When Rodger died, we lost a unique and charismatic artistic spirit.
I had known him for 16 years, and I really got to know him when making a documentary about him and two other artists who, like him, were coping with schizophrenia. Many people were introduced to Rodger through his annual attendance at the Mental Health Arts Festival in Santa Barbara’s De la Guerra Plaza; there, his warmth and welcoming energy drew many people in to view and appreciate his art.
The son of Bob and Shirle Casier, Rodger grew up in Santa Barbara. One of his early childhood friends, Scott McCarty, recalls how he was “ … always at heart an explorer. Whether it was hiking the hills above Santa Barbara or riding our bikes to parts of the city we’d never seen before, Rodger was always the one who wanted to see what was over the next rise or around the next bend.”
That spirit of exploration was something Rodger brought to his art, which had been at the center of his life since he graduated from Santa Barbara City College with a focus on color, design, and art history. He then studied printmaking and graphic design at San Jose State University.
A work of art that particularly inspired him was Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, which uses intense colors and geometric shapes — key elements in much of Rodger’s creations.
His bold combination of collage, stencils, glue, pastels, and paint produced stunning images. It was this, combined with his powers of articulation and warmth, that led me to think he’d be a great focus for a documentary on art and the psychiatric journey. He relished being in the film, which came to be known as Crazy Art and premiered at the 2010 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, garnering an Audience Choice Award.
He was very frank about being diagnosed with schizophrenia and how this had shaped his life since his early twenties.
Hearing voices that criticized him much of the time and feeling depressed were two major sets of symptoms he wrestled with for decades. No medication ever got rid of these symptoms, though it made his life bearable for long periods of time.
When he did art, he could keep the voices at bay, he could create a space free of depression for a while, but then soon afterward, that depression would return, and he would be suffering again.
One of the things he said in the film, which struck me as important, was, “Keep busy, just keep busy.” His art, studying Spanish, gardening, and writing a book all kept him a few feet in front of dark encircling clouds. He also loved his family, and found much comfort spending time with his parents and brothers, Craig and Bryan. They were a key to combating his loneliness.
During the filming of the documentary, I asked him to imagine himself as a pie. He joked back with the question “A cherry pie?!” Then I asked him which slice of the pie was the biggest, the part of himself diagnosed with mental illness or the part of himself that was an artist, and he said, “artist,” without any hesitation.
In the early 1980s he had become a member of the Santa Barbara Art Association, and on a number of occasions his art was selected by NARSAD (National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression) Artworks to be published on their holiday cards. In 2005, NARSAD chose Rodger’s “Scared and Hiding” for its national poster in the series Sunshine from Darkness.
His “Self Portrait” was featured on the covers of several professional psychology journals. His art was also published in a leading college psychology textbook by Dennis Coon. In all, 10 professional magazines used his art on their covers, including the prestigious Schizophrenia Bulletin.
His legacy is not only a large number of artworks representing decades of his creative evolution, but the memory of the way he lit up situations and injected his irrepressible energy into the lives of so many people.
The Mental Wellness Center in Santa Barbara recently held a memorial service for him attended by close to 130 friends, family members, and those from the helping profession who had worked with him. I was one of the speakers at the service and spoke these words: “Rodger, I will miss you, I will miss your strong energy, your smile, your love of color and lines that mesmerize us. I will miss your welcoming spirit and how upbeat you were, even in difficult times. I will miss your very blue eyes, your grizzly chops, and your thick tousled hair. I will miss your love of learning, and will cherish our times together. Goodbye, dear Rodger.”
J. T. Turner is the executive director of the mental health agency Phoenix of Santa Barbara, phoenixofsb.org.