Noel Rockmore often stopped by Rolland Golden’s Royal Street Gallery.
Yes, the same Rockmore commissioned by Larry Borenstein to paint portraits of Preservation Hall’s jazz musicians. Golden knew the artist well.
They shared a camaraderie as fellow painters.
“Some days, he’d be in high spirits, so excited about something,” Golden says. “Then some days, he’d come into the gallery down about something, usually about a woman.”
The stories of Rockmore and his women are almost legendary, but they’re not taboo.
“We’ve included them in the book,” Golden says.
He refers to his new book, “Rolland Golden: Life, Love and Art in the French Quarter,” set for a Sept. 1, release by University Press of Mississippi. But Golden is offering a sneak peek this weekend.
He’ll be signing pre-release copies of the book at the openings of his exhibits, “The Artistry of Rolland Golden” on Friday, Aug. 1, at the Garden District Gallery, and “Rolland Golden: An Alternate Vision,” on Saturday, Aug. 2, at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
The Ogden exhibit is the larger show, featuring some 80 pieces chosen by guest curators Andy and Hathia Hayes, who gathered paintings from private collections, as well as Golden’s former studio space in Natchez, Mississippi.
Golden and wife Stella moved to the historic Mississippi River city after Hurricane Katrina. They lived there for seven years before moving back to their house in Folsom.
“We’ve had this house for 33 years,” Stella Golden says, sitting near her husband in the couple’s living room. “We moved here from the French Quarter.”
Which brings the story back to the beginning. The French Quarter is where the Goldens lived and raised their children, Carrie, Damian and Lucille, in the residential part of Bourbon Street, and where Golden maintained a gallery of his work at 624 Royal St., which was often frequented by Noel Rockmore.
“He’d say, ‘Well, Rolland, we didn’t ask to be artists,’” Golden says. “I said, ‘You’re right.’ I really don’t know how he got much painting done, because he really did have a lot of problems with women.”
But Golden isn’t passing judgment. That’s just the way it was with Rockmore, the way it was in the 1950s French Quarter. Life was different, the Quarter was another place in another time, and all this became the material for Golden’s book.
“University Press of Mississippi wanted to know about the stories,” Stella Golden says. “They wanted to know what our lives were like, what it was like living in the French Quarter at that time.”
Which was fine with Golden. These are the things he likes talking about. His artwork speaks for itself.
Refining a talent, rolling the dice
Golden doesn’t mind inviting visitors into his studio, which now occupies the first floor of his house. His wife and daughter moved him there from the upstairs studio after he took a fall on Father’s Day in 2013. He was rushed to the emergency room, where doctors discovered he was suffering from several health problems.
“I didn’t even know anything was wrong with me,” Golden says, laughing again. “I felt fine.”
“You do know he’s 82,” Stella Golden adds.
The Goldens have been married 57 years and are not only partners in marriage but in business. Stella Golden keeps up with records and inventory, leaving her husband to his painting. She became so good at her job that she ran Bryant Galleries in the French Quarter for awhile, advising other artists on the business side of their work.
“Every artist needs someone in their life to do this,” Stella Golden says. “Artists just aren’t good at doing both.”
“I didn’t know she was good at this when I married her,” Golden adds. “I just thought she was a beautiful woman.”
But Stella Golden was more than a beauty; she was the girl next door, living across from Golden’s family home in the Irish Channel.
He didn’t know which career path to pursue after being discharged from the U.S. Navy in the 1950s, but he knew without a doubt he wanted to marry the beautiful girl across the street.
First, he had to figure out a way to support her.
“I’d always been good at art,” Golden says. “So, I thought, ‘Why not be an artist?’”
Which is ironic in a way, because Golden almost reneged on this decision while enrolling in the John McCrady Art School. He knew he should develop his skills after a priest explained that talent was God’s gift and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Still, he had doubts.
“I started thinking that maybe this wasn’t a good idea,” Golden says.
Those familiar with Louisiana and regional artists will know that McCrady is one of the most highly regarded Louisiana artists of the 20th century. His paintings are some of the most important of Southern art, and he was part of the group of Works Progress Administration, or WPA, artists who lived in New Orleans. He opened his art school in New Orleans in 1942.
“I was sitting there, looking at all of those beautiful drawings, and I started thinking, ‘Rolland, you are stupid,’” Golden said in a previous Advocate interview. “But John McCrady came out and talked to me. I didn’t have anything to show him, but he convinced me that I ought to give it a try. It was because I was impressed by this person and liked him that I enrolled.”
Golden used the $110 a month he received from the GI Bill to pay his tuition. He studied two years, then set out on his own.
“I knew I wanted to paint and sell my art, but I also knew I didn’t want to sit around Jackson Square to do it,” Golden says. “There wasn’t anything wrong with doing that, but it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t know how I could get any painting done with people coming up and talking to me all the time.”
So, he opened his Royal Street gallery in 1957, then married Stella.
A priceless patron
The gallery was located in the bottom of a former slave quarters at the back of a courtyard. The Goldens lived on the top floor. There were times when his work would produce only $10, with which Stella would run to the A&P down the street.
“Something always came through at the right time,” Golden says. “There was always a break, and I’ve always said that it was God looking out for me.”
Golden landed his break when actor Vincent Price visited New Orleans on an art purchasing trip for Sears, Roebuck and Co. Price was an avid art collector and made it his mission to show art to everyday people. Sears toured the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art from 1962 to 1971.
Price bought 17 of Golden’s paintings, then returned the following year and bought 35.
“It was everything that I had,” Golden says. “He paid me $750 for everything, and I was glad to get it.”
That was in the early 1960s, when $750 could stretch much farther than it can today. In his book, Golden explains how this experience affirmed his decision to pursue an art career.
His work has since been featured in more than 100 one-man shows in galleries, cultural centers and museums throughout the United States. It also has been featured in one-man exhibits in France and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. And in 2007, the New Orleans Museum of Art showed Golden’s paintings depicting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath on the Crescent City.
Now comes the museum show, complemented by the gallery show. Both are a celebration of Golden’s different subjects and styles.
He loves the mystery found in the serenity of cattle, but roads have his attention at the moment. Paintings of empty roads trailing through fall-colored Virginia mountains fill his wall and easel.
He also paints historical Civil War scenes, and while living in Natchez, the Mississippi River’s many personalities dominated his canvases.
The artwork will speak for itself at the two exhibitions. The book speaks for Golden. He wrote it; his daughter Lucille edited it.
“It ends with them in Kiev while they were attending his traveling exhibition in Russia,” Lucille Golden says. “I told him he couldn’t just leave it at that. People would want to know what happens next.”
So Stella penned the epilogue, which hints at the possibility of book two.
Still, there’s so much to be discovered in the first book, including a political fight to keep a mayor’s proposed expressway system out of the Vieux Carre and visits from Pete Fountain. After all, Rockmore wasn’t the only big name that frequented Golden’s gallery. Golden and Fountain have known each other since high school, and Fountain is one of Golden’s biggest collectors.
But the stories of Fountain’s visits aren’t as juicy as Rockmore’s.
And they’re all in the book.