Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Beginning his youth as a mountain man, trapping and fishing with his grandfather in Maine and Canada, Jim Roiax has amassed a wealth of experiences that translate into impressive stone carvings, paintings, pottery and culinary treats.

Around the historic home he shares with wife Karen Coody Cooper, his artwork is displayed among other masters’ work and their own museum-quality collectibles. Jeptha Crew, the first drugstore owner in Tahlequah, built the home using parts from the Sears and Roebuck architectural catalog.

The couple has called Tahlequah home for four years, after living in Maryland for 14 years, and Lawton before that. Cooper worked at the Smithsonian Museum, and now she is on staff at the Cherokee Heritage Center. Roaix has been a physical plant engineer at a couple of universities and retired from Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum on Chesapeake Bay.

“I missed Oklahoma while I was away,” Roaix said.

Now retired, he works every day on art of one form or another, but always dedicates several hours to stone carving, mostly using soapstone and alabaster and creating birds. His grandfather said he carved a standing skunk out of pine when he was 5 and sold it for $5 to a man on a fishing trip.

That was 60 years ago. Roaix has always done painting and sketching, but never stick figures or coloring books.

He’s the featured artist opening this week at the Muskogee Art Guild gallery. The guild recently turned its studio into a gallery and held a drawing to see which artists would show and who would be the featured artist. Roaix was selected first, but the show will change every three months.

Lou Russano was Roiax’s mentor. He was an art restorer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who moved to Connecticut, and Roaix met him through his son, who was his assistant coach for little league.

“He painted in the old masters’ style and often painted copies of originals for people who didn’t want to display their originals and expose them to sunlight,” Roaix said. “He sold a copy of Vermeer’s, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’ for $40,000.”

He also got Roiax into pastels, which has become an addiction.

For 5-1/2 years, Roiax worked with Russano.

“Lou took a liking to me. He never touched my art, but showed me what to do and taught me a lot about color,” Roiax said. “Guys don’t do that – read instructions – but he forced me to go through all the basic steps, like a circle for a face and color wheel.”

Roaix mostly paints people with a lot of character in their faces.

“I don’t do beautiful; I do people who spent too much time in the sun, who look like their faces caught fire and daddy beat it out with a rake,” he said.

So many people think they can’t paint, but Roaix believes if you can tie your shoes without looking, you can paint.

“It’s like playing the piano or typing on a computer; it’s all muscle memory,” he said.

Everybody needs exposure to all the arts, Roaix said.

“Kids are fortunate enough to have a teacher who saw not a stick figure, but something good, and praised you, when you were inspired,” he said. “Unfortunately, many people don’t give a damn about art.Regrettably, often it’s the civic fathers or the school boards. The first cut always seems to be the arts.”

He does art projects and other interesting experiments with his grandkids when they visit.

“Ever put Ivory soap in the microwave or Mentos in Diet Pepsi to watch it make a fountain? I’ve gotten 25 feet, but Mythbusters set the record at 34 feet,” he said.

Roiax’s interest in stone carving was awakened when he found a piece of partially sanded and polished black soapstone in 1979 at a flea market for $4.

“I went home a carved a whale and thought, ‘Boy, this is fun,’” he said.

A current project is an orca. He has about eight hours in the work so far, and expects it to sell for $240.

Roiax puts 30 minutes to 90 hours into a piece. He’s started an eagle that began as 171 pounds and will finish about 120 or 130 pounds, and will be holding an image of the earth split open, he said. It’s called “Earth Mother.”

He’d been using stones from British Columbia from a quarry with nine different colors, and other local quarries, so he was pleased when the Internet came about and he discovered other quarries at more affordable prices in 1989. One of his most amazing opportunities came from an aboriginal quarry in Connecticut to which he had access when his wife worked at the American Indian Archaeological Institute. At that time, he was publishing an American Indian newspaper, The Eagle, with a 5,000 circulation in all 50 states and 27 countries. He published that for 9-1/2 years, as well as a book in the late ‘80s called, “Rooted Like the Ash Tree: New England Indians and their Relationships to the Land.”

“You can’t argue with the stone. I may start out making a very good frog and wind up with a very good turtle,” Roaix said. “You can’t get out what’s not in there. The stone will argue back or break.”

Teaching others is a joy for Roaix. He teaches at the Muskogee Art Guild, where led at a summer camp for kids. He also demonstrates fiber arts at the Cherokee Heritage Center the first Saturday of most months, and for more than a decade has taught at a summer camp, the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills, in May.

A workshop will be held at the Muskogee Art Guild Aug. 8-12, costly $80 for the week or $60 for three days, with all the proceeds going to the guild.

“We had an art show in April at Arrowhead Mall, and one of my students took second place, while I only got honorable mention,” he said. “I think that’s cool. I was prouder of that!”

He’s at a time in his life when he wants to share his talents and skills with others.

“I’m supposed to mentor now; that’s part of being Native American, to pass down your skills and your knowledge,” said Roiax.

Roiax is a Mohawk, and he believe art is an expression of his culture and that of others. “It makes for a well-rounded person, if you appreciate music and art,” he said. “People who create music and art use more of their brain and are better students.”