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Natural Awakenings Tucson

Artist Barbara Rogers: Her Creative Calling

May 31, 2024 09:00AM ● By Suzie Agrillo
After the Storm, 1985, Acrylic on canvas, 66” x 84", Made following the hurricane

After the Storm, 1985, Acrylic on canvas, 66” x 84", Made following the hurricane

Since getting her Master of Arts from the University of California at Berkeley, acclaimed artist Barbara Rogers has made a habit of reinvention. Her artistic style and subject matter have shifted during her illustrious career as a result of life-changing experiences.

Born in Ohio, Rogers attended public schools, and went to a vocational high school that had a commercial art curriculum. She received her college education at Ohio State, where she majored in Art Education and went on to graduate school at Berkeley. An avant-garde trailblazer, during a time when a woman’s place was in the home, she was the first female hired to teach art on the faculty as an Adjunct Professor at The University of California, Berkeley.

In 1982, Rogers went to Hawaii to photograph the fabulous botanical gardens there to get more material for her paintings. While she was exploring Oahu, hurricane winds exceeding 90 miles per hour caused everything to become chaos—fragmented objects flying by her, including flowers, trees and pieces of houses.

When Rogers returned home, she had an epiphany, and knew she could no longer paint sharp focused realism. She abandoned realism in favor of abstract expressionism. She also traded in her acrylics and an airbrush for a return to brushes and oil paint.

To this day, her work depicts abstract fragments of plants, particularly surreal botanicals. Rogers’ prolific art and her vibrant lifestyle are memorialized in the book, Barbara Rogers: The Imperative of Beauty, published by Hudson Hills Press. In 1990, she moved to Arizona and became a tenured Professor of Art at the University of Arizona.

At 87, Rogers is still creating art and loving life. Her most recent endeavor is opening a studio in downtown Tucson at the Firestone Building. Her studio assistant, artist Lauren Steinert, feels honored to collaborate with Rogers. “I’m so fortunate. She is an incredible mentor, and her groundbreaking career opened options for the next generation of women artists,” she opines.

Q&A with Barbara Rogers

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small village named Newcomerstown in northeastern Ohio. When I was six years old, we moved to Canton, Ohio.

When and why did you move to Tucson?
I didn’t even know Tucson existed until a friend of mine who I taught with and was friends with, artist Robert Colscott, got hired here and really talked it up. I was invited to be a guest speaker and visiting artist at the University of Arizona. In 1990, I got an offer for a professorship with tenure, which included free tuition for my son. I took out a second mortgage on my house in California to buy a house in Tucson with a three-car garage, which could be my studio.

What do you remember liking about art from an early age?
I wouldn’t use the term “like” or “love”. It was nonverbally deep, and it was what came most naturally. I don’t remember why, but I wanted to draw women. My drawings started out with women’s undergarments, the bra, panties, garter belt and on top of that a full length slip with a dress on top of everything. In fourth grade, the boys said, “Just do the woman with her bra and panties and we’ll trade you for a candy bar.” And they wanted all the women to be smoking, or holding cigarettes.

Who are some of your favorite artists?
Matisse, Bonnard, Vuillard.

What music do you listen to when painting?
Jazz. When the music flows, so does the paint.

How did wisdom from a rabbi influence your artistic style?
When I was a graduate student at Berkeley, there was a job opening at Temple Emmanuel for an art teacher. I commuted on a motorcycle there, and then changed into hose and heels. The cantor asked me, “What religion are you?” When I said, evangelical, he told me I had to meet with the rabbi.

I met with the rabbi for 15 minutes, and it was life changing. The rabbi told me, “We Jews do not believe in heaven or hell. When we/you are alive on earth, you create your own heaven and hell. What is your idea of heaven? Think about what your paradise looks like, and paint that,” he suggested.

I left there feeling like a boulder had been lifted off my shoulders; what could I do to make my whole life look like heaven? That’s been my goal. That’s how I ended up learning how to use an airbrush and to make stories of what heaven might look like appear believable. When I teach, I try to get my students to think about what would be in their heaven.

Please tell us about your new studio.
After I injured myself in a fall at the house, I decided to sell it. The garage studio was full, and I knew I couldn’t leave there if I didn’t have a place for my work. I called an artist friend, Jim Waid, and told him my situation. He mentioned an artist, Rand Carlson, who had a studio in the Firestone Building, and that he was moving to New Mexico. I saw the space, and said, “Oh, my goodness. This is it.”

Then I had to find a place to live. My house had a fabulous garden, and I was delighted to move to an apartment at Atria Bell Court Gardens off Wilmot on Carondolet. It was designed by architect Merritt Starkweather, who designed the Arizona Inn. The lush landscaping is mature, gorgeous, and meticulously cared for. They make you happy and comfortable, and they have a concierge desk open 24/7.

I get up, fix breakfast in my gorgeous apartment and drive to the studio around 9am. I leave at 4pm, go home, take a nap, and have a dinner party every night with accomplished friends. I just might be the role model for the concept of independent living for artists and creative seniors.

Where else can people buy your art?
Gebert Contemporary Art Gallery in Scottsdale and Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri. I plan to have public hours on Sunday afternoons at my studio after this summer.
ou’ve accomplished so much. What are you most excited about now?
Being accepted into the Archive of Visual Arts at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. They have a wonderful new director, Sara Swayden. There will be an exhibition event open to the public next fall.

Do you have a piece of advice you’ve been given that guides you?
Get a mentor. I think it’s a piece that is missing, even at the university level. The only way you learn a field is to do the grunt work for an artist and ask yourself, “Is this something you could love?”

What’s your favorite thing to do in Tucson in your time off?
Eat great food and have lengthy conversations with as many of the smart people I know as possible. I love my friends. If I have made deposits in my karma bank, spending time with friends is my withdrawal—a payback.

Where would you like to take your next vacation?
A week in a beautiful hotel in New York City with my two grandsons.

What is your favorite food?
Green vegetables cooked by a chef like the one at Anello’s. Grilled and seasoned with expensive olive oil. The grilled romaine lettuce at The Cork is incredible, and so is the broccoli at Tito and Pep.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I think we should all design our lives. Don’t accept anything as a given. Step back, and say, “What exactly is it I want? What steps do I have to take to achieve it?” Think about your idea of the perfect life, and what you need to do, within your means, to create it.

Understand that your very existence is a miracle. How can you make your existence as beautiful as possible? Happiness is catching. Dress as if you’re part of everyone’s landscape—be a good visual. Everything is temporary, we’re all passing through. Make your life become a joy.

Connect with Barbara Rogers at

Suzie Agrillo is a freelance writer in Tucson, and a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings Magazine. She focuses on writing about the arts, inspirational people and the human connection. Connect at [email protected].