When I look at Robert’s work, I cannot help but smile. His still life paintings www.robertcjackson.com are so fresh and playful. His work is characterized by rich, primary colors, fun collections and deep Americana. You just have to see it for yourself and also enjoy my chat with Robert …
MICHAEL: First of all Robert, I don't even know where to begin with you. Your work is SO warm, friendly and delightful on the surface. It's a visual feast yet at the same time, it seems fiercely independent to me. No one is MAKING you create the work that you do or dictating your choices. Your thoughts?
ROBERT: Thanks Michael, I can tell this is going to be a fun interview already! I am glad that both "friendly" and "independent" come out in my work. Those wouldn't be bad labels to be stuck with! It takes a long time for an artist to find their own signature. Early on, I spent much time perfecting the craft of painting with little thought about the concept or subject. I found technique and craft can be learned, but a purpose is much more elusive. I painted what I thought I was supposed to do as a still life artist. But for me, that got stale and I had to address some concept with the craft. I made a pact with myself to not create a work without an idea or narrative. So I guess the "no one" that is making me create this work is me. I gave myself the permission to walk my own path. Oddly, I discovered that when you try to paint universally you reach almost no one and when you paint most personally you speak most universally. I think the viewers can tell if a work is authentic.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. It clearly shows in your work. The work is playful, but it's also a reinvention of still life. What about this genre appeals to you as a painter?
ROBERT: The control it affords me. There is a ton of freedom in still life. I come up with an idea, search out props, sculpt my arrangement, take a snapshot with paint, knock it all down and start over again. There is very little that is dictated to me or beyond my control.
MICHAEL: Your colors are so vivid. They're Technicolor. It's almost as if the paintings are pages in a coloring book and you pour the color in last and turn on a light switch. It's a color party, no? What's your relationship with color?
ROBERT: So I guess I'm not very subtle! It's funny that so much still life tends to be so brown-centric. I'm a little amazed at how prevalent it is because I really don't like brown. I'm taken by objects with vibrant colors - they can really make a painting "pop" and sing. I have a strong emotional reaction to color - brown, not so much. The soda crates that have become associated with me help me a bunch in this arena. They have a flagrant use of primary and secondary colors. They become abstract color swatches in my paintings. Colors themselves become compositional elements by calling peoples’ eyes to bounce around a canvas.
MICHAEL: The primary colors and playfulness would naturally lead many people to think your art is specifically for children. I'm sure you like the fact that kids relate to it, but having people think it's FOR kids must be irritating.
ROBERT: I really don't hear that much. I can't say I've had a collector show me into their house and walk me to their kids’ room to show me my work hanging. I'm sure there is some of that, but certainly not the prevalent trend. Maybe it is too expensive for that. I'd like to think that is for the kid in all of us, or that it taps into our nostalgia. I do know my work is accessible and I don't think that is a bad thing. Sometimes artists want to create such "difficult" work that no one can like it, I'm glad musical artists don't work that way!
MICHAEL: I think that at least sometimes, creating "difficult" work can be a cover for insecurity and the need to be taken "seriously." What was your first experience with art? When did you become an artist? Do you come from an art family?
ROBERT: I grew up in a family of five boys. So to a certain extent, family life was crowd control. I really don’t remember visiting art museums or anything like that. I doodled all the time in all my class books, but just assumed that is what everyone did to pass time when the teacher was talking. When I was in college for electrical engineering still doodling in my class, notes my girlfriend, who is now my wife, bought me a Christmas gift of a set of oil paints. Having no idea how to even use them, I enrolled in Painting 101 the last semester of my senior year. There was no college course I liked better. The professor was an abstract artist, totally different than what I wanted to do, but he contagiously shared his love of painting, I worked as an engineer and went into the ministry for a little while before going full time with my painting when I was 31. Oddly enough now, I have one brother who is a painter too, another is a photographer, and because of the rest of us, my mom took up painting too.
MICHAEL: I understand you're no longer in the ministry, but is there a connection between art and ministry?
ROBERT: I do feel like all of us are a sum of our life's experiences. The ministry was an important and fulfilling part of my journey. And I know that it shows up in my artwork. Hopefully, I'm creating some good art that feeds the soul. It wouldn't be bad to think that my art brings some joy and enjoyment to people's lives. On the other hand, I also don't have delusions of grandeur that my art is the pivotal force of change for the world. Sometimes I think artists take what they do a little too seriously. When you get down to brass tacks, we are simply showing what it means to be part of the human experience and are pushing mud around with little sticks on a piece of fabric!
MICHAEL: Are the hotdog balloons in your paintings some sort of dialogue with Jeff Koons? I know he didn't invent them either, but just wondering. They're in quite a few of your paintings.
ROBERT: Honestly, I was unaware of Koons's balloon dogs when I began painting those. I did them roughly about the same time, I just didn’t have the same career as him and no one was seeing those pieces! Now, of course I can have some fun with that association as I know people are going to make the connection. I'm always making art references and nods in my work. If actually I had to give credit for balloon dogs in my paintings I'd probably tip my hat to Wayne Thiebaud. Not that he ever did them, but he was a master at identifying Americana - ice cream cones, pies, cakes, ties, shoes, hot dogs, etc. and turning them into fine art. I started thinking about pieces of American nostalgia that Thiebaud had not successfully branded himself to. I came up with things like Oreos, balloon dogs, donuts, balsa wood planes, and water balloons.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world/art market and how they function today? The super-wealthy buy dead, famous artists, but living artists continue to struggle.
ROBERT: I have to admit that the system hasn't been too bad for me. I'm rather fortunate that I pretty much sell everything I paint through the gallery system and I do know that is pretty unique. That's not to say this isn't a stressful profession. You really never know when your next paycheck is coming so you have to save for a rainy day. I do think it is very, very important to find galleries that you enjoy and trust. Develop good relationships with them and don't rely on any one gallery to make it for you. It takes a few galleries. Art is still a very tiny niche and you have to keep on top of your game. I think that blue chip investment art is a whole different game. That's like stocks and bonds and those collectors buy on investment tips. I'm not trying to play that game. I'd rather focus on the bunch of collectors out there who buy because they really enjoy art. They like looking and finding something that speaks uniquely to their personality. They get pleasure out having an expression of humanity through owning an original piece of art. You strike me as that type of collector yourself.
MICHAEL: I am indeed. What is the actual painting process like for you? Are you in a meditative state? Are you listening to music or watching TV as you paint? Are the kids and pets running around the room?
ROBERT: For years, I worked at home, but with my wife being a music teacher in our house there became way too much distraction for me. Now, my studio is in an old American Legion Building which was constructed in 1925 in downtown Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Each morning, I drop off my daughter at high school and am at my studio by 7:30 and work until about 6. I am a very disciplined hard worker. I start right in and really love doing it. Keeping me company as I work is a little bit of everything. I listen to talk radio and music, have a Netflix subscription and have the public library DVD selection right next door. I'm mainly listening so if the movie has little or no dialog it is impossible to get. Of course I lose my place all the time in thought and often watch each movie 2 or 3 times in a row to actually pick up what happened!
MICHAEL: What role do you think art plays in the world today? What's the point of it all? Many people live their lives without any true relationship with art.
ROBERT: It is a pretty small niche of society that we are interested in isn't it?! Most people can't name 5 living artists, I know because that is a question I love to ask people! If Jasper Johns or Gerhard Richter were to walk through your local shopping mall, no one would be taken aback. Many artists are almost as bad, they only have their own art hanging, only look at their own art, only talk about their own art. Maybe it means so much to me because it was a hobby and passion first and became my full-time occupation later. People often come into my house and say "I love your art, you are so talented" and I laugh because I don't own my art and have almost nothing. I have everyone else's art around my house. Art is insanely true for me. Why do I do it? Because I love every day of what I do now. It's who I am and I am fortunate that when I do it, there are enough people who appreciate it that I get to keep doing it.
MICHAEL: Thanks Robert. I can see the joy in your work for sure.
ROBERT: Thanks back at you! Nice to chat.
Check out Robert C. Jackson and his beautiful work at www.robertcjackson.com.