe good or innovative leadership?
Hoo, boy … this can go in a thousand different directions … I’ll just start rambling here and see where it goes. I can’t imagine that anybody would have a canned answer to this one …
Generally, leadership involves having some sort of goal to accomplish and people to accomplish it with. The leader gets people to accomplish the mission. That’s a really high-level attempt at defining leadership and every specific instance is going to be different. In the military, we’re assigned both the mission and the people, and the officers and senior enlisted figure out how to make it happen. People who’ve never been in the military often think of it as a very top-down structure, with lots snapping to attention and yelling “YES SIR!!”. That went out in the ’50’s if it ever existed. Now the troops are generally pretty well motivated, and the leaders’ role is to channel that motivation in the right ways to get the mission done. It’s much more of a multi-way dialog than civilians commonly think.
On the other extreme, as an art teacher, my goal is to help my students bring their artistic skills to the next level. So instead of having my goal and people given to me, I have to define a goal that sounds attractive enough for students to pay me to help them learn, and then I have to work with the students on an individual basis to help them achieve their goals. In essence, I’m working with the students to define their individual goals and figuring out an effective method of getting there.
For three years, I was the first President of the River District Artists, which is now Asheville’s premier artist organization. I think I was drafted because I was the only one who knew how to run a meeting and I didn’t say “no” fast enough. There wasn’t any organization at first, no money, the only goal was to put on a Studio Stroll twice a year, and there were as many disparate ideas about what to do as there were artists. So my approach was to get people to talk about what they wanted the River Arts District to look like, and then come up with ideas and proposals for how we could work together to make it happen. Gradually, we put together a plan for the Strolls, we started organizing committees for specific tasks, we got some money for a budget, and built on what we had.
After three years, we had doubled in membership, had a firm organizational structure, had started holding additional events besides the Strolls, and were recognized by the city as an influential art organization. I didn’t do any of that, the artists did. I just tried to provide an environment in which they could hash out their ideas with other artists and then put them in place.
One other thing. When I retired from the Navy, one of my sailors came up to me and gave me the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten. He said “Thank you for all the things you didn’t even know you were doing.” I’ve thought about that a lot since then. I’d known that I was in a position where everything I did was under a microscope, but it hadn’t really hit home so directly. Everything I’d done had been noted, studied, and evaluated by my sailors. Apparently they thought I did okay. But I also realized that we’re all similar situations, every one of us.
Whether we’re in command off a military unit, managing a small office, being a parent, or walking the dog, we’re all in some sort of role where we’re working with others to achieve a mission … even if the mission is just to get the dog to poop. And whether we’re aware of it or not, other people are watching us and noting what we’re doing. (Don’t think they’re watching you? Aren’t a lot of your opinions of others formed when they don’t know you’re watching them?)
So I guess what it comes down to, at least for me, is: be honest, treat everybody with respect, and don’t be an asshole.
By the way, an old Navy buddy of mine is now full Captain and writes extensively on leadership. Take a look at his blog: http://seanheritage.com/blog/
I would have loved to have a CO like him when I was a junior officer.
Q: After looking at your work – I noticed that some pieces were softer or quieter in their messages and some boldly commented on life, politics and leadership. How can ART demonstrate a form of leadership or what can leaders learn from Art?
I’m generally a quiet guy, so I guess it’s natural that most of my artworks are also quiet. One of my favorite artists is Jerome Witkin, a phenomenal painter, who tackles really tough subjects like the Holocaust. His paintings are powerfully executed stories. I want my paintings to tell stories as well, so I tried to adopt his techniques. It didn’t work. His paintings have an intensity and vibrant energy that is not natural to me. I’m not (usually) a screamer – my natural response is to pull back, mull things over, and then say my piece in a quiet manner. That applies to conversations as well as artworks – maybe because artworks are a different form of conversation.
But sometimes, you just have to take a stand and wave the bullshit flag. That’s where my political satire paintings came from. When our leaders are lying to us, we have to call them out, and you can’t always do it quietly. So my political satire paintings were as biting as I could possibly make them. They weren’t done for entertainment or for decoration, they were done to make a point and affect how people think.
My later series of paintings about the effects of war were much quieter in tone, although they were also done to make a point and affect how people think. My very best painting, Warrior, is a simple painting of an accomplished soldier who has lost his legs. My goal in that painting was to remind people that, when our leaders are pushing us to go to war, that war has consequences. People die, people are maimed, and places are destroyed. I’ve seen that destruction personally. As a military guy, I have no problem in going off to fight if necessary, but we as a country must be damn sure that it’s necessary.
Q: If you could choose one painting from another artist that demonstrates the feelings or evokes a sense of leadership – what would it be ad why? And I would like to ask the same for you and your art.
ONE painting? Damn! Okay, since I’m on a military theme here, I’ll go with Gassed, by John Singer Sargent. The British government asked him to go to the front during World War I as a combat artist. He saw troops who had been hit with mustard gas. This painting is the result.
I’m going to give you a second war-related one: Guernica by Pablo Picasso. Guernica was a Spanish village that was bombed by the Germans in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso’s painting is considered one of the strongest anti-war paintings of all time.
Of my work, I’d say Warrior, as discussed above.
To learn more about Skip Rohde and view his art – you can visit his site here: