Robert S. Connett’s highly detailed and Natural Science-inspired illustrations have acquired a few labels, from strange, fantastical, alienesque, to unsettling. Even his website is “grotesque.com.” If evolution is an artist, then Connett’s artwork captures its unreal color palette and perspectives of worlds rarely explored. The road that led him to a career as an artist was not a straight one; it involves near-death experiences that resulted in a fixation with all living things. It isn’t until you’ve walked around his backyard looking for carrion that you can share in his fascination. His studio in Los Angeles is filled to the brim with specimins, family photos and antiques that serve as reminders of his past and his inspiration. Rarely, if ever, does Connett invite visitors into this private space. In this exclusive interview, we discuss the thought process behind his new works.
HF: Your art has been described as “Bizarre, disturbing fantasy/sci-fi art with fantastic creatures.”- I suppose “disturbing” is an objective way of describing it. How would you describe your aesthetic?
RS: I’d describe my paintings as primarily ‘thought provoking’ and ‘strangely beautiful’. “Bizarre” is a fair assessment. I think “disturbing” is part of the thought provoking element in my work. I believe my work is disturbing to some extent. Not excessively, but enough to rouse the senses. Some will see mostly the beautiful and the interesting, and others will see the unsettling. The way people perceive my art is always different. Our perception is as individualized as our fingerprints. My work is a collection of things that I find extremely appealing and engaging. I paint things that enchant me, and I paint because I enjoy seeing my imagination come to life. I have always been a collector. My work is a growing collection of images that I find irresistibly fascinating.
I often become lost in the exhilaration of my creative process. The feeling of intense enthusiasm is intoxicating. Like when I was a child, I go deep into my fantasy world. In this way, I hang on to that part of my childhood.
HF: Tell me about the painting you are currently working on.
RS: This new painting, and my last one, “SEA FLOWERS” are painted “collections”. They are symmetrical presentations of my creatures, somewhat like scientific illustrations. They are “Miracles of life on display.” Each organism is individually displayed for the viewer to study and appreciate, while simultaneously, interactions take place between the specimens, displaying them alive, in a living environment. I do not plan my paintings out like most artists do. I never know what I have until the end. Not knowing until the end is part of the pleasure I take in the process. I make constant revisions. There is always more to discover as I go!
HF: This piece focuses on the creatures in the foreground and leaves the environment to mystery, which is a common style in your art. Where are we in your paintings?
RS: Generally speaking, we are on the outside looking in. My canvas is a stage. My imagination is the play. I want my paintings to be something wonderfully interesting that will stimulate curiosity and imagination. Many of my paintings take place in or near an aquatic environment. Often it is liquid, but also it is a place that can be understood only with imagination. The environment in which my paintings take place is becoming more obscure as my work evolves. This allows me more freedom because I am not tethered to a single type of environment.
I try to make my work interesting all the way down to it’s smallest component. From a distance, I hope the painting will draw you in. As you get closer, I want you to see new things that will draw you closer still, where you will see that every tiny detail is scrupulously crafted. This is the way of nature. Everything is beautiful and exquisite, down to the molecular level.
HF: Your desktop wallpaper is currently Henri Rousseau, who once said: “When I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream.” This describes my own experience entering your studio. Tell me about the objects and landscape you have chosen to surround yourself with, and how this affects your art.
RS: I try to surround myself with objects and artworks that are stimulating to me. I’m very interested in natural science. I am also a collector of fine art. I have so many different things here. I really don’t know where to begin. Things come and go from my life constantly. I have filled my world with things that best reflect my imagination back upon myself. This helps me to stay focused on my art. It also helps me disassociate from the outer world.Of course, we all must face the ‘slings and arrows’ of reality. I simply do my best to avoid that by filling my environment with things that interest me, so I will have my special place to think and dream. This is also how I set up my paintings, with so much going on, that one can constantly make new discoveries. A mind can only absorb so much, I seek to exceed that threshold in my paintings.
My home is also surrounded by beautiful gardens and ponds that my wife designed. My wife is a terrific landscape artist (among many other talents) and has turned a desert wasteland into a colorful paradise filled with life. I like to surround myself with things. However, I know that we do not really “own” anything in this world. We are lucky to have a little space, and some things that we like, for a time, but nothing is permanent. In San Francisco, my home town, I had a house filled with art and large personal collections spanning 20 years. That house burned to the ground with everything in it.
HF: In particular, you collect specimens of insects, and you have a passionate knowledge about each one. Can you remember the first time that you were attracted to them, or how that came about?
RS: YES! When I was a very young boy, perhaps 5, I had my first serious encounter with insects. I was brought up in the city of San Francisco. There was very little wildlife. One day, as I played on my street, I saw the car of a neighbor, who had just returned from a vacation. In those days most cars had large exposed radiator grills. On the grill he had brought back a collection of colorful dead insects! I carefully plucked them off, and that was my first insect collection! I recall being entranced when I looked upon the eye markings on a butterfly. (This turned out to be a ‘BUCKEYE’ butterfly; There were also large grasshoppers with rainbow wings, moths, all kinds of things I had never seen or dreamed of! From that time on, I wanted to be a Entomologist. I have always had a collection of insects. I’m really not an expert by any means… but I still have that same love and passion for the colors and variations in the insect world.
My relationship to insects is one of adoration. I look at nature and see something awesome and beautiful. It’s a huge gift to me to live in this paradise, Earth. I am fascinated by the infinite intricacy of nature. I love the tiny insects that are so complex. So small and still they live with a consciousness and the ability to roam freely as we do. My young fascination grew into a love and attraction for many other life forms. I revere all life. They (we) might be the rarest things in the universe! As an artist, I am able to create my own species.
HF: I think your personal history is so fascinating. On your website, it says: “This kind of work is often driven by direct experiences with drug addiction, insanity or both, which can explain the rarity of finding such artists who also have the discipline to excel.” Was there one defining moment in your life that led you to make art full time?
RS: If there was one “defining moment” it probably took place during the fire- The day my house burned down I lost everything. Literally, everything but the clothes on my back. That fire was an occurrence that forced me to decide whether to continue playing life safe, by continuing to work at a job that provided me with financial security, but no personal fulfillment, or to follow my passion for my art. For me, becoming a painter was the correct decision. My life has bloomed in ways I never dreamed it would. Discipline is key. Creating art requires a commitment of time, skill and craft. One must be dedicated and diligent. I believe it is imperative to practice constantly and relentlessly if one wishes to become exceptional. I dedicate as many hours to painting as I can every day. I go to bed and wake up thinking about my work. I study other artists and their painting techniques. I go to museums and art exhibitions and study original paintings. Mostly, I practice. It is indispensable to stay focused and work.
That quotation was made by a person many years ago. My early attempts at art was more about catharsis than it is today. In my early art I found it necessary to paint my frustration and anger, as a release. This is common, but I think it is also trite. However, catharsis can be good. Making art in order to release emotions helped me to overcome difficulties with addictions and depression. Art as therapy is not uncommon. However, there is a significant difference between release and creation. When I decided to become a full- time painter my life became much brighter. My art evolved from catharsis to creation.
HF: You and I spoke briefly about your personal philosophy- that you aren’t a religious person, but you believe in a higher power and how evolution is like nature’s own “reincarnation”. Would you say that your art reflects these beliefs, and if so, how?
RS: I have an instinctive feeling that all things posses a sort of “soul.” I perceive that plants, animals and even inanimate objects can possess an energy which is a form of life. My art reflects my ideas when I breath life into my own creations. This is my chance to play God, though I don’t believe there is one. The following was written about my work, and I agree whole heartedly; “R.S. Connett takes his inspiration from biological forms, both flora and fauna, micro and macro, land and ocean dwelling, from which he generates new variations, as though he were painting with recombinant DNA.”
On evolution; I suspect that if our technologies are allowed to advance on the present path, eventually death will become obsolete. I think we will “self-evolve” into a higher life form. It is our technology which will change us into something more than we have been. For good or bad, I can not say. Perhaps one day our descendants will become the Gods that we invented in our imaginations as a young race.
My thoughts of organized religion are this; Perhaps religion once served a purpose, when mankind was younger. When we had no hope of understanding death, or overcoming disease. These days religious dogma threatens the progress of mankind. It has become an enemy of our survival. Believers say “GOD will save us! If only we believe in him, and pray to him.” However, when God does not do what he is asked, it’s because “ He works in mysterious ways.” This dependence on blind faith and dogma prevents us from self reliance. It keeps us from coming up with our own solutions to problems. We must save ourselves from the approaching catastrophes we have created. Only our own efforts, diligence and invention will help us, not blind faith in ideas which can not be proven.
HF: There is a lot of emotional intensity and attention to detail that goes into your art, and completing a piece must be a great sense of accomplishment. Is there a painting of yours that you’re especially fond of, what is it and why?
RS: Yes, my paintings take many hours to complete. Often exceeding 200 hours. Each one is a major accomplishment for me. Of course, some are more successful than others.
My favorite painting is always the painting that I am currently working on. Saying that, if I had to choose a particular painting as a favorite, It would probably be “CRUSTACEAPODS”. This particular painting was a breakthrough in both technique and subject matter. It brought me closer to the subject that I’m most interested in. With this painting, I was able to create a massively busy, complex arrangement of creatures on many levels, in one window upon a universe. This painting took me in a direction that I am still traveling today Another favorite, for an entirely different reason, is my painting “THE NIGHT TRAWLERS”. This painting tells a story which is personally important to me. A story that in a way, exemplifies my childhood.