Nathan Spoor interviews artist Robin Williams.
Robin Williams Is Getting A Handle On It All
Robin Williams is a painter both wise and talented beyond her natural years. We recently got a chance to catch up with Robin on a brief studio break on a break in the snowy weather, and she was gracious enough to share some of her thoughts and work with us. So sit back, grab a warm cup ‘a something special and enjoy as this New York resident artist and public radio junkie tells us about the balance of creating a life for herself with good friends, inspirational travels and solid advice.
Tell us a little about yourself please, Robin. Where do you hail from and what drew you into painting as a career?
I was born and raised in Columbus Ohio. My grandmother started taking me to art classes when I was five. I sort of decided from that point on that I needed to be an artist. I thought I wanted to be an illustrator for most of my life, and I still love illustration, but I don’t care for art directors. Painting was the best choice for me.
As a fairly recent grad of RISD, what is your take on art school? That is, how do you feel art school prepares one for the world at large?
When I first graduated, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t have more knowledge of the business side of the art world. In retrospect though, I’m glad I spent most of my time at RISD learning to be an artist instead of a business woman. The business stuff you tend to figure out on your own, and it just takes practice. The art making atmosphere and the artistic community were what I really valued about art school. I’ve considered going back for my MFA for those reasons, but we’ll see.
Do you feel the need to work in the illustrative arts as well as the fine art realm? If so, do you feel freelance work or the like sharpens your skills or energizes you to take up the brush for gallery work / personal endeavors?
Hmmm. I’m conflicted about illustration at the moment. I’ve largely stopped taking any commercial work. I still love and admire good illustration but I don’t enjoy the process. I don’t like working with art directors and I don’t like sacrificing good ideas for the sake of broader commercial appeal. I don’t think it helps my personal work very much. For me, my mindset has to be very different to make either illustrations or paintings, and it can be hard to transition between the two.
An illustration is a quick read, a fast entertaining visual communication. A painting is a very slow read. It has to sustain itself over time and resist a quick analysis. Good illustration sometimes achieves this but ultimately that’s not really what art directors seem to want. I still haven’t ruled out children’s books. They were my first love. But right now I’m really focusing on painting.
From your site I see that you work in conceptual and sculptural contexts as well. Do you see that as a probability for your work to grow into, or is it more of a release from the easel work?
It’s both. Sometimes I just get a really exciting idea that won’t translate into a painting. So I figure out another way to do it. I’d also love to do more photography. Unfortunately my photos are technically pretty shabby. It would take practice or hiring a professional photographer to execute my ideas. I’m open to anything but I just tend to be most satisfied making paintings. Sometimes I get restless or feel limited and that’s when an idea usually floats by for something that doesn’t involve a canvas.
What do you do during your free time, say, to unwind or inspire you?
Man, I’m kind of a tv/movie junkie. I also love to read. I listen to public radio a lot. I love cooking. Dinner parties with my friends have become a pretty regular thing. Most of the people I hang out with appreciate good food. I try to go to museums and gallery openings regularly but I almost consider that work. Not that I don’t enjoy it, but I don’t necessarily think of it as free time. It’s something I discipline myself to do. I just saw Lisa Yuskavage’s show at David Zwirner. I came out of there reeling. Seeing good painting in person is always inspiring.
How important or necessary is a life outside of the studio?
VERY. I work hard, and I put in full weeks at studio. But man, I am not one of those artists who works 24 hours a day and is a slave to their work. I love what I do, but I need balance. I think that is one of the advantages of being an artist and working for yourself. So many people, in New York especially, ARE what they do. I think it is a very American thing to work constantly and invest all your self-worth in your job. Artists can choose to do that as well, but I think they live longer and have more meaningful lives if they strike a balance. Besides, if I work too long I go brain dead. There comes a point where I can’t be creative or productive anymore. I have to rest my mind. I get a lot of my ideas outside of studio.
While you work, or prepare to work, what sort of otherwise external influences do you seek to help you get into your zone?
I listen to public radio a lot. I used to have a routine where I would listen to about three episodes of This American Life in the morning while I worked. I quickly burned through all the archived episodes. Now I listen to music or whatever is on WNYC. I’ve got a lot of podcasts I subscribe to. Every once in a while I have to listen to stand up comedy. Is that weird? For some reason I like to hear people talking while I work. But when I’m sketching or coming up with ideas I just tune that stuff out. It becomes soothing background noise. I’m only actually listening to it about half the time.
Do you have any influences, whether fine artists or anything or anyone in general, that set your mind into motion?
Artists: John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Neo Rauch, Inka Essenhigh, Reneke Dijkstra, Helen Van Meene, Jorg Lozek, Richard Wathen, Vermeer, Velazquez, Edward Hopper, George Tooker, Sargent.
Other influences: 17th Century Dutch Portraiture, American Regionalism, globalism, Norman Rockwell and Robert McCloskey (children’s book illustrator from the 50’s/60’s), the midwest, housing developments, photography, anything liminal or transient (childhood/balloons/planned obsolescence). There’s more but it’s so hard to make a list.
Do you travel much? What sort of places do you visit, or would you really like to visit?
I’ve only done a little traveling. I went to Mexico for a 6 week program at RISD. I was in Pazcuaro, Michoacan which is a small village in the mountains. I loved every second of it. I didn’t really make any meaningful art, but it was my first time out of the country. It was amazing. I just went to Germany and the Netherlands with friends for a short 10 day trip in October. We were in Munich for Ocktoberfest, then we climbed a small mountain, then we saw Berlin and Amsterdam. It was a fantastic trip. I saw a lot of the Golden Age Dutch paintings in person at the Rijksmuseum and a bunch of galleries in Berlin. I’d love to visit Spain, India, China, South America, Africa…I feel like I should start with America though. There are a lot of places in this country that I haven’t seen.
If you had a commission with no boundaries, no ceiling for cost or size even, what would you bring to the world?
What a great question. It’s kind of hard. I’m so used to working within limitations (space/money/time). Well I’m starting to work on paintings about regionalism vs. globalism and the new face of American primacy and prosperity after this economic crisis. It would be exciting to do a kind of panoramic tableau painting of sorts. Some kind of ten panel 360 degree wrap around of a post-America, American scene. A little bit gloomy, panicked, and scattered but still full of supernatural light and punch drunk colors. Something just vaguely post-apocalyptic but nostalgic and conflicted. That’s sort of what I’m doing already in my individual paintings but it would be great to put it on a grander scale and fill a whole space with the landscape.
When you aren’t in the studio, do you feel a sense of necessity to be creating?
Sometimes I feel like I should spend more time in studio. But this is usually just unproductive anxiety. I’m starting to figure out that there is a natural pace to things. Sometimes forcing something along or working on something too vigorously is counter productive. You have to let ideas breath. But I guess you are asking about being creative in other ways outside of studio. I’m not overwhelmed by a need to be creating constantly. I’m more interested in being receptive in the time I’m not working. I need to collect things and experience things and read and absorb information and ideas. I try to balance my input and output.
And finally, if you had but one bit of advise for up and coming dreamers, what might you gift them with?
Don’t forget why you are doing what you are doing. So much of being successful in the art world is luck. You have to hope that other people will be interested in what you need to say. If they aren’t, they aren’t. That doesn’t change what it is that you need to say. Be grateful for any opportunity you have to make art whether you’re recognized for it or not. This is a tricky enough business without trying to cater to collectors or the changing trends of the art world. Just make what you need to make and most of the time people will respond to your passion and enthusiasm. If you try to create what you think others will like, often that enthusiasm is lost, and then you are no where. Not only are you overlooked by the art world, but you aren’t being true to your work.
-Brought to you by Nathan Spoor