Bob Privitt is the art professor you wish you’d had in college: profound and introspective with a warm, down to earth sense of humor. Bob retired in 2004 after an impressive 40-year teaching career, which has included positions at Harding University in his native Arkansas; Lubbock Christian University in Lubbock, Texas; and Pepperdine University’s Seaver College in Malibu, California where he was a sculptor and professor of art since 1979. Privitt earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1971 from Indiana University, was an Artist-in-Residence at Pepperdine since 2002, and served as director of the Pepperdine University Art Gallery from 1981-91. Privitt’s works have been chosen by jury for inclusion in over 100 national and regional exhibitions and received awards in over one-third of them. His drawings and sculptures are in many public collections, and Bob will be featuring his most current work, cigar box assemblages, in a solo exhibit next fall.
I first met Bob at “Collector’s Choice,” a fundraising event at Studio Channel Islands Art Center in my home town of Camarillo, California. We had both donated assemblage pieces we’d created for the occasion and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to him about his work. A few weeks later, he warmly accepted my proposal to come interview him at his home and custom-built studio in the city of Thousand Oaks. I’d expressed interest in a few key pieces before we met up, and our interview began with Bob ready to elaborate upon one of the pieces I had asked about, “Madonna of Maryland.”
Thank you for meeting with me today, Bob. I’m excited to view your work in person. Tell me about the piece we are looking at.
You had asked about Madonna from Maryland. Well, I started out with the license tag. I don’t know where I got it. I’m from Texas and New Mexico and California, so what am I doing with a Maryland license tag? Well I got it somewhere, then (points to ceramic Madonna face) I was showing my sculpture students how to make a mold. When you have a mold, you have something and you want to repeat it so you make a mold, so I had this mold and I said well I’ll do a face and so I did a Madonna face and then now I’ve got the Madonna.
Then I’m showing my students how to glaze the face, so we glaze it, so now what are we going to do with it? I had it and I ended up putting it in a box. Then finally one day I dragged out the Maryland license tag because it was in a storage box somewhere that I kept. One day I needed something out of that box and I thought hey let’s use it. In the piece, it just kind of “jumps” back and forth: Maryland, that’s a land – Mary, and Mary land. If you’ll remember from your art history classes, I’m sure you remember, that back in the twelfth, thirteenth, fifteenth century, the theory was – according to the theologians – that Mary was impregnated by the Word, and she heard the Word through her ear and when you look at a lot of the early Gothic and Renaissance paintings, Mary is turning her head away slightly so I thought, “Oh OK she was impregnated with the seed, so coral tree seeds with a nice phallic- looking shape. Then I’ve got an empty spot here, so I chose to put these nails on it to represent Christ’s crucifixion.
So you think about the “shippability” of your pieces when you are making them?
Yes, always, you have to factor in: is this shippable? So now then you have to have this stuff shipped back to you without it breaking. The end of the test tube fits here (inserts foam piece that cushions the glass tube to protect it, shows how all pieces fit in like a puzzle and they are all labeled to show where each cushion fits). This piece fits over the face of the Madonna, and this piece goes under the mirror. My friend Karin Geiger (resident artist at and Executive Director for Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo, California) wants me to mentor beginning artists and show them how to prep their pieces for shipping like this.
Look at that, you have instructions on how to open it the right way. I can tell you’ve done this before. I love this one. I didn’t realize how large it was as I had only seen the picture on your website. You have shipped all over the US but where have you shipped internationally?
I’ve had a couple of shows in Paris, in Italy…Now this one (indicating the piece “Stone Surgery: Trepanning”) is hard to photograph. And part of the reason it is hard to photograph is that you want a straight on shot. Because: what is this funny little metal thing that does not show? The teeth don’t show and the teeth are critical to understanding the piece. Because it has to do with stone surgery – trepanning – well in medical terminology trephining – that is where you take a Black and Decker drill and attach the little cutting head and you cut a circle out and you pull it out and you get in there and then they work on your brain and then they put the plug back in and it grows, it works. They have records of this from Peru, Incas, they were doing it with flint knives. So…I’m thinking about – my art history is failing me – I believe it is Hieronymus Bosch, he did a painting called “The Stone Operation” and he has a picture of a charlatan guy who has come into a village and has said to the village idiot or some unsuspecting simpleton, “The reason you are so stupid, or simple minded is because you have a stone in your head. Let me take the stone from your head if you will pay me a sack of gold.” And that is shown in the painting and I don’t know if you have seen these but a lot of times in Mexico there will be people saying “I’m going to take this bad part out of your stomach” and they use chicken blood and chicken livers…
It is like a fake, it is staged.
That’s the bad stuff. And I’ve been thinking about this and I’m thinking stone surgery… now that is an interesting concept. Then I’m thinking about in the Bible – and I’m not a Bible scholar – but in the Bible it says something like: Let us lay aside the weight that doth so easily beset us.” That is King James.
You sound like a bible scholar to me.
Well I only remember the parts that I want to remember (laughs). So I’m thinking I carry around these weights all the time. Could I just get rid of them? So someone gave me a hole saw and you use it for this (points to the door knob on his studio door). You use it to drill a hole to place a doorknob there. It is a nice simple quick solution perfect. Okay.
So did this piece start with this saw? I’m sure you had already mulled this idea over in your head, but when you got this saw piece did that really get the ball rolling for you on this piece?
Well, I had endured Bible classes all my life, and you hear the same thing over and over again and you think well, I remember that, let’s move on. So these things are kind of sloshing around always in there. Somewhere along the way this great stone came along and I thought I love that stone, I want to use that. Now, come and look here. (He takes me over to a large metal storage cabinet and pulls out a deep, wide drawer).
Each drawer is so well organized, in such nice sections. It’s wonderful.
You need any Barbie dolls, I’ve got them. You need some key is I’ve got those. At one time I had a label- it fell off – I had a place for bells and whistles then I realized I am out of whistles, so I need to get some whistles.
So for this piece, you knew you needed that stone, and because you are so organized you knew exactly where to go to get it. Do you feel like that helped your process – that being organized helped you stay within that creative mindset, that vision?
Oh, absolutely. Throughout my entire teaching career I told my students over and over – well first I told them don’t be an artist you can’t make a living – go into business or sell real estate, do something else. So I would always tell them being organized is not an impediment to creativity. It will enhance because now you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time when you are needing this…and then it’s like, “Uh oh I can’t do that.” That loses you. But this way you won’t have to say “I can’t do that. So you need to know where things are. So this is how all this evolved.
It seems you have pretty much every supply and all the tools you need so there is nothing holding you back. I’m sure it wasn’t always like that.
I don’t always have everything. No, I was a journeyman ironworker and welder in the construction trade before I started college. I worked on cars…I put a 1955 Chevrolet engine into a 1952 two door hardtop Chevrolet designed for an in-line six and I put a V8 into it with GMC truck transmission and I used to know how to do this stuff, when you are constantly around tools, and building stuff and you know on and on and so…
So that makes you able to really make your work how you want to make it.
I tell the painters take a sculpture class and you will be a better painter because you will understand how to do things.
And welding too, when you know how to use all of these tools. Now (indicating the piece) you painted that background.
Yes, someone gave me some paint, and I needed to get rid of it, it was starting to harden. I thought let’s just push it on there, and scratch stuff, and texture it up, and see about getting some action going.
I just think it’s so fascinating where the piece starts off and how it sort of evolves: what size it ends up being and how you know how to measure it just a little bit at a time.
It’s intuitive. And this face (points to the porcelain face in the assemblage) is probably one of my student’s. In class we did a face mask of the students’ faces. And so we did the plaster with impregnated gauze that doctors used to use and you Vaseline your face and you plaster it on and it pops off and then you use that as a press mold for clay. So you press clay in that plaster gauze mold then it shrinks about ten percent then it pops out and then you bisque fire, then you glaze it and you use it in a sculpture. So, these are all just things that you do.
Norma (Bob’s wife): And one more thing about this piece. The cutter – the hole saw – is coming out at you instead of going in toward the skull. You usually explain that to people.
Bob: I told her (Norma), you are going to have to help me if I miss something. What I am thinking is nobody is going to cure you, you are going to cure yourself. It has to come from within and all the drilling and grinding and people trying to change you and make you a better person – that needs to start from you. 54 years married as of June, and my wife still thinks of me as a project, she wants to change me…good luck (laughs). Anyway, this is coming out and it has to come out because just to go in that is a temporary, superficial fix.
Yes, you have to want to change and it’s going to come from within you. And what is this cutter called again?
A hole saw. Carpenters use it to cut holes in doors to install the handle hardware. And someone gave that to me. My whole theory about art is never pay for your art supplies. People give stuff to you.
Plus, there is an excitement there, because you never know what is going to come in and what comes in might – like this hole saw – spark something that never could have occurred with you wandering around some craft store. Wandering versus some random blessing you might get like this. I have another question about trepanning. I know they used to do that with a drill, and weren’t they doing it to let out evil spirits?
Pressure, they were letting off the pressure, but there is evidence in Peru – I think – of surgery that has occurred where they have put the plug back in and it has healed and then, because they are able to determine how old this bone is, and when the surgery first occurred and then he lasted X number of years, they were able to do that. You know I burned my radio the other day. But then I realized it was not made of carbon. That’s a joke that’s a joke (laughs). Haven’t you heard of radiocarbon dating?
Detail of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Stone Operation”
I’ve heard of carbon dating but I didn’t know it was called radiocarbon dating (laughs). Now Bob are most of these works for sale?
Yes, oh yes (laughs). And if people would buy them I would be a lot happier!
The one we were just looking at, Stone Surgery: Trepanning, how much are you asking for that one?
Well, my wife would know that, probably in the neighborhood of $1800. And I always give 10% off for my first buyers and 20% off for my second buyers.
I’d like to know a bit more about your teaching career. How long were you a professor at Pepperdine?
25 years at Pepperdine 40 years altogether in education.
And for all of those 25 years at Pepperdine where you teaching only art classes?
Well, I’ve been there maybe six or 10 years and all of a sudden they said we need to pull you out of the sculpture studio and put you in a team-taught world history course. 250 to 300 students in a big auditorium. And your job is to deal with art history and relate it to politics, history, religion, etc. So I did that for many years and I suspect that I was asked to do that because in my studio classes – I taught design and sculpture – I would always use a lot of art history. I would show slides and help them understand how to think creatively and that this person did this and this is considered a creative act – this part of it – and it occurred because of this historical event and that social thing or this religious belief…so I think that is why they said, “Well, we could make more money off of him if we put him in a 350 student class as opposed to a 12 to 15 student class in the sculpture class.”
Did you enjoy that as much teaching a huge team class versus the small sculpture class?
At first I was so nervous, my hands were cold and sweaty. But I finally realized that the moment I turned out the lights, and I had my little laser pointer – I loved that little pointer – the minute I turned out the lights they could care less about me – but look at the curve on those horns and how it’s repeated, wow! And I could get excited about the piece and show them my excitement and they’d pick up on that excitement.
And then your enthusiasm is affecting 300 students instead of just 15. So I am sure at that point you started to feed off of that.
Yes I did. Okay now, here is this one (removes another art piece from a box). You talk about seeing an art piece in the flesh. The title of this one is, “That’s not the way I remember it.” And it all depends on your point of view as you look at it. Now, she is saying to someone else who is telling the story, “Oh it was romantic” but she has these little steely ball eyes: “That’s not the way I remember it, I mean he is a jerk because he said the same thing to me.” So people start getting a story going just because they looked at an image. And someone else would come along and say, “Now isn’t that nice, that is such a romantic shot, oh I love it.” So try to photograph this piece. It’s just not going to show. In a photograph you are not going to be able to tell that those are steel eyes. So you have that problem. Now, this is a store-bought frame. I did not make this one.
(Bob takes out new piece) Here is a new piece, and it was a drawer, but I didn’t like the end so I just cut it. And usually I hang this one up this high so that the viewer can see themselves reflected in the mirror ball. And the title of this one is “Scarred Seer.” A seer is a fortune teller, one who can see the future and so forth.
So, here are the components he uses in his machinations: copper and it is flowing, seeds as a symbol for new growth or regeneration, and some mysterious powder like magic dust, and that is just one of those garden chrome balls and I drilled a hole in the back and attached a mechanism because I don’t glue things if I can help it, I tried to create a mechanical fix, a mechanical connection because I don’t want this piece to go to Alaska and it is so cold up there that all of the sudden things starts cracking and then they send it back to you and the next thing you know it is broken.
Is the Seer a fortune teller?
It is someone who can tell the future or talk about the future and tell – portend is the word I want -or predict but fix it so that people are now thinking introspectively. They are thinking I better listen to this guy, or, instead, most people in society are going to think, “Oh you’re just full of baloney, you don’t know what you’re talking about, there will be no earthquake in California, that is just ridiculous,” so there are those extremes. Now, notice the face. It is… heavily scarred because of those people who did not believe. And they have thrown their anger and their sharp barbs against him. And see this is how I get all tangled up in my thought process (laughs).
So this seer would tell the people what he sees in the future, and the people who would not believe would insult him and he would wear that disbelief like scars on his face.
Right, right. This porcelain face is another one of my students. See they would do the piece, and they would leave the mold behind. I want to take my sculpture home and show it to my mom and daddy, but I will leave the mold behind. So when I retired I took a bunch of those molds home, so now I have faces that I can use if I choose. I have some in here and in the garage. (Bob begins to unpack another piece).
Wow, no wonder you were asked to mentor new artists, show them how to pack. This one is packed so nicely like the last one.
Well, I had to learn the hard way. I had a little solo show in Texas and I had also been enlisted to give some talks and to set the show up. So I shipped everything and there was a piece about like so and it was based on a Countee Cullen poem: ‘I’ve wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth and laid them away in a box of gold where long will cling the lips of the moth…” Well, I had this face and when it got to Texas it was all broken down in the bottom of the box. So we dashed to the store and bought some 30 second or five second epoxy glue and I sat there and glued the pieces back together and it was ready for the opening, so I learned my lesson. Now (unwraps another piece) this piece is radically different.
What is this?
That is actually, think a bed, think a bed frame, think the post on the corner that holds the bed up and there would be on the bottom of that post, a wheel, like a swivel wheel. And that’s a shoe last, that’s a hammer, the shoe last has endured a life of being hammered. Punish the hammer…Now I learned this from Marisol, do you know the sculptor, she’s Venezuelan – she does these fantastic sculptures and frequently she will incorporate two dimensional things on a three dimensional form. I glued the ears on. I don’t want to spend four hours carving ears on this thing, and it works.
So you don’t feel you are confined to working only within the assemblage type format.
No. I can go to the thrift store tomorrow and I will find something and it will send me in a radically different direction. I’m not married to this one. I’m not a very reliable lover, I just don’t care, I’ve found my new love and that is where I am at this moment. This is not unusual it is just like what I was saying in my message to you, I said I don’t know if you are going to be able to find a theme.
How old you were when you first started making art?
I remember my very first drawing. It was a deep breath when I came out of my mother’s womb.
Drawing a breath, I get that one. Ha ha.
Sorry… I have been an artist all of my life. I have known it. In spite of the people who said, “No, you have to be an electrical engineer, our son was an electrical engineer. He is a good one too. But I could not do that. So I started out, we lived in Arkansas, and in Arkansas they had crawdads. Crawdads dig a hole in the ground and they push the mud up and it makes a little volcano slowly pushing mud up and it forms a little crust and they push another layer up and another little layer up until it gets – they get – pretty tall. Oh that is the most delicious mud. You take that mud, and you form it and make little animals and set them out on a rock and let them sunbathe, and then come back the next day or two or three later and you discover that the morning dew dissolved them. Well I can make another one. So I have been doing it all my life.
When you were a child, you were sculpting out of the crawdad mud.
Right, and my grandfather…I don’t know if you want to record this part. I came from a very abusive family. My father was an evil man, and my mother was an enabler. And his father and mother – but mostly his father – loved me. Every time he came to visit he gave me a pocket knife and it was a good pocket knife, not something out of a Cracker Jacks box. It was an Old Timer, it was a Schrade, it was a Barlow, it was a good knife. Because he would go to the sale barns where they are selling the cattle and hogs and whatever, and people would swap stuff. And he would swap for a knife. And it would be a good knife and he taught me how to whittle. He taught me how to tell the constellations, he taught me about plants, which ones were safe to eat, or if you get a cut you can put this on your cut, you can do that you can do this…you can… see that rabbit over there? Oh, you don’t see it? Okay here is how you look: you just slowly relax, and finally now, you start seeing shapes. But then slowly go back and you will see it now out of the corner of your eye, the same way you can see stars. If you look right at a star, you cannot see it but if you kind of look off to the side a little bit, it works.
Did he teach you to slow down your eye, and you think maybe that influenced you as an artist, also his way of teaching you to look at things?
(As he contemplates this his eyes well up with tears) I think maybe it is because he cared…(begins to bring out another art work). Let’s see what we got here. Here is another one that if you were to try to photograph it… if you try to photograph it you aren’t going to pick up on that little cord. I tore this out of a magazine. It is just some National Geographic, or some Life magazine, or who knows where I got it, and I just painted this stuff out with gesso, I think I’m just too cheap to buy white paint.
Here? You can’t even tell.
Yes, I just painted it out you know, and then those little grommets like the ones that are on shoes, I just pressed grommets into the skull and then stitched it with nylon cord, and…the whole theory behind it is…we are killing people all over the world, is there any way that we can fix anything? I can’t, I don’t have any money I can’t send 40 million bucks over to Darfur or wherever the latest atrocity from any of these places but I can think about it and feel bad about it and maybe say something about it.
And so I said this. At least I can repair his skull. And that’s what I was thinking of. And these of course are used, and normally I would use this big industrial nail as a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion, but in this case I am using it as well, from the design standpoint, it anchors and establishes a design control and it also implies a weapon then that was used to destroy, to hurt, to kill, but you can’t, you are not going to be able to photograph it so that someone flipping through the computer isn’t going to say, “Oh well you can see, those are grommets in there, that’s a nylon cord.” So you are kind of stuck. And that is why people need to go to an art show. To actually see the stuff in the flesh.
I see themes come up, and I have talked to others about this how sometimes they don’t know why a theme is recurring for them almost like it is a subconscious need to show that thing. They say, “Wow I didn’t realize what it was.” I think there have been faces in all all of the artwork we’ve viewed today.
Well I think I just pulled these ones out because…on the computer they are organized like this: assemblage with faces; sculptures with faces; sculpture engineered work; sculpture religious work…my wife has categorized all of this stuff on the computer for me so that if someone says, “Well, we are interested in a portrait show” then I find something that fits. And it just so happens that today I brought out all of the ones with faces.
And a couple of them had mirrors so the person looking will see their own face too. And these seeds are in many of your collages as well.
The seed as a symbol of regeneration and eggs, I use a lot of eggs as a symbol of regeneration, new birth, potential…that… In spite of my pessimism I am optimistic (laughs). The usual contradiction. (Begins to unpack a new piece)
What is this here in the glass container? Is that steel, wire?
Hair. My hair.
Wow, it is! And is that fingernails?!
Fingernail clippings. Just try and photograph that. People are going to say, “Oh he has some stuff in those test tubes no big deal.” But when you start seeing it in the flesh and now then you need to stop and think about this: “Why is this here?” And frequently when I do speeches I will say now here is the title of my speech today: Why I put, what I put, where I put it. And I would tell my students over and over: “Do not depend upon luck and chance. Learn your talents, learn your skills, develop your skills and now then learn to figure out, oh if I do that this way it works every time I can now depend on it.” And then you can move on and not have to reinvent the wheel every time. So, and then there is always in my work there is an anomaly. Why did you put that, I don’t know.
I have no way of knowing except that “Look how beautiful it is”, and how it seems to imply that there’s maybe a brain at work and things are going on and you can actually see through it and it is pierced and here are some electrical mechanisms going through here and you don’t know what that is and you can even hear if you want to. There isn’t a here but you can hear yourself think. And you start thinking about this stuff you know. So, try to photograph that. (Laughs) No way. It doesn’t work. And so usually whenever I send stuff to a juried competitive show I probably would not send something like this because it doesn’t show. I have got to judge the Thousand Oaks Art Walk tomorrow. With two other people. 95 booths, three hours. That is two minutes per booth. I have to write my name, meet the artist, find something that is impressive, rate it. (snaps fingers three times). That’s the way it’s gonna be. And I hate it. But, they are paying me. Anyway…
Now, we talked about the seeds. Why did you put the seeds in this piece?
Because I am…self-involved, narcissistic (laughs).
You wanted to be all about you (laughs).
Because it’s all about me, can’t you tell?!
Well, these are all things that you have cast off, that you have removed from yourself at some point in time…
That’s true, that’s true…
Now it’s being showcased – you are showing that you removed it from yourself, and it’s alongside the seeds…
Bob: I hadn’t quite thought of that
So I don’t know if there is some meaning then in the “new birth,” the potential – represented by the seeds – alongside what is now past.
And where did you say you got your psychology degree (laughs)?
(I laugh) Very close to here actually, California State University, Northridge. And I’ve always loved using art with therapy clients.
The title is “Looking Away From Myself.” I am looking away from myself and in a way it is a sepulcher but, “Bob it’s time to let some things go. It does not have to be about you every minute.” All right, how about just every hour (laughs)? (Begins to take out a new piece).
So what is that inside there, a cue ball?
It is a certain type of billiard ball yes (gives ball a tap and it slides over and bounces off a spring and slides back over to the other side of the piece where there is also a spring then bounces back and forth until it stops). It is called “Screaming at Myself.”
Is it OK if I touch it? (I pause to contemplate the piece). It really works to illustrate that.
(Bob pushes the cue ball back and forth) Starting to annoy you isn’t it.
To take it all in, the different bits and how they all work in the piece. This is a cheese grater, and you have the beady metal eyes again,
Have you ever screamed at yourself?
Yes, oh yes. We all have.
And it was a grating sound and you hated it and still you kept doing it (pushes the cue ball): “The ball’s in your court,” and “No it’s in your court,” and so on.
This is exactly how I feel when I have PMS (Bob laughs). Next time I have it I could show my husband a picture of that and be like, “Here, this is how it feels.” It’s horrible, when you have it bad it feels exactly like this. You should use this in a commercial for PMS medication. The announcer would say, “If you ever feel like this…” And people will look at “Screaming At Myself” and they’d get it. It’s even RED! It’s perfect!
Would you be at all interested in managing me?
(I laugh) I am looking at the box you have used here. Don’t you also use cigar boxes? They are so perfectly sized and pretty solid. I use them in my assemblage work as well.
Sometimes I make my own boxes or use drawers and in my show in September 2016 (Bob will be featuring new assemblages in an exhibit at Studio Channel Islands Art Center) there will be a lot of cigar boxes and wine boxes…unadorned. It is just a stupid cigar box sitting there. People will think, “Why did he show that?” Hopefully there is some magic going to occur and they will see that, well, I am starting from the premise: there are people all over the world who are just plain vanilla. You meet them, they don’t impress you, there is nothing special about them. But you meet them though, and you talk to them, and you find out, you really climbed Mount Everest last year?! You? Yes I know I have short little stubby legs but I did it! And you find out amazing things about them. Or, you find out that they endured a tragedy and you look at them and you think that you’re still standing. How? So you want to know and so that is why I am not painting the outsides of the cigar boxes I just want them plain on the outside, vanilla, cigar boxes. Nothing to it, but you open it, and maybe something is inside.
It’s wonderful that you are doing that because it will teach people to stop being presumptuous about who they meet. I’ve done it, we’ve all done it: here is this person, and they are nice but we aren’t too interested in them until we get to talking to them, then you get to talking to them and you discover they have depth and they’re interesting to talk to, intelligent. This has happened to me many times. It has happened to me with children too. People underestimate kids all the time. I work with kids and I talk with them just like I talk with adults. They are highly creative – often more so than adults.
The best time I ever had in my entire life in the teaching field was working as an artist in residence in New Mexico working with kids. I did that for five years, I think five years. You would ride up to the school, and lay down your box of junk to work with, and the kids would come running, “Coach Bob is here, Coach Bob is here!” And they would grab your leg and you would literally be dragging them along the sidewalk they were so happy to see you and they were so eager and excited to do this artwork, and wow! Most fun ever.
Yes, I agree. It’s so exciting working with kids.
But I could not make any money at it. They were all grants. Okay now I’m going to show you a whole bunch of collages and they are what they are and I won’t spend a bunch of time on them. (Bob takes out a collage).
Here is that same theme again. I see self-reflection again, and the inside of the head, and an implement that can get inside of the head.
You see a theme, I never see it. (laughs). The title of it, “Of course I agree with you. You have my head on a platter.”
I can’t even see where you have cut anything. You must use teeny tiny medical grade scissors. It is so precise.
I don’t use an X-Acto knife. These scissors might be medical grade. It does say stainless steel. If you look close right here, you can see where I made a little flaw. There is another little flaw here where I cut it and there is another little tiny deviation right there.
Most people could not be that precise with their cutting. And how did you get this little impression of your initials here?
I have some metal letter stamps. I know I do a lot of that but I don’t remember how I did that. It seemed like it fit that, and see this had to be cut out- see this part right here – this whole thing is cut out and it is empty. I didn’t have anything in there. It is just a flimsy little piece of paper, and then I put another piece of paper in there and I used silver water-based block print paint and a stencil brush
So if you hold it at the right angle it does shine, right? It is iridescent?
Can you see that it is not evenly done? It was okay for it not to be evenly done. I use stick flat glue or Elmer’s spray glue or whatever I can get my hands on.
When you spent all that time cutting precisely you need to use the right glue.
For “Head on a Platter” yes, once again each piece is cut out and glued down.
I love the shine of it, how some of the paper shines and some doesn’t.
At Pepperdine, the library for a long time was taking the book jackets off and throwing them away. And I said oh can I have those so I got a bunch. I realized, now the library standard is to keep the jackets on so I lost my source but by then I had retired and I didn’t come back on the campus much. We could go on forever and ever and I have a whole bunch to show you. (Takes out another piece). Here is another one called” I would dance with you but my hand is on fire.”
And that comes from a Bob Dylan quote – Bob Dylan the singer – he went to a party after he had played a concert and was sitting on a couch and a girl came up to him and said, “Would you dance with me?” And he said, “I would dance with you but my hand is on fire.” Which, logically that does not make sense because you don’t dance with your hands you dance with your feet. But he had been playing his guitar all night long with his hands and they were burning and on fire. And I thought that is such a great quote because it is such…my kind of contradiction. So I did a bunch along this general theme of: I would dance with you but you have my head on a platter, I would dance with you but… (Takes out another one).
I am very drawn to trees and I love how you put this one together. The colors, the composition. It works so well.
Well I taught design, for…ever. And I took the phrase, “Bite your tongue, don’t say that.” So, I found those in some magazine and cut them out and then that may have been a book jacket, but those are Home Depot paint chips.
I love that though (pointing at the collage) because this looks like vocal chords here. And this is like the ideas bubbling up of what he might say and then these antler horns go with the whole forest theme…and this – the face- it looks like you etched it.
I may have, I may have taken an X-Acto knife and scratched it.
The colors work so well and the composition is so balanced.
Well, let me tell a little story about my background. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Metcalf said to me one day when I was painting a rooster in first grade, “Robert you know that a rooster doesn’t have an orange and blue tail it should be brown.” “Oh, OK yes ma’am.” And I didn’t do color for years and years I just thought you don’t know anything about color – stay away from it. But finally then later I realized she wasn’t right. She was an authority figure and kids follow what authority figures tell them – sometimes (laughs).
Yes and she was saying roosters can only have a brown tail so from there on you were shying away from your own intuition regarding color.
That was her experience so I believed her.
Teachers need to be careful about what they say to kids because they can often shut down creativity by only allowing one right answer when it comes to creative expression. For example, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher would only let her color her monkey brown. But have you ever seen an arctic monkey? Or all of these other types of monkeys that are not brown at all? This type of black and white thinking drives me crazy.
Right, right. I agree. But in this particular case I loved this teacher dearly, she was so wonderful. Here is another piece: “The man who could not make up his own mind.” This is a log holder you keep by the fireplace. Kind of a designer thing. He has got his briefcase.
Because that is the decision-making process, right? It’s like a roller coaster and you keep going back and forth it could go this way, or maybe this way? And when you are stuck in the middle it is called a double bind because neither decision is the right one – either will result in an unpleasant outcome. You have to find some sort of compromise. I really like this one. (Bob takes out a new piece and we focus on it) I don’t know how you even got that to work. Those are so fragile.
Well if I can cut with those little tiny scissors you can imagine I can drill a little tiny hole.
Wow, so you did drill holes in those eggs!?
We blew all those quail eggs out, and had a quail egg omelet. It was about this big around. I used eight eggs in a row on a piece that I did. Again, try to photograph this. If you photograph this you are not going to see the bull’s-eye and that is the whole key to this piece. And this is why when people look at artwork: “Oh I love the colors, what’s the next one you got?” I wish they would stop and think. And this one is called Bird in the Hand but the bird in the hand has been shot and now it’s dead and the eggs are no longer viable and there are wing nuts on them so that their essence has flown away. See, I think about these things and when people come to look at my work it’s, “Oh that’s cute, oh I love the bird.”
If you were to ship this you would send this card along with it that explains the meaning of the piece.
Probably, probably. Interesting little story – and I know you are probably going to wear your little battery out – but when I retired from Pepperdine I was going to have a show in the gallery. I used to direct the gallery but then they booted me out of that and then the other people come in and now there’s a new director and I said this is what I want to do: I want to show these things and I want to put beside each piece a descriptive analysis. “Oh no, no, no, that’s not very professional, no.” And long story short we cut the show short, I was supposed to have a month and we can give you two weeks, and I was retiring so you know you have to pick your battles…
So he said you could do it?
No, no you cannot do it. If you have the show, you cannot do it. And I didn’t. However, there was a man and a woman that came in, and I happened to be in the gallery at that particular time, and I was probably talking to a student, I don’t know, and the piece that she ultimately bought was on this wall, and I was over here and I heard this “Oh, Oh!” and I turned around and I thought my what has happened, and she saw this piece and immediately fastened onto it. I can’t even remember the name of the piece now, she was a psychologist, and the piece was along the same lines of “Screaming At Myself” or looking at myself.
So she saw it and there was no description of the piece with it.
Correct, no. Because at that time they did not allow it. But they do it now. Now they put the descriptions.
So she identified with the piece right away from afar, and she had an emotional reaction to it and ended up buying it.
Yes, and that is going to be rare because people – I think – most people come to art shows to be entertained. Or, because it is a social occasion and they can say, “Oh that is nice, and have you heard about Aunt Louise’s gall bladder operation?” (Bob takes out another piece).
Here is another one that is so precise. Do you work at a drafting table?
No, but I am beginning to need it.
This one reminds me of the “Body Worlds” exhibit. Have you seen that? Where they have the cadavers on display, and various parts are showcased such as one will show nerves and another will show the muscles…
Oh yeah and they had it in Los Angeles? They had a catalog, and this part here may have actually come from that advertisement card for that show. I’m almost certain that I got it from there. And I think that was something different but I made it all up because I wanted a change in color, where the water line is and I had to cut the water line and here and here so that this piece was shaped here and this was shaped in two and I had to show the rim of the bowl here with the head. These are all technical things.
What is this here?
That is some sort of a perfume bottle from a magazine and this is a face from a magazine but this is where you use a piece of slick paper and another piece of slick paper and you squirt some paint, acrylic, a blob of red, yellow white, and you smoosh the other piece of paper on top of it but be careful not to let the other piece cause it to skid – unless you want it to skid – decalcomania – it comes from Max Ernst, 1901 or whatever, kind of like a Rorschach blot like a mirror image, I don’t know who called it that. I’m using some of it in this show of September of 2016 where I have decalcomaniaed a surface and then cut out a profile and then repeated it a positive and a negative, so anyway
Now that I’ve been with you a couple hours I can figure these out (laughs). But really, in your past, have you had a lot of trial and error, and do you have a lot of unfinished work that didn’t work out for you and it is scrapped somewhere in a box or do you really always finish?
I usually figure out a way to save it. “Faces With Empty Boat” it has been sitting there for nearly a year because I have had a ceramic face that I wanted to use and I gently installed it as it was sitting on the work table and just to see that it’s going to work then it fell over and crash and there is no way I could have glued it back so I thought I’ll use another face, no, you have to use that face now I’ll have to create that face again and it’s sitting there, so that happens occasionally but I don’t…because I think a lot I really spend a lot of time thinking and I will walk through and think I can’t screw that in, I will have to drill and tap that, oh and you must do this first then you can weld that so you know all these steps and you are walking through so that whenever it comes time for you to do it, generally it goes just fine until you make a physical mistake like you mis-measured, ‘Oh, I drilled a hole in the wrong place.” OK, fall back forty yards and punt, OK wait a minute I got this thing over here that would go over there and so you do that, but generally you start and you finish.
You have a pretty consistent track record then unless something falls down and gets physically broken. Because some artists have a lot of unfinished work and I always wonder what that is versus the other artists who have a knack for getting it done. It is almost like they are able to hold onto a vision more, and you talk about being distracted but just from what I am seeing, I see you completing things and I am seeing organization and meticulousness.
Well let me say this and this will help you understand: “ I am so glad you got to see me today.” No Bob, you have contradicted the system. So whenever I say I have a short attention span, I don’t. But that covers a multitude of sins and people will say, “Oh this one is not like your others.” “Oh I know, I’ve got a short attention span.” That way you don’t have to explain, Here, this is how I started on this one and it led to this which led to that and, could we go eat? They don’t want to hear that, so anyway. So if you understand that I am constantly contradicting myself then hey, you have got it nailed. Here are some more (unpacks another piece). “Black Crows Departing.” But Bob they aren’t black, because they have departed.
Yes, that is like their reverse shadow, like what they left behind.
Cancelled. And the bird in the hand, they are gone. Even though you are rolling along trying to catch them and here is the memory of the feathers. I used to be a poet but I didn’t know it (laughs). I’m starting to mess with you now, I’m sorry.
You recited part of a poem earlier. Do your pieces often start with a phrase or a lyric?
Sometimes. It will often be something that was said on TV or something that I read and because I either heard it correctly and misheard it on purpose – I don’t know if you ever do that – but like I say I love reversals and contradictions and someone will say something and that will trigger a thought process.
I see these skulls up here hanging on your wall. I’m wondering how you get those.
Norma: He never turns anything down.
Here, get a picture of this. Alas poor Yorick and here is his little brother Eric.
Ha ha, from Hamlet.
(Turns to piece) I don’t know why I chose to do this piece it just seemed so logical to put an eyeball here on this chair seat. It just seemed like that ought to happen and why I don’t know. Do you know from Cajun French lagniappe? Lagniappe is a , “Oh!” and so the eye on the chair was a lagniappe because I had cut an eye out for something else and I had stuff, magazines and stuff and the eye fell and I thought a flying eye and I picked it up and Oh it could go there and in that instance I didn’t think it just happened. So sometimes I don’t think but most of the time I do, it’s a decisive act as opposed to an, “Oh gee, I don’t know where to go.”
I’d like to take a few more photographs of your enviable file drawers before I go. Seeing these may inspire other artists to do some spring cleaning, some reorganizing. I love what you said earlier and I will close with those words: “being organized is not an impediment to creativity.”