Shaffer: Artist in the woods finds life beyond alcohol, jail

July 7, 2013 

— Rocky Reese draws with his right hand, the same one he hurt in a bar fight.

He can’t feel most of the fingers on that hand, and the damaged nerves jut out in a lump at his wrist. But he can still hold a graphite pencil.

He smiles at this defect, knowing it makes him more colorful. Not many artists in Raleigh can say they’ve smashed their drawing hand through a saloon window.

For most of the last year, Rocky has drawn portraits from a tent hidden in some woods off South Wilmington Street, where he staked out an arduous, homeless life with his girlfriend, Ashley.

He sketched his thoughts on donated paper: roses with barbed-wire stems, eyes with steel bars around the irises, crosses that look like the one he has tattooed on his neck. While Rocky worked, Ashley would tote logs for their campfire.

“Like a little girl lumberjack,” he joked.

Rocky’s homelessness stems from a life lived in near-constant tailspin, bouncing between jails, huddling in the woods, drinking to stave off the morning light.

But his artwork is providing a candle that flickers brightly enough for him to see past the hand-to-mouth chaos he’s endured for 15 years.

Last month, he got invited to show his work at an art auction downtown, where he made about $80 and won the People’s Choice award.

When I met him on Friday, he was selling those portraits on the corner of Capital Boulevard and Trawick Road: a portfolio that includes a depiction of Andy Griffith in the clouds and another of Shon McClain – a friend from the streets who was beaten to death in the Wake County jail.

He’s earned himself a nickname: Artist in the Woods.

“I don’t even know myself right now,” Rocky said. “People on the street tell me, ‘You’re glowing.’ ”

A 15-year spiral down

At 39, Rocky decided to make art the focus of his life – a hard-fought replacement for alcohol.

His mother threw him out of their house in Florida 15 years ago, starting a long slide into vagrancy and crime. He spent a lot of his time in jail, usually for drugs or drinking and the chaos that spun off those habits. He says he never picked up a B&E – slang for breaking and entering. He never did anything violent – except once. That time, he hit a police officer while being arrested in Buncombe County, an experience that earned him four years in prison and a scar over his eyebrow.

A habit in Pa. prison

But one time, while behind bars in Pennsylvania, a correctional officer told Rocky he couldn’t sit in the day room unless he kept himself busy. So he picked up a pencil and drew a flower. It got to be a habit, then an addiction.

Not long after that, a fellow inmate handed Rocky a picture of his daughter and offered him a few dollars to draw her portrait.

Rocky drew it, and the inmate shook his head. He drew it again, and the inmate said “No.” He drew it a third time. Rejected. But on the fourth try, Rocky got a few dollars to spend in the prison canteen and his first taste of the satisfaction that comes from hard work.

Once he got out of prison last year, Rocky tried drawing on the streets of Chapel Hill, where he developed into a local character. People would ask for his autograph, just for the novelty of it. In Raleigh, he found friends at Love Wins Ministries on Glenwood Avenue, where he got encouraged not just to draw, but also to come to the legislature and speak against requiring photo ID to vote.

He stood there in the House, sunglasses perched on his head, and told the members, “I met a whole lot of homeless people out here in this world that have no ID. But they’re always somebody. They’re still somebody.”

For the first time in his life, Rocky recognized that people noticed and cared about him. When he’d sketch faces in the middle of Moore Square, people would gather around behind him, watching.

The kindness of …

Strangers gave him art supplies.

One woman paid him $130 for a drawing, even though it had gotten wet and stepped on in an abandoned house.

Last month, when he got invited to show his work at the auction downtown, he was the only artist there who used a zipper to shut the front door of his house.

But the experience made him realize that he was ready to leave the streets. He entered Oxford Houses, which help people in recovery.

As we spoke in a McDonald’s on Friday, Rocky told me he’d been clean and sober for 26 days, Ashley for 16.

On the Fourth of July, he bent down on Fayetteville Street, pretending to tie his shoe, and asked Ashley to marry him – a stutter in his voice.

She said yes.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-8 29-4818

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