Five Questions, A Million Answers

Sunday, July 28, 2013

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.
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