Robert and I meet at Capital Tea, a charming tea and pastry shop located on the now vibrant stretch of South Broadway, near the former Gates Rubber.
May I ask your age?
Let me answer that in this way. I am very much a part of the Baby Boom generation. Lately I have been thinking about that because many images associated with the popular culture of this generation are incorporated into my current art.
Where were you born?
Cleveland, Ohio. Deborah and I [Robert's wife, the artist Deborah Howard] moved to Denver for teaching work, in the late '80s.
Has teaching always been a part of your life?
I have taught art, however it would be more accurate to say that I have always been involved with the visual arts in higher education.
Can you explain?
Earlier in my life here in Denver I had taught studio art at Arapahoe Community College. After that experience I gravitated more toward the administrative and managerial aspects of working in collegiate art departments. At ACC I had the opportunity to manage the art gallery. At Regis University, where I now work, I manage the gallery and also the studio spaces utilized by students in the visual arts as well as by those studying music.
When did art, and art making, become a part of your life?
The interest to make things and paint things was with me throughout middle and high school. I remember in middle school I decided to run for the office of Safety Patrol. This is the person who helps you cross the street, and so forth. For my campaign I made all of these posters that included images of King Kong and other cartoon characters. I couldn’t just scribble a poster that said “vote for me” like other kids did. My posters had to have sophisticated multi-color graphic designs.
I was always drawing something. I remember making art for underground newspapers in school, where I would incorporate images from Pop art and the psychedelic graphics that were popular at the time.
And after high school?
No one in my family was involved with the arts, yet my parents were supportive of my decision to study visual art in college. I went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where I studied liberal arts and majored in Fine Art. It was terrific. I was interested in everything, from painting to sculpture to Shakespeare. I graduated with a degree in fine art and didn't really know what to do. Back in Cleveland I worked odd jobs to cover rent and painted with oils in my bedroom at night. This lasted five years. One day a friend pointed out that I seemed to be spinning my wheels. She was right. Suddenly I was aware of how isolated I was, that I sorely missed the dialogue with other artists that helps you grow.
I applied to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. It was so nice to be making art regularly and to be meeting artists from all over the country. In Madison I met Deborah, and we eventually moved to Colorado.
Can you cite some important influences on your art?
When I was younger, quite honestly, it was MAD magazine. It is hard to estimate how influential that magazine was. Back when I read it regularly, there were great cartoonists and writers working there.
I grew up in a suburban school. Information and exposure to art was not frequent. More often than not I learned about contemporary art from reviews in TIME magazine.
When I was 16 or 17 our family took a trip to Washington, D.C. In a museum, I can't remember which one, there was a sculpture by Andy Warhol that amazed me.
Can you elaborate on your thinking about Andy Warhol?
At the museum, the sculpture that I saw consisted of stacked Brillo boxes. There was an elegant, very subtle difference between the way that Warhol had created the boxes and the way the original boxes that were his subject matter would have been made. He’d turned a mundane shipping carton into an object that embodied the essence of art. It seemed like magic to me.
Often when people consider Warhol, they think of celebrities, and his celebrity. Yet there is such care and concern in his art. I think this connects him directly to the great traditions of art history. The subject matter may be “ordinary’ but the work is physically beautiful.
Do you think about the phenomenon of celebrity?
I collect lots of images from newspapers, magazines, and labels from commercial products. They're all in binders and readily accessible.
This current exhibition at Spark is called "Autobiography". As I indicated earlier, there are images that I incorporate from popular culture. There is a particular image of the singer James Brown that attracted me. It is a picture of him when he is in his sixties. There he is in his jump suit, looking sexy and virile; and wrinkled, like a man in his sixties. There is something so poignant and profound about this image.
The man is important because of his music and because of who he is, yet this image seems to transcend those aspects of his life, to depict him simply as a man at a certain time in his life. It no longer matters that it’s James Brown.
Sometimes, though not often, I feel pangs of guilt for focusing on Pop and celebrity. Why do we care about these people? It can seem pointless. And yet, these people and these things are a part of our story and can serve as a foundation for our art.
When you settled in Denver did you exhibit your art?
Initially no. I would show sporadically. In the mid-nineties I became a member of Zip 37 and I really became committed to the idea of a co-operative gallery. I had the opportunity to meet other artists and to exhibit regularly. There was a community of artists, and I met artists who shared similar interests.
There are a number of artists here who seem to be working with recycled objects, found objects, images and other content from our popular culture. I think of the work of Phil Bender, Deborah Jang, Mark Friday and Jerry Simpson. I don't know if this is a phenomenon unique to Denver, if it is national, or international in scope. It would be interesting to have an exhibition...
How would you describe your work?
When images from my collection are utilized I begin with a scan and then manipulate the image in Photoshop. Existing color is deleted and the image is reduced to the desired simple basic line drawing. Then through the rather un-technological process using graphite, the image is transferred to linoleum. This is carved, and from this prints can be produced. The work of art consists of these printed images along with the application of watercolor. As a consequence, each work is unique.
In the upcoming exhibition each print will represent a particular aspect of my life. The work will link together to form a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.
Any final thoughts?
Denver has a vital and vibrant art scene. The co-operative art galleries are an essential part of what makes this so. It is very important for me to stress this. Spark gallery provides you with forum to exhibit your art and also to change, if that is what you wish to do. The co-ops are an indispensable part of the entire picture.