Charlie Duncan in 2007, when he served on Newport City Council. Credit: Rita Rogers

For 20 years, they were a couple – talented, devoted partners who individually and together reflected the rich cultural, professional and personal character of Newport, if not Rhode Island itself.

Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Rita Rogers is an abstract painter with a long list of academic credentials and has exhibited in New York and all of the lower New England states; she’s also a teacher, art restorer and a printmaker. Tiny, wiry and resilient, she is at once engaging and fiercely outspoken.

Rita Rogers. Credit: Brian C. Jones

Charlie Duncan was born in Kentucky and most recently made his living as a sign-maker, specializing in custom-designed, handcrafted neon signs. But his signature career was as a pilot and towboat captain, guiding massive clusters of commercial barges through that national obstacle course known as the Mississippi River. A voracious reader, an occasional cartoonist, an Eagle Scout and a ham radio operator, Charlie – officially Charles Yarbrough Duncan, Jr. – could talk to just about anyone about anything, which made him a natural politician, and, in fact, he served eight, determinedly independent years on the Newport City Council, until 2012.

Charlie Duncan in 2007, when he served on Newport City Council. Credit: Rita Rogers

When Charlie died two years later at age 79, Rita was devastated, of course. But her pain was physical, as well as spiritual. She’d recently been released from a nursing home, where she had been recuperating from a partially paralyzing back injury and was still unable to use her right hand.

What to do?

Since she’s a painter, that’s what began to do. Just with her left hand. And only for five minutes at a time, after which she had to lie down to rest her back before undertaking another five-minute shift. Rita didn’t like the first painting.

But she happened to look through a loose-leaf notebook that contained Charlie’s hand-drawn charts of the lower Mississippi, along with calligraphic notes about how he navigated the river’s hazards, the twists and turns and currents: “Do not come out wide,” one said. Another:  “Water goes down at Willow Point.” Another: “… ease back on engine RPMs.”

The chart of a portion of the Mississippi River that inspired one of Rita Rogers’s paintings

So Rita began to paint Charlie’s River. She would precisely translate the river itself as it appears on the charts, graphing its course and the channels that the towboats and barges needed to follow. But the surrounding landscapes varied with her moods and emotions – some with furious shapes and colors, others laced with almost biological veins and arteries, still others calmer, plainer.

One Rita Rogers’ paintings based on one of Charlie Duncan’s charts

The canvasses are large – some 36 inches by 40 inches, with others 40 by 46 inches. Together, they are at once similar and individual. The recurring presence is the Mississippi in various sections, but it’s always present, always recognizable. In each painting, the landscapes and even the river’s waters are always different.

When she finished one, she would start another, but without a conscious plan or any understanding of what she had been doing all of this time until she completed the 26th and final painting.

The chart on which Rita Rogers used as the template for the last painting in the series

The final painting is one of the plainest of the series; the river practically glows as an upside-down “J” in off-white; the landscape on both sides of the river first seems an almost solid blue, but is actually a complex of varied blue hues and shapes.

Rita Rogers’ 26th and final painting of her “Charlie’s River” series

“I looked at it and said: ‘That’s the goodbye painting I wanted to do in the beginning.’” 

“This was a way of grieving,” she said. “This was a way of dealing with loss. This was a way of still being in contact with the person who was not here anymore.”

Rita has been hoping to find galleries and exhibit spaces for the series, both in Rhode Island and in faraway places, where the Mississippi and other powerful rivers are ever present, in the same way the Atlantic Ocean, Narragansett Bay and inland rivers define Newport and the rest of the state

Given the size and number of the paintings, finding a place to display them – along with Charlie Duncan’s original charts – has been a challenge, although Rita thinks she is coming close to lining up an initial exhibition in Newport.

Meanwhile, she’ had to contend with personal obstacles that are as challenging as those Charlie faced on the Mississippi. For a long time she’s been coping with cancer, the treatments for which may have weakened her bones, some of which have broken.  

Barges and towboat similar to that piloted by Charlie Duncan on the lower Mississippi River. Credit: Department of Defense

Just four weeks ago, she was chatting with someone outside her house and absent-mindedly stepped off the curb. “Blood everywhere,” she says. The tally this time included a broken nose, chipped tooth, slashed lip, fractured right wrist and “a few” broken ribs.

While her doctors in Newport and Boston work out ways to strengthen her bones and continue her cancer treatments, Rita is confined to the first floor of her home, away from her second-floor studio. Still, she paints every day, filling two pages in a sketchbook, where various shapes appear mysteriously in shades and blends of black and brown that seem three-dimensional; two pages, every day, no more, no less, the sketchbooks now piling up.

She remains eager to see the “Charlie’s River” collection displayed, and as I said earlier, she may have found one venue in Newport.

If you want a preview, Rita and I put together a video slideshow a little while ago. It’s narrated by Rita, with photos of the paintings, the charts and pictures of Rita and Charlie. You can click here (also embedded below) to go to a website that includes the slideshow video, along with other materials.

It’s worth hearing Rita’s narration, since she tells about all of this more eloquently than I have here. Turns out that, as with Charlie, storytelling, is another of Rita Rogers’ talents. Her account ends with her hope for the “Charlie’s River” collection:

“I want somebody to see it. I want that thought – that visual thought – to reach somebody else.” 

Brian C. Jones

Brian C. Jones, a regular contributor to What’s Up Newp, is a retired Providence Journal reporter (35 years) and is the co-founder of the Rhode Island Library Report. Brian resides in Newport, Rhode...