By James Johnson
In 1929, surrealist icon Salvador Dali co-created an experimental short that shows a woman’s eyeball being sliced in half. Thankfully, Fayetteville artist Rob Robbers’ portrait of Dali is much easier on the eyes.
It was his Dali portrait, which he painted in September of last year that served as the catalyst for the 31-year-old’s return to the canvas, after a near decade long hiatus.
“The Dali portrait is still my favorite one so far. As an artist, there are times when you just get overcome. That is what happened when I painted the Dali,” said Robbers. “It was like I sort of blanked out and I am shocked that I painted that. I hadn’t painted seriously in so long. It was the one painting where I knew I still had it.”
According to Robbers, the bright acrylics, creative use of color and hard black lines that can be found in all of his more recent portraits, was a style that he only developed after his Dali portrait.
“It is actually one of those things that set the tone for the way I paint now, stylistically speaking,” Robbers said. “This now feels like the most natural way I can paint. There are other ways you can paint that are just not natural to your abilities. Coming up with your own style is not easy.
When I did the Dali though, I found my style. I have always been a huge fan and there was just something about a four foot tall portrait of Dali in my house that inspired me.”
Though Robbers resists labels, his style may owe more to Andy Warhol’s pop art movement, than Dali’s surrealist movement. The majority of Robbers’ portraits feature cultural icons, such as Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart, Edgar Allen Poe, Audrey Hepburn and Bettie Page.
“I guess it is really one of those things that just happened. I have always loved painting portraits. The reason I got into celebrities is because as an artist, you have to show people how you see the world and with celebrities, it kind of gives people a point of perspective. They know what this person looks like and so they see what I am doing.”
So far, Robbers says that his family has been very supportive, even if sometimes they don’t entirely “get it.”
“I don’t know that my mom usually understands what I’m doing,” Robbers said. “Why don’t you paint normal people? Why do they have to be blue or green?’ A lot of the colors come from the fact that a lot of my paintings in the past had been very dull and as an artist I had always been scared of color, because I guess I didn’t feel I understood it.” He continued, “color has an emotional quality to it. I am currently investigating how color changes your perspective of the subject. A person’s reaction to a green Elizabeth Taylor is very different. Color is a personalized thing. It is not just aesthetic qualities, it is how color affects an image, and how that affects the viewer. These aren’t things I have typically had to put to words.”
According to Robbers, the famous faces he has drawn inspiration from so far, were not chosen at random or based on their popularity, but rather on the significance each individual has had on him growing up.
“It is one of those things that really comes down to people who have influenced me, so I do a lot of art of writers and artists,” Robbers said. “And everyone I paint, even if I paint someone in real life, like a commission, I feel like I should meet and know them. I need to talk to them. I feel a personal connection makes for a better painting. It is one of those things, you know? I feel that it is always good to get a feel for that person’s personality, so that I can try to reinforce that person’s personality on the canvas.”
Surprisingly, Robbers initially had no plans to make his work available to the public, having been content to let his work gather dust in his living room. That is until a recent visit from a longtime friend forced him to reconsider his work’s value to the public at large.
“We went over to his loft in October just to hang out and he had that Salvador Dali painting in his living room, as well as the Audrey Hepburn,” said longtime friend Mary Jane Howder. “I just had to take a picture. I said to him, ‘Why aren’t you showing these to people?’ and he just said, ‘I don’t know. I just paint.’”
Howder has known Robbers’ since they took art classes at Cape Fear High School. She has been a big help in helping him promote his art around downtown Fayetteville. “The Chamber is now talking about doing a show and a couple of artists friends are trying to get him to display his work,” she said.
Robbers, who has also had his art shown at The Rock Shop’s regular art show, the Fayetteville Art Attack, has barely been able to keep up with demand.
“In all honesty, the time I put into these things, if I could just focus on it, it would be about a week turnaround,” Robbers said. “But because I have a day job it usually takes me about three weeks to wrap a painting up.”
On average, Robbers says his portraits cost between $300 and $800. Currently, he is working on a $750 commission.
“It has been pretty good. Most of my stuff has been spread by word of mouth,” Robbers said. “I owe a lot to Mary. It is one of those things. I am so fixated, you know? I get so fixated on painting that I hadn’t even thought about how to market myself. I can paint, I can make the art, but I am not too good at the stuff outside of that … I don’t put a lot of thought into it. I am just obsessed with painting.”
Robbers says that the decision to go public with his art was never at the forefront of his mind when he was creating the pieces, however now that his work is out there, he is glad it is.
“Literally, I started back painting because I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t stop myself. They just started piling up,” Robbers said. “I had these paintings around and it felt, like, almost selfish to just hold onto them in my house. I do them for myself, but I also want to do them for other people. I believe in the healing power of art. I want to use what little gifts I have been given to help out whenever I can.”
Robbers’ series of celebrity portraits is far from over. At the moment, he is working on a portrait of Danny DeVito.
In the meantime, those wishing to see his work in person can find his pieces hanging at The Sweet Palette, at 101 Person Street or at the Blue Moon Café at 310 Hay Street.
To see more of Robbers’ work and to keep updated on his latest pieces, go to Facebook.com/RobRobbbers (that’s with three “b”s), or follow him on Instagram at Rob.Robbers.