Marvin Rouse’s Studio 1084, in an industrial complex on the border of Naples and Bonita Springs, is a creative haven bursting with hundreds of the artist’s pieces. Massive canvases, painted with colorful faces that call to mind hints of Picasso and Basquiat, hang from the exposed ceilings. A row of identically sized squares with bold textures creates a horizontal rainbow across a support beam. And stacked paintings, including an in-progress commission from a Ferrari collector, fill the open warehouse space. A lifetime of creating has led Rouse to his current position as one of the go-to artists for live painting demonstrations and charity art auctions throughout the region.
Rouse doesn’t define his work by any particular style. He paints realistic landscapes and cubism-inspired faces filled with hidden symbols; sculpts life-size figures from stone; configures found objects into 3D collages; and, when inspiration strikes, writes poetry. No matter what he’s creating, he describes the process as a conversation between artist and medium, and for him that dialogue is facilitated by a higher power. “God, or whatever people want to call it, that power changed my life in a profound way,” he says. “We always have that internal dialogue, and in silence, it’s a prayer all the time.”
When painting, Rouse often doesn’t know the full story he’s telling until he’s done, finding new symbols in finished works that he didn’t realize he incorporated. He points to a curved pattern on a piece projected on the screen in front of him, titled It’s All About Love. “I didn’t see this until I was photographing it, but there’s this prehistoric bird here,” he says. “It makes me just like you guys, like the viewer.”
Rouse found his artistic eye when he was 5 years old, watching in awe as his uncle sketched a race car in a notepad one morning as they ate grits. After that, his uncle would bring him coloring books, and Rouse was fascinated by the various hues; in kindergarten his teachers would draw lines and shapes for him to fill. “I was kind of a troubled kid, with a lot of energy and no direction, no father,” he says. “But at the same time, I had a dream and I knew I wanted to make it. I wanted to be an artist.”
Raised in urban Indianapolis by a single mother of five, Rouse learned the value of the dollar early and was selling his airbrushed and puff-paint designs on T-shirts and jean jackets by age 12, while also painting backdrops for local rap groups’ music videos and album art. By 18, he had branched out to do commissioned murals, along with growing his airbrushed clothing line (then called MR Gear) into screen-printed clothing, which he sold at local record stores. He would later, in 2006, morph the business into what is now known simply as Rouse.
In 1998, his wife, Kathleen, led him to Naples, where her dad needed help with his vintage and exotic car dealership. (Rouse says the family acquired and sold Rod Stewart’s Ferrari that year.) Rouse worried that the little fishing town wouldn’t have a place for his art, but his father-in-law assured him that he would be right at home.
Once in Naples, he grew the design side of his business and officially launched Rouse Designs, painting murals and faux finishes—think realistic wood grain painted on a flat elevator door or a hand-painted marble-veined backsplash to match stone countertops. Soon, he had a steady flow of commissions for paintings and sculptures.
He started getting invited to participate in art-related charity events, like the Naples Art demonstration series, Dinner with Artists, which led him to donate his talents to a variety of local nonprofits, particularly those dealing with kids, including Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples, Child’s Path and the Special Olympics. He even created a logo for his business that reflected his relationship to a higher power. It has an outlined ‘R,’ drawn to look like a person kneeling at an altar with a head that represents both the precant’s gaze lifted to the skies and God’s head lowered to meet them as the two become one. “‘Rouse the people, stimulate truth from the heart through creativity’ is my slogan,” he explains.
In 2006, Rouse had what he thought would be a big, international break when a head designer from the clothing store Gap saw his T-shirts and wanted him to collaborate on the company’s famed (RED) Campaign. Rouse sent along a collection preview with a pamphlet, including his recently completed logo. He waited, but the deal never manifested.
In 2012, the London Olympics released its logo: a neon pink design that sparked a lot of controversy—some compared its silhouette to Bart and Lisa Simpson for its sharp angles, others thought it looked too religious. But there was another stark comparison: The ‘2’ in 2012 was nearly identical to Rouse’s praying ‘R’ logo. When a friend pointed it out, Rouse was shocked. He looked at the designers’ website and saw the (RED) Campaign at the top of their client list. Having just come out of the recession, supporting two young kids on an artist’s budget, a lawsuit had the potential to bring him down, but Rouse was persistent. After sending a cease and desist years ago, he’s currently in litigations over the issue, and seeking the truth of what happened. “It’s one of those things that happens for a reason,” Rouse says. “When you create something, it’s important to know that someone can steal your work and you need to protect that.”
All three of his children, Jakob, 16, Lauren, 14, and Elijah, 4, have lent a hand to their dad’s work. A sentimental piece that hangs in his studio features the kids’ handprints. Another, which hangs in the hallway leading to Rouse’s office, is made up of Lauren’s childhood toys, like an old Spirograph tool, mounted to a canvas. Soon, he and Lauren will work together on a commissioned advertisement for a chemical additive company in Chicago.
Studio 1084, which is owned by Rouse’s friends and arts advocates Lynn and Dennis Blum (founders of resale chains Plato’s Closet and Once Upon a Child), operates as a multifaceted creative complex. When you drive up to the beige, two-story building, you’d never expect the cool, eclectic vibe that awaits inside the nearly 7,000-square-foot space. Up front, Rouse can retreat to his office to tinker with digital art. In the center of the space, there’s a full recording studio for musicians, like Naples’ reggae group Roots Almighty, and traveling headliners like Alan James (longtime lead guitarist for Roy Orbison) and his performing group The Powerhouse Band. There’s also space for yoga classes. Toward the back, a stage anchors the space, illuminated with roving blue, purple and pink lights. Dennis sits at a control booth with sunglasses and a smile, tooling with the music that fills the room. Behind him, there’s a ping pong table and a bar decked out with Rouse’s work. Rouse named the space in honor of Studio 54 in New York City, in hopes that this too will become a creative hub.
Outside, in the parking lot, there’s a collection of his sculptures sitting next to a graffiti-adorned Dumpster, which serves as a backdrop for events. In the future, he hopes to host live painting series there with artist friends, like Marcus Zotter and Matt “Mully” Mullhern. The three recently collaborated on the Three M’s Synergy show that ran through July at Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center in Fort Myers. He’s also excited to work with Immokalee native and Pro Football Hall of Famer Edgerrin James on graphics for a clothing line, Create The Life, part of the athlete’s One Apparel brand. “Where I come from, this is definitely a dream,” Rouse says. “So many of us don’t see it that way when we’re in pursuit of it. You’re actually living your dream. It just has to start somewhere.”
Photography by Brian Tietz