Coming full circle

Anne Rooney's art reflective of her past

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If life travels in circles as Anne Rooney says, then her present is merely a bigger or smaller reproduction of her past -- a past full of new art mediums and cultural exploration.

We find Rooney in her studio, thousands of miles from here and many years ago, in a sandy merchants' city nestled on the coast of the Persian Gulf in the United Arab Emirates. She was living in Dubai with her oil executive husband whom she met in Libya.

It was the same Anne Rooney who blasts figures out of marble in the cool pine tree shade of her Steamboat Springs back yard, but back then she had to work indoors in an air-conditioned studio so that her rubber sculpture molds would not melt.

Rooney has been an artist since the day she was old enough to draw, but there in the Middle East, she learned more than she ever had in art school. Oil wealth allowed her the time to sculpt. Servants did the housework, and she threw herself into living as an art apprentice.

"The world really opened up to me," she said. She started with clay, making sculptures of the Bedouin nomads who lived in the desert of the UAE.

She was able to tell stories of the people she saw with clay, but she wanted something more lasting.

On a trip back to the States, she met bronze sculptor Hollis Williford during a visit to Art Castings bronze foundry in Loveland.

"I owe my life and sculpture to that man," she said.

Rooney visited the foundry with the idea of immersing herself in the world of bronze sculpture, but she was overwhelmed, she said. Williford took her under his wing and showed her the step-by-step process of changing her art.

He made a list of books for her to read and classes to take and processes to try.

"I followed that list like it was the Bible," Rooney said. She traveled back and forth between the Middle East and Colorado with new sculptures to cast at Art Castings. She had two young children in Dubai and could never be away from home for more than two weeks. So Art Castings owner Bob Zimmerman, who now owns Lands End Foundry in Paonia, rushed her work while she took classes.

She was learning technique in Colorado and learning spirit in the Middle East.

"They say that art does not exist in the Middle East, but it is in their soul," she said.

In traditional Islamic culture, any worship of the human form is blasphemous. Faces and figure studies are rare in their art. Instead, calligraphy, as well as geometric and floral patterns, have become important artistic motifs.

So it was strange, and almost shocking, for an American woman to be sculpting real-to-life images of Bedouin herders or old women covered by their burkas.

A piece called "The Pearl Diver" is a bronze sculpture of a man coming up for air. His hand is clenched high in the air. The image came from an old 8-mm film from the 1930s that Rooney borrowed from a friend. She had the film converted to video so she could watch it over and over again.

Pearl diving is illegal now, but it once was a dangerous and lucrative activity on the Gulf Coast.

"My (friend) said that I was so brave, even that I was revolutionary, (sculpting human forms in the Middle East,) but I was just doing what came naturally," Rooney said.

But a surprising thing happened: Her work was accepted. "That's what was interesting. I have pieces in the ruler's palace and in the Dubai airport."

Rooney became a fixture in the arts sections of Middle Eastern publications.

"The Arabs are so poetic," she said. "One reporter wrote (in Arabic) 'This woman comes to us from another country with Western techniques in the smelter of her soul she creates work of us.'"

After 17 1/2 years in the Middle East, Rooney's husband was transferred to Houston and she returned to the States with him.

The Gulf News wrote of her leaving, "Dubai's first lady of art, Anne Rooney. She was a prime mover of the thriving art community in Dubai today."

Back in the States, her work progressed from bronze to stone and glass.

One commission from her time in Texas still brings tears to her eyes: It came from the parents of a girl named Maegan who lived her entire life with severe disabilities before dying at 16. The parents wanted to dedicate a marble monument to their daughter and donate it to a handicapped-accessible playground.

Rooney carved an abstract calico cat out of a 4-ton slab of pink marble.

"I never met Maegan, but (her spirit) guided me the entire time," Rooney said.

Seven years ago, Rooney moved to Steamboat to be close to her son who was attending Lowell Whiteman.

Since then, her work has spread like tentacles through town. Her marble sculpture of a mother and child, "Cherish," is in the sculpture garden of the Yampa River Botanic Park. Her sculpture of a boy and his dog, "Heart Strings," was featured as the signature art of the 2002 Strings in the Mountain season. Her sculpture of a wizard, "Alchemy," is for sale in the Torian Plum Plaza and her sculptures of children, "Joy" and "Bliss," are standing in front of the Strings Music Tent.

"These days, I only do things that are soulful. I only sculpt what talks to me," she said. "A doctor told me recently that I had to stop sculpting stone, because it was ruining my hands. But I'm getting old. What am I saving these hands for?

"I love stone, and I'm not going to stop."

Rooney's studio will be open Saturday as part of the Beaux Arts Festival's Studios Art & Culture Tour: Historic Twentymile Loop.

Colorado Mountain College students will be demonstrating stone carving techniques, and Mo Valenta will be at her potter's wheel. Rooney will have a display of bronze process tools such as molds and foundry waxes.

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