Monday, October 28, 2013

And Now For My Next Trick....

While spelunking in my picture archive I stumbled across these two pictures of some patch work that I had done earlier this year. It's not my favorite type of project but it's weirdly satisfying. I'd much prefer to be painting murals or doing a pet portrait but one rare occasions I get calls from people looking to repair some faux painting done years ago that has suffered some injury. 

These projects are always tricky because they involve trying to match someone else's work including texture and color. Very often the painting was done a decade or more in the past so the exact formula or colors are long gone. 

This particular project was a crazy challenge because the contractors in charge of repairs had made quite a mess of the wall with spackle. Also, the realtor who had commissioned me to do the project had no idea what the basecoat color might be. I mixed and matched all the colors I brought with me and managed to blend it away. Even I was surprised by the results!
 This next little one was a doozy as well. The artist who had painted these pillars had neglected to use primer so of course the paint was going to inevitably peel off. I used some superglue to stave off the worst bits of peeling and then began matching the colors. Fortunately I was able to take a chunk of the peeling paint and color match it so I at least had a good base to start. Presto chango!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

James Brown Comes to Town....

Around this time in 2012 I lost a very good friend named Eric. Being of the punk persuasion he called himself "Generic". I had sung (*I should put that in qualifying quotations because I was a horrible vocalist and the noises I made could hardly pass for singing) for his band in my late teens and early 20s. He was a wild and amazing person who brought passion and fire to everything he did. Shortly after he died I made a memorial video of him to honor him.

One special memory I will always hold dear was from a cold, black night in his music studio. In October 2002 my brother and I had written an article for the now defunct Tampa magazine "TooSquare". It was a review of a live James Brown appearance at the Suwanee Music Festival. We wrote it in a quasi-gonzo style in a comical homage to our favorite writer Hunter S. Thompson. It was a hot mess on all counts but fun to do nonetheless. 

Generic loved the article and offered to record a live reading of it with some accompanying guitar work he'd throw in. It was one of those magic, drunken nights between brothers filled with booze and banter that one never forgets. He had a great music studio hidden in his sprawling property in middle-of-nowhere Florida. Generic had recorded hundreds of hours of music and scores of bands from near and far. For a strange chapter in the late 90s it was a punk rock mecca drawing acts from across the country and beyond. 
So, on this one weird night Generic and I just plowed through a bottle of Jack Daniels and a dozen or more beers (you can hear me slur my words several times) and fiddled with knobs and microphones til the moon called it quits. It's no masterpiece of writing or music but it's a wonderful witness to a magic night with a dearly missed friend. As Generic used to always say--"the creeps come out at night"....
Here is the text as it appeared if you want to read along: 

James Brown Comes to Town
By Bob Wire and TJ Swan
Oct. 2002

We passed three horrible crashes under a ripe harvest moon on the way to the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak, Florida. There’s something Superbad about a trip that begins so black-heeled, but then this was more or less a pilgrimage and one expects some sort of omens to litter the path. My superstitious side capitalized on all these ill portents. I envisioned all sorts of calamities awaiting us on the dark highway ahead: blood-eyed biker gangs, rabid hordes of raccoons, locusts, plagues…..hare krishnas…..

Soon though I switched the brain to the Good Vibe Station, loosing a pleasant stream of cloud-hopping rainbows and flipping unicorns. Good vibes, good vibes…..It wouldn’t do to arrive at the feet of the Godfather burdened with Paranoia. After all, you can’t be down if you’ve got James Brown.

Dammit! Stacia needs a Chalupa! We stop at a Taco Hell to feast. The rest of the drive vaporizes soon after and we arrive at the Spirit of Suwannee camp square at midnight. I can feel the hippy vibrations howling beyond the gates, Technicolor tentacles poised to engulf us.

It’s a volatile alphabet soup of chemicals in there, some natural, some hastily conjured poisons—LSD, MDMA, THC, PMS, GHB, SPF, MSG, etc. This is no ordinary venue. It’s deeply set in the woody rural district of Redneck County Florida—hosting noneother than the Blackest, Baddest, Muthafuckin’ Muthafucka of them all—His Highness….James Brown!!

With all obligatory respects, there were of course a great mass of other performers at this music festival, none of which I gave a rat turd about. I’m sure they are all fine, fine young folks with oodles of talent and charm, but to a monomaniac en route to see a legend, they amount to so much dust on the lens of the binoculars. I came to see the Man who liberated the troglodytes from their bourgeois slumber. Sure I love Elvis too—after all he freed the groin and knees, but King James gave us Soul……

In we go.
The spectacle inside resembled a disintegrating riot—a saturnalia in its formative stages, citizens long soaked in rum and sunshine. People….hairy people…..were milling about cockroach-style in and out of flickering tie-dyed displays. Beer was reasonably priced with little kickback to the middleman in charge of tickets. G Love and Special Sauce were laying down a fine groove. Their set nearly drained, they took the opportunity to extol the merits of cannibis and “cold beverages”. Indeed. So it was for the lingering shades of the evening proper…..stinky, basically peaceful and swampy in a way only Florida can be.

Suddenly, the atmosphere smoldered with anticipation. The weighty chains of civility stretched ever thinner with each shared breath. The crowd was becoming a Beast! Breezes combed us all with virile smells and the rich aroma of stirred dirt.

The first musicians began filing in. When the stage was adequately loaded with black muses and white session players, the unwieldy crew began lubricating the audience with showy, rhythmic noise. The whole affair took on the cadence of an ancient circus. Apparently, as a species, we all secretly love to boogie and get high. Now was the time for our tribe to Get it On.

Something in the blood responds to the reckless Truth and as James Brown took the stage a glittering new fuel began coursing in my veins. He looked like a bloated aborigine wrapped in a diamond pelt. He croaked out a few undecipherable salutations and began the two-hour ritual immediately. Slithering, shaking, stomping, grooving! The Old Man kicked out all the jams. Lawdy! What a flurry of feet and flash!....Make it Funky…..Pleasepleasepleeeeeaase….unnh! Get on Up….Heh! Ha!

The man is a triple-caped gigolo, pimping out the holy human sex sound locked in the gene pattern. He howls like a captured tiger, each note steady and strong. Every sterling syllable streams out like a seraphic night train into the full moon sky. The bliss-wet crowd cavorts en masse, hooting and caterwauling savagely. He slows it down…..gospel style. Big Finish. No encore.

Our departure was one seamless shuffle to the car. Somehow we managed to lose the car keys inside. Stalled, perhaps, by Fortune to soak up the lingering scents of the predawn twilight.

Finally we make it to a truck stop Waffle House to refuel our rattled bodies. The waitress was a strange specimen of the outback female—pimply, certainly intoxicated and glistening under the harsh glare of the fluorescent light. “Pot smoking causes…..I forget…heh,heh,heh…” was her opening line. The rest of her twaddle has since faded from my memory, but this backwoods nymph drooled out a fine epitaph for our exhausted night: “the Spirit of Suwannee is the most beautiful place you could ever go.”


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Part of my 2013 goals has been to participate in more pet-themed events to get the word out about my pet portraits. On the last weekend of April I went to Tampa for "Waterchase Unleashed". I set up camp with the wonderful ladies who run Woof There It Is--a pet grooming shop in Westchase where I have my paintings on display. I met a lot of nice people and had a hoot mingling with all the pooches. 
Hiding from the sun....

The Set Up for Waterchase Unleashed 
A rare black bulldog. His name is Congo

Me and Prince
Paige Allison and Rebecca La Munyan of Woof There It Is Working Their Grooming Magic

Five Questions, A Million Answers

I was recently interviewed by "Articulate" the blog of Creative Pinellas. Fortunately for me they edited down my long and rambling responses to the 5 simple questions. I really enjoyed the opportunity to explain my passion for pet portraits and why I do them. You can read the whole interview by clicking HERE....or here if you REALLY don't wanna click the link. Jeez.... ;-) 
Five Questions: Robert Phelps
on February 12, 2013 11:19 AMArtist Robert Phelps is "a very curious cat." All artwork pictured by Robert PhelpsSt. Petersburg artist Robert Phelps has painted everything from prizefighters to rock stars to, more recently, pets. In fact, Phelps has begun his own Pet Portraits line. The portraits, so far mostly of clients’ dogs and cats, are beautiful, evocative, even witty. (Disclosure: I’m a repeat customer.)
Phelps takes time out of his day to answer five questions about his art background, his creative inspirations, and why he’s opted to switch his focus from human to animals.

1. Is it true you’re a self-taught painter? Tell us how it all began. 

I've always been inclined towards drawing and painting and would while away the hours drawing monsters, warriors and ninjas as a kid. I was obsessed with comics. I wouldn't describe myself as particularly talented or precocious but certainly dedicated and fascinated. I have a strange way of holding pencils (because my hands have an oddly extended thumb angle) that teachers tried forever to correct me of. Later I would be chastised for the way I would be "messy" in my artistic approach. Fortunately for me I never learned to paint "properly." Expressiveness and looseness are my stock in trade.

I couldn't afford to go to art school and, having always been an autodidact anyway, decided to just leap into the fray. I'm sure I would have benefited from some formal training but I kind of like that I've made my own little paths along the way. I love learning new ways to do things but I always end up in my laboratory tinkering away instead of in a classroom. I left community college after a year and half to go work for Disney as a scenic painter at the Animal Kingdom.
From then on it's been a non-stop journey of working to make a living with my brush. I've worked as a scenic painter, caricature artist, portrait artist, decorative painter, muralist, illustrator, and fine artist. I've definitely put in my 10,000 hours.

2. What got you started on pet portraits?

It struck me that our pets have a unique ability to bring us satoris throughout the day. I'm sure you've noticed that even the most hard and emotionally closed people warm up and smile when they put their hands on a cat or a dog. It's like watching a sudden bloom. It's one of the few times certain people feel free to be loving. If I were to assign a lofty aim to art in general it would be to help us actualize and grow. From my perspective our pets and animal companions elicit our very highest human emotions and potential. They are the most simple and earthy creatures--they keep us grounded in all the lower energies and impulses (i.e. humping and fighting in the dog park) while simultaneously arousing profound compassion and "humanity" for lack of a better word.

Pet portraits as I am attempting to paint them have a very special meaning to me. Not to sound too hippy but I see them as flowers in a massive garden. I've never been concerned with being the most current, hip or clever artist. I'm a little too hillbilly for that. I just like seeing what happens when I paint. It's sort of mysterious to me.

As far as my current subject matter goes, I want to beam out what animals radiate out to us. It's pure, it's simple, it's life affirming. In a world that is loaded with frenetic, ever-shifting digital images (which ironically have rendered painting somewhat obsolete) I want to create these simple, joyous eye-bombs that are both still and alive. I want to sow them like seeds in a garden and spread them out. Animals, and particularly those we are most familiar with, speak to us in a language we need more than ever right now. We don't need more information, or terror, or cleverness, or grandeur, or complexity. We need truth. We need peace. We need clarity. All things our pets freely give to us. It's a very simple language to learn. We all already know it. I think we need reminding sometimes.

3. Do you have pets of your own?

I have two cats, Jack and Lily. Jack is a black and white tuxedo cat and he's a total love monster. I've never met a friendlier cat. He's also a very mischievous and destructive bastard--which I absolutely love. He's simultaneously the dumbest and smartest cat I've ever seen. I'm constantly feeling duped by his devious antics. His dirtiest trick is when he wants me to get up he will climb under the bed and start scratching from the underside. Well played, Jack! Then he'll try to eat a rubber band or something and I'm convinced he's a mad little hatter. Lily is a husky gray tiger. She hates almost everyone but me, which I find hilarious. It's super rare that she will let anyone else touch her. She loves me and can't get enough lap time with yours truly but when she's angry she's terrifying. I remember the vets at a feline clinic saying she was one of the worst cats they had ever seen. In her defense I don't think I'd be all that happy about a surprise rectal thermometer invasion either.

I purposely bought rustic wood bookshelves for my giant collection of books. Lily has been diligently destroying the lower half of the biggest bookshelf, clawing an ever-deepening valley into the side. Jack prefers breadth to depth and has made confetti of my office chair, ottoman and a few couches. I appreciate that when they bother to do something it's done with passion.

4. You've painted Mike Tyson and Mick Jagger, and now animals. What are some other subjects that have interested you?

To me they are all really the same thing--archetypes basically. I'm naturally inclined towards seeing things in a Jungian/symbolic sense. A painting of Mike Tyson isn't just a portrait to me. I cram him in a big canvas so you can really feel his overpowering, menacing presence. He's not just a man looking at you. Iron Mike is an ancient character--the Warrior, the Villain, the King--all of which we have inside of us. The same goes for my nymphs and satyrs--lust, abundance, freedom, summer, youth, magic, etc. I try to keep things simple (which, funnily enough, is pretty difficult) so that the "voice" of the subject is clear. We resonate with images because they are us.

I suppose most everything that truly interests me has a certain wildness to it. I was fortunate to grow up in very raw, mountainous terrain. I spent my childhood summers totally feral wandering West Virginian mountains with my brother. When it was time to go back to school I was never sure how to act. I was too full of barbaric yawps. I still am. The structure and concerns of school and society are necessary for culture but very numbing to the mind and spirit in overloading doses. Too much pastoral beauty can turn you into a cow though. Civilization with all its angles sort of rubs against your brain and polishes your mind. The city has its own wildness though, just as nature has its order. I find both worlds very inspiring. When I was in high school I made a painting of the Parisian Opera House spiral staircase winding its way into an equally magnificent tree.

The juxtaposition of raw and refined is what inspires me most. How we interact with the pressures from inside and the elements outside. It takes courage to grow as nature has designed you, especially if you want to get along with others. I appreciate most of all those wild beasties that are very stubbornly themselves, even if they are horrible bastards. Often because they are horrible bastards. What's a lion without his roar? Then again, what's a teacup Chihuahua without his adorable tremble? Both are beautiful in their own way.

5. Who are your favorite artists, or, people who inspire you creatively?

That list is impossibly long. I'm a ridiculous fanboy for a massive pantheon of artists, writers, comedians, athletes, entertainers and musicians. Even contemplating my catalog of favorite artists is too daunting--Takashi Murakami, Inka Essenhigh, Amedeo Modigliani, Ben Shahn, Gustav Klimt, Paul Gauguin, etc. I have a special place in my heart for Pablo Picasso though. I love that he was unabashedly multi-faceted in his styles. Visually, he was always flitting from blossom to blossom like a bee. It helps me feel okay about my own penchant to mix it up. His graphic sense was extraordinary and his dedication to mastering the art of simplicity was legendary.    

I have very strong likes, dislikes and opinions about what I favor but in essence I think of things from a big picture perspective. For instance, baseball bores the hell out of me but on a macro level I understand the phenomenon of being totally in love and engrossed in something--in this case a sport (I love watching fights). If baseball is on your wavelength for whatever reason then you see the "art" in it. You soak it up, you are absorbed in it, you study it, you master it. I happen to like a certain kind of painting or writing or music because it speaks to me. It helps me see, it helps me grow. I figure it's the same with everyone.

That is really how I see art. It has more to do with attention than any other metric. That's what I respond to creatively. That's what inspires me. The same thing that inspires everyone--where you get your kicks. That's what my artistic challenge has always been. I like too many things. It's all art to me. It's all the same thing and I'm a very curious cat. Once I fall under the siren's spell and dive in the water then I'm hooked. Octopuses, nudes, ancient Celts, Adam Carolla, Bjork, Hunter Thompson, Iggy Pop, haikus, boxing, Jenny Saville, France, snapdragons ... I'm a mess ... I want to know everything about the subject. I want to imbibe it like some sort of magic elixir. And the Pandora's Box of the internet makes unlimited research so enticing.  

So painting pets has been an interesting experiment for me. That is what is inspiring me at the moment. Ironically it is very liberating to focus on a singular subject matter. So for now it's dogs, cats and critters. That's it. Nothing else. Staying focused.
OK, maybe ninjas ... and the Kinks ... and Monica Bellucci. Dammit.
- See more at:

Why I Paint Pets

Memorial Pet Portrait of Bailey by Robert Phelps
     Hi, my name is Robert Phelps. I'm an artist living in St. Pete, Florida. This is my second blog. My first one is for my business Painted Poetry, LLC. I'm an expressive figurative artist with a background in decorative painting. Over the years I've been painting more and more pet portraits so I decided it was time to feature them in a blog of their own. Viola!

     So why pet portraits? Simple. Because I love animals--all of them, especially the ones who make our lives richer and fuller. I feel that in our complex world the simplicity of our animal companions keeps us grounded in reality and connected to the Earth in a real and tangible way. In an interesting and ironic way I feel the simplest creatures reflect and inspire our highest emotions. Even people who can't express love or joy in society melt like fondue when in the presence of a dog or cat. They feel free to be open, unguarded and caring to a furry friend. 

     Artistically I enjoy the challenge. Each animal is unique and finding ways to express their individuality is fun and interesting for me. And most gratifyingly of all is the way my clients respond to the artwork. Sometimes they tear up when they see the finished project. Often I conspire with a spouse or friend to surprise their recipient with the painting--that is a lot of fun. 

   So, that's it for now. Hello, how do you do? I paint pets for me and you ;-) 
Artist Robert Phelps with a few of his portraits

Sunday, April 14, 2013

You Gotta Know When To Hold 'Em, Know When To Fold 'Em

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be"--Lao Tzu
Robert Phelps the Warehouse Monkey
Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself and your career is to stop. At least for a little while. From October 15, 2012 to April 1, 2013 I worked at HSN as a "scenic technician". I only made it 5.5 months at a regular job. I gave it my best shot but by now I'm far too feral and entrepreneurial to work hourly. I met a lot of really interesting people but more importantly I became, through a vast perspective shift, reacquainted with myself--and more importantly, my goals.

Prior to taking this position I had spent the better part of 17 years working as an artist in various forms--fine artist, illustrator, muralist, faux painter, scenic artist, caricaturist, product designer, web master, etc. It was a good run but I had finally reached that dreaded point that all creative types must at some time endure--burnout. I have stubborn Irish genes so I just fought the notion of giving up at all costs. I fantasized about a stable and secure income and a nice, steady paycheck but I was unwilling to let go of all that I had built. 
Robert Phelps, corporate stooge ;-)
Ultimately though, I found the bottom of the barrel and just wanted a reprieve from the daily grind and hustle of maintaining an art career in a protracted recession. So, imagining the grass to be greener in the neighbor's field I hopped the fence and signed on at HSN. As a guy who perhaps too strongly associates with his work I found myself in a whole new role/identity in a job I had no training for and very little understanding of. I was grateful for the opportunity but felt as though I had been sucked into a vortex of confusion. I did my best to retrain my mind to accept this new reality but I just couldn't. 

I found myself chafing at the shackles of regular employment. There was no room for creativity, adaptability, or innovative thinking. In true Irish fashion I had signed on for a workhorse position (despite the title of "scenic technician") as a warehouse monkey. All day, every day I struck and set Studio sets with ridiculously heavy props and furniture. Everything was a novelty-level pain in the ass. Schlepping massive rolled rugs, painting and repainting props to suit each set design, loading and unloading the moving truck. Essentially I was a mover. I'll tell the tales of my adventures at HSN another time but for now I'll just say I was a fish out of water flopping around. 
Robert Phelps--set model for "blocking" photos
The story has a happy ending though. I find that although the work was grueling and exhausting I am recharged and renewed in my artistic intent. The break between what was and what will be is distinctly marked with a fascinating chapter which I suspect will ultimately be profoundly useful. I met some really great people and lost 20 pounds of depression weight (recession-fueled depression resulting in over-eating and boozing). 

Having wandered so far away from my "home" as an artist I now am refreshed with appreciation for what I do. I can see it anew and enjoy it in a much more fun way. I spent that entire 5.5 months working on my business from outside of it (I spent every day at lunch doing web work and reviewing my business plan and technical challenges) and now I can plug the leaks that drained me so badly in the past. So, not to get too Taoist about it I can honestly say the best way to find yourself sometimes is to get totally lost. Try it, you'll like it. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Simple pleasures

I couldn't ask for better clients! I arrived at the job this morning and they whipped me up some breakfast of a perfectly cooked cheese omelet, handmade hash-browns  bacon, toast, fresh coffee--the works.  I had a fascinating conversation with the husband who very thoroughly and civilly explained his (Republican) views on the US economic policies and why he strongly disagrees with President Obama. Although I don't completely agree with all of his points I really learned a lot and appreciated the discussion and exchange of ideas. I offered to do some extra work for free. It's amazing how a little civility and reason can totally make your day!