photos Manju Varghese
People rarely see Riverton artist Bruce Robertson on a down day. His optimism and positive perspective are second nature to him despite the discouragement and frustrations that often come with balancing a creative career with an administrative one (he is executive director of the Visual Arts Institute in Sugar House). The responsibilities and obligations that come with day-to-day life can weigh on him as well. If his wife, five children and two grandchildren don’t keep him busy enough, serving as LDS bishop for his local ward does.
This month, A Gallery features Robertson’s work in a solo exhibition entitled Beautiful Chaos. Just a week or two prior to the exhibit, at the time of this interview, his studio is populated with what appear to be disparate pieces awaiting completion so they can be released for display. At times, Robertson says, he has difficulty deciding when a painting is complete and admits it is usually when the gallery demands it that he decides he is finished.
Robertson’s studio reveals an active, ambitious artist, launching into new visual enterprises from a solid, academic foundation based on drawing. Figurative sketches, sculpted heads, mannequins, and a library of books inhabit his workspace. Occasionally, frustration or administrative demands will pull him away from his art for a while and he returns confused or disappointed. “Sometimes I come back to a painting and wonder ‘where was I going with this?’” Robertson says, “as if I were drunk when I started it.” Beautiful Chaos applies not only to the relationship among the artwork on display at A Gallery, but also embodies the artist’s outlook on disruptions that bring disorder to our lives.
Cultivating the Artist
“The aim of art is not just to imitate nature, but to participate in it in such a way as to create new and believable worlds.”
Robertson grew up in Southern California, but would visit his grandmother’s art studio in Roosevelt, Utah, on occasion. With a love for the smell of linseed oil and turpentine, he always knew he wanted to be an artist but never took formal classes as a child. His mother took community art classes and he would accompany her to those, but he didn’t absorb much from the experience. “It was kind of a ‘paint along with Bob’ kind of thing, so I would go walk around the parking lot while she was in class.”
Robertson’s first organized art class was with James C. Christensen his freshman year at Brigham Young University. “He instilled a sense of adventure,” Robertson reminisces. “He was such a storyteller and he could set up the dynamics of the studio to make it interesting.”
One of the big turning points for him was his junior year with Hagen Haltern’s Intensive Studio class. He participated with nine other students including Mark England, Richard Gate, and Jacqui Biggs Larsen and it was the only class they took all year. “We transformed the studio into a magical place. I think this is what launched me into a more mixed-media artist and it helped me look at the world differently.”
Robertson graduated with a BFA in printmaking and drawing and then returned home to Southern California where he continued studying printmaking at Long Beach State University. Christopher Terry (now at Utah State) was on his graduate committee. Terry encouraged him to accelerate his sense of experimentation. Once he went to Long Beach, Robertson was able to really formulate his thinking, and accelerate his sense of experimentation. He learned how to layer paint and look at surface.
“I find that uneasiness and not knowing where you’re going to be can be quite a beautiful challenge in the end.”
Robertson was at Long Beach for only two years when he had to leave the program due to an unfortunate accident in a freight elevator that crushed his right hand, causing extensive nerve damage. No longer able to practice printmaking, he had to rethink whether art was something he could pursue. He tried to learn how to draw and paint with his left hand, and his teachers at Long Beach supported him in experimenting with other techniques, as there was no certainty that he would ever regain the use of his hand.
A short while later, Robertson’s wife was transferred to Utah for work. No longer in school, with two little kids, and unable to find a job, Robertson didn’t exactly know what to do with himself. He experimented with carving, and gained some strength in his right hand. Eventually, he decided to attend the University of Utah’s open drawing sessions on Saturdays where nobody knew who he was. He figured if he failed, people would think he was a beginner, but if he succeeded, he would gain the confidence he needed to pursue an art career.
In time, Robertson made the decision to go back to graduate school. He looked at the University of Utah and Utah State originally, but the University of Utah was overloaded with graduate students, and, although he thought Utah State would have been a good option, they didn’t have a teaching component, and he wanted to be a teacher. Robertson found a slot at BYU, where he was able to teach for the duration of his graduate work. Returning to BYU this time around, he decided to go into painting.
He returned to his roots and took a class from James Christensen, but Robertson notes Bruce Smith and Robert Marshall as significant influences. They were on his graduate committee and were looser in their philosophies, which he appreciated and felt comfortable with.
“It doesn’t matter how ugly something is, because if you put the right lighting on it, you find intrinsic beauty.”
Robertson taught at BYU for two years after graduating with his MFA in 1991. When his contract ran out, he was offered an adjunct position at the University of Utah and he has been teaching classes there ever since.
Education has always been self-directed for Robertson and he passes on this philosophy to his students. He currently teaches a basic drawing class at the U of U, but the majority of his time is spent with the Visual Arts Institute.
The VAI was founded in 1978. Its mission is “to foster the education and development of visually gifted children’s talents by providing in-depth training, independent study and experimentation in all aspects of visual art while preserving each child’s artistic individuality and imagination.” Robertson was introduced to the VAI through artist Lenka Konopasek, who taught classes for them. Robertson taught classes for a year until he took an opportunity to return to BYU part time for two or three years. But in 1998, Stephanie Burn, the founding director of the VAI, passed away and the board of directors approached Robertson, asking him to take on her role.
Robertson has been with the VAI as executive director for the past eight years. Most of the classes are taught by artists from the community such as Konopasek, Heidi Somsen, Teresa Flowers, Cordell Taylor, Kent Miles, and Tom Howard, teaching their different philosophies and theories on art.
Through his many years of teaching, Robertson has always had an ability to take each student and help them discover their unique voice and individual ability to create. With an extensive collection of books, including biographies, photography, architecture, painting and theory, Robertson has a variety of references to give students so they can help themselves individually. “I always tell my students that you’ll learn more from a book than you will from an instructor. But not just one book, you need to find what is of interest to you. They can inspire you and save you a lot of time, preventing you from re-creating the wheel.”
Although he looks to many artists for inspiration, among Robertson’s favorites are Giacometti, Diebenkorn, and above all, Degas and Rembrandt. Euan Uglow is a recent discovery of his. “I was at the New York Studio School doing a figure workshop and he had an exhibit there. I wish I’d found him years ago. The way he organizes space and the structure of his paintings is wonderful.”
“Rather than focusing on the negative aspects, I try to focus on the eclectic nature that is coming from all different directions.”
Robertson’s exhibit at A Gallery this month is an appropriate representation of the chaotic nature his life has taken on recently. “The past couple months I’ve been experiencing upheaval,” Robertson explains. “My life is in total chaos, not knowing where I’m going to land.”
Recently, he has been forced to explore different options concerning the future of the Visual Arts Institute as the Salt Lake City School District, that owns the old Garfield Elementary School the VAI is currently located in, announced it plans to sell the 85-year-old building. What the city plans on doing with the property has not been revealed. The insecurity of his career there has led him to seek alternatives not only for the future of the Institute, but for himself as well.
But with his inherent optimism, he uses the chaos to his advantage. “In some cases you can let it cause paralysis, but for me I just feel like I need to push in every direction I can, keep moving, and something positive will come from it.” Speaking of paralysis, Robertson still has nerve damage in his right hand, but has regained about 50 percent mobility. He can bend his index finger just enough to support a pencil or paintbrush. At times, when he works repetitiously, his fingers will go numb and he’ll have to wait a few minutes for the pain to subside.
Robertson is using this current exhibition, Beautiful Chaos, to try something new and show work that people wouldn’t usually see from him. Commonly known for his abstract work, he is making the ever-present figurative nature of his art more apparent. “I thought it would be fun to unveil the figure, dig back through the layers of abstraction, and reveal the structure of all these pieces.”
There will be some older pieces in the exhibit to bridge his newer, more experimental work, but look for some sculptural heads that he’s never shown before, mixed-media heads out of aluminum, and other surprises.
Beautiful Chaos will be on display at A Gallery through May 31, 2006. “I want to continue to push boundaries, layer things and do things that I wouldn’t normally do. Beautiful Chaos is a way of making a simple statement about everything that’s in flux right now.”
Works by Bruce Robertson are on view at Salt Lake’s A Gallery May 11 – 31st with an opening reception Thursday, May 11th from 6-8 p.m. and a Gallery Stroll reception Friday, May 19th from 6 to 9 p.m.
Laura Durham works for KUED Channel-7 in the Creative Services Department, curating community engagement projects for both PBS and KUED productions that foster trust and value to the communities in Utah. She also produces Contact with Mary Dickson and Contact in the Community — a digital series featuring arts and culture groups in Utah. Prior to her work at KUED, Laura spent 15 years at the Utah Division of Arts & Museums in the visual arts program and later managing communications, branding, marketing, and public value projects for all arts and museums programming. She has served the Utah community in various capacities with her role as Vice President of the Salt Lake Gallery Association and Program Director for the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll. She lives in Salt Lake City, sings with Utah Chamber Artists, and loves to contribute to 15 Bytes as often as time allows.