Interview with Darrell Roberts


Neoteric Art: You grew up in Iowa and received your BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Discuss the transition moving from Iowa to Chicago, time spent in art school and your time since being a working artist.

Darrell Roberts: I spent most of my early life in school about twelve years of college and art school. After six years, I finally finished a BA in Art History, at the University of Northern Iowa, where I also took painting and drawing classes and immediately moved to Chicago. I didn’t even go to my graduation. I grew up in rural Iowa in the country. As a child it was pretty nice, I had lots of animals, cats, dogs, a pet horse, ducks, and chickens, rabbits for about one year (they reproduced too fast and had to get rid of them) but after elementary school it sucked and got boring. We had beef cows too and when one of them would be rejected by its mother I would raise it and it would become my pet. There is nothing but green grass, green trees, blue skies, ponds and the forest where I grew up and of course, corn fields, soy bean fields and hay fields. I think it is really boring and depressing. At Northern Iowa there was some culture but after a few years of being stuck on the compound, I had to leave and get as far away as possible.

1I moved to Chicago with no job lined up so needless to say my first years were difficult. I had to find a job quickly when I moved here as I moved with no monies. I grabbed a Chicago Reader paper and my first job was selling t-shirts at the now defunct Planet Hollywood. It was fun for the summer to meet people but when fall arrived, I thought: this can not be my life. Next, I got a horrible job working in the temporary Art Institute’s Museum shop for the Renoir exhibition. The pay was insulting, and I found out all the temps they hired were getting paid five bucks an hour more to do the same job I was doing with a BA. After the exhibition they transferred me to the main Museum Shop but financially it was not worth my time to show up so after a couple of months, I quit. I went to a temp agency to find a better paying job. I temped in offices; many places wanted to hire me full time so I quit. I went through so many jobs; some times leaving at lunch and never returning. I just could not take it. I was always in the educational world where there was something new with classes every semester. Even back then I would get bored by the twelfth week and just go in and wing my finals the last week of the 16 week semester. After a year of failed jobs and working, I enrolled in the BFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to take more studio classes. I continued to work, at three or four different corporations, and study painting drawing, and print making for two years. I never took any other classes. There was too much to learn in the world of painting, with drawing, oil painting, watercolor on paper, landscape, open studio classes and the figure.

After finishing my BFA, I was not at a cohesive point in my artwork; I needed to develop it more and started the post-bach program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was an intense program and I loved it, maybe even more than grad school. Sixteen students worked to develop a body of work the first semester to apply to grad schools. I only applied to the School of the Art Institute as I only wanted to go there and wanted to establish myself as an artist working in Chicago. I think I wanted my MFA from the Art Institute more for a status symbol to leave my mark on humanity by adding it to my epitaph when I am dead. If I would have not gotten in, I probably would have applied to 50 state schools and ruined my life as an artist somewhere I would never have gotten a chance to escape or exhibit!

2I believe you do not always have to live in the place you exhibit but I think you have to be there first to establish yourself. In the post bach program you can take undergrad courses, grad courses and have a studio like the grad students. At the end of the first semester I did not go to my final critique in my drawing class because it was snowing, so I just went back to bed and failed the class. Applying to grad school can stress you out, and make you feel as if you are jumping into a world of despair if you do not get in. I never got a certificate as I did not pass my classes but got into grad school and went on for my MFA at the School of the Art Institute. Today I still do not know how I got in. When I was in grad school I would watch post bachs get in that you would not have thought would have gotten accepted and people with great work get rejected. You just never know.

When I was in post bach program I was working as a bar back and it was a lot of fun at first but got to be many many late night hours. I was making mad money but spending it just as fast and the party life is a hard one so I quit and got a job at the school’s tour desk giving tours of the school. It was a great job for an artist. I also worked in the Betty Rymer gallery and G2 gallery at the school sometimes and was a TA for a few classes when I was in grad school. It is hard to get TA positions as you have to apply every semester and interview like you are interviewing for a job. It is funny with all the jobs I have had, I never had a job interview where I did not get hired, of course when I applied, and I did not list all the jobs I went through. Grad school was a lot of talking about your work and reading, and making your work in your studio. I actually thought grad school was ten times easier than being at a university, where you had to regurgitate useless crap for multiple choice exams I could never pass or let alone remember anything after the exam or standardized test was administrated.

My work had developed in the post bach program to where I wanted it, and I have continued with it today, it just happens you can not control when it happens. So grad school was a bit difficult as I had no need to expand by putting colored tape on the wall talking about it, painting my wall a different color and talking about it, making a video, or something out of yarn and all the other tricks and gimmicks the children do when their advisors have too much influence over them. I probably did not really need to go to grad school but I did not realize that then and really wanted my name brand degree for the status. And people from NY to Korea know where you went to school so for the most part it helped. I pretty much studied with advisors I wanted to so my experience in the studio arts was pretty good for both post bach and grad school. I took a lot of art theory classes at first but think taking humanities classes and reading, Nietzsche, Sarte, Dante, Kierkegaard, the Odyssey and Iliad as an undergrad was more enjoyable than the art theory I read in grad school. I never did read Lyotard or Deleuze in grad school as I just could not get into them and thought their writings were gibberish. I prefer much more lucid reads. I think the best thing I got out of grad school is I knew what I did not want to be a part of in the art world and was ready to be alone in my studio working. Even today, I do not get enough alone time, I do not know where those thousand hours of solitude are as I am really social, but then complain about it all the time.

I have always been a bit crabby, even though, I loved my experience; I am glad I received my education but would never want to go back. Now I try to distance myself as much as I can from academia and the art world.

3I have been a working artist since completing grad school in 2003 and even before. What is great about art school, you are always an artist working with an artist; there is none of that art teacher art student crap. I could not be happier with my studio and exhibiting. I am always applying for opportunities and grants, many people do not realize it is another full time job, not as fun as work, and on top of being a full time artist. Sometimes I may work for 36 hours straight, writing and applying and researching. A lot comes to me through social networks such as Facebook, gmail and by just knowing a lot of people too. Success is not all hard work, a lot comes from a lot of drinking and with whom you party and knowing a person which comes from all those dinner parties and drinking, it can be exhausting.

I will not pay to be in anything though, no renter’s fee, application fee, shipping fee, I will not pay for cards or framing, nothing. There is more than enough out there without doing that stuff. I will exhibit at other places other than my gallery and I am encouraged to do so. I am an artist and am expected to keep advancing myself. The more publicity the better, the one verbal agreement is that my prices are always the same as my galleries and they set my prices. I am thinking about cutting back after two exhibitions next year in February and just have more time for myself. Sending work out all the time, gets to be exhausting and I think I have done it too much the last ten years. I am going to start turning exhibitions down. I can not do everything with all my art friends, as I am wearing myself too thin. I always say I want my life back and that will happen next year but then I over book and over schedule myself everyday, afternoon, evening, week and month, it just never stops but I thrive on the energy. I haven’t sat down to do nothing and just relax in years.

NA: Your work is deeply rooted in the mid-century abstract expressionist movement. Please elaborate and further define.

DR: For me the act of painting, color, line form and formal issues have always influenced my work and been enjoyable. The one thing I know is my color and I believe it took 12 years of studying art history, painting, drawing and going to museums, galleries and looking at art work to get there. I have many favorite artists, and sometimes I change with the years who I like. Currently I enjoy Amy Sillman and Pia Fries, but the passion for Fries may be fading. Some of the long term favorites I do not grow old of are Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Jackson Pollock in his pouring phase.

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NA: Discuss your painting philosophy?

DR: I believe you must have a studio where you can work, and make a mess and leave it to be a successful painter. I work in the afternoons, evenings, late evenings and early mornings. I never get up in the morning to create or paint before noon, which is my biological sleeping time. I am a workaholic but I enjoy it, so it is not a job. There is a difference between a job and work. A job is something you do not enjoy, work is pleasure pure pleasure, and it is so much fun, enjoyable and rewarding. I work on several projects at a time. Sometimes many painting series and each one can have 5-12 pieces in it. Sometimes it takes me 6-8 months to create a body of work, but I am always creating, it just comes naturally. It is something I was born to do in life. I now know from observing other people, everyone is not just born into it. Many times my paintings have to sit for weeks, waiting to tell me what to do to them. I am highly intuitive and it all comes from intuition. Of course my environment and the seasons do affect my color palette, layering, gesture and mark making but I can not force anything to happen, I have to give it all over to time. That is why I work on many, many, many projects, read and write in my studio. I have to be with my artwork so it tells me what to do. If I did not have a studio I would not be able to function in life to get rid of all this creative energy inside me.

Luckily, I exhibit professionally with Thomas McCormick Gallery in Chicago. It is a great fit for my artwork as he exhibits high modernist artist from the 1950’s. Tom and Janis purchased my work from a solo exhibition I had at the Hyde Park Art Center and asked me to exhibit with them. So that is why I am with them.

Sadly there are not enough galleries to represent the 10,000 graduating MFA’s across the United States each year and many other working artist without degrees, so do not expect one. Create because you enjoy it, have artist friends so you can visit each others studios and apply for group shows at alternative spaces, art centers and university galleries to keep the dialogue going. No one is ever going to discover you as a poor working artist alone in your studio and because there are so many of us out there, the world could care less if any one of us stopped making art today. So do not feel sorry for your self and expect a hand out.

HPNA: You teach at the Hyde Park Art Center. Is teaching rewarding for you? What other challenges do you face?

DR: I love teaching at the Hyde Park Art Center because it is all adults and like art school no needless grades or projects to grade. We use the studio time to create and make, it is all process based with intuition along with discussion of formal issues. It is a lot of fun, and the adults I teach create, create, and create. That is probably because we do not read Derrida, Fried or Helene Cixous in my classes. I have had some of my students for 5-7 and 10 years. Also, I used to teach at a nasty for-profit in the north side and run its painting department, where the owner was unethical in his business transactions and always screwed artist and faculty over, many of my students from there now take classes with me at the nationally known not-for-profit Hyde Park Art Center.

I teach open studio, expressive portrait, abstract painting, and costume figure, all upper level painting courses. I used to teach beginning drawing and painting but have the classes memorized and know what problems students will ask each week before they get there, so had to take a break from it, as I felt like I was just standing there rehearsing lines, I had memorized. I have to be really engaged and enjoy what I teach to be good at it and agree to teach it. I would never teach the foundations program at any college as I believe it is nothing but a waste of time and money. It is not needed if you are going to be a real artist.

I always give people information to apply for stuff, I am really disappointed when they do not do it or expect me to make something happen for them. If they do not do it themselves they do not deserve success in life. It takes many years and hard work to develop, and if you can not do it on your own, you should not be doing it. I do not like it when people are inconsiderate of my time and think I am available at a drop of a hat.

Also, I do not like it when people try to get free advice out of me, my education cost over $100,000. If someone wants me to help them with professional problems they can pay me the $75 an hour everyone else pays me for consulting, and that can be a 10 or 50 minute hour or they should go back to college and get their own education. If you want something in life you have to pay for it and work for it.

portraitNA: You recently started doing portraiture. Please discuss.

DR: Actually, it is not that new, I just do not exhibit it professionally. I did exhibit some 2’x2’ portraits in the California Figurative style 10 years ago and sold them all. Recently I have had some of the portrait series I am working on in an apartment gallery and in a group show at an art center. I have a background in observation drawing and the figure. I studied still life drawing for three semesters and then took figure drawing when I was in Iowa. Then I moved to Chicago, and took a year of figure drawing in Continuing Studies at the Art Institute so I had a model to work from. When I started my BFA at the Art Institute I also took a figure painting and figure drawing class. For some reason, I thought I was going to be a large scale figure painter. I guess I painted myself out of that as I worked on my abstraction and my way out of “classroom” art work. Last February I started a project called Art Therapy, where I had friends, collectors, fellow artist and visitors to my studio volunteer to model for me as I painted them. Their conversations set the mood for the portrait to be representational or more abstract, the color, brushstrokes and mood of the painting as I painted them for an hour to an hour and a half at a time. I still have a few people sit for me but painted over 50 portraits by August, so slowed down on my year long project early. It is something I will continue doing along with my small scale abstraction, and collage work and sculptural collage work I am creating. I am always changing stuff up to keep it fresh and alive. I started teaching a large scale painting class and reworked three 4’x5’ paintings of my own from 2003, 2006, and 2007. Who knows if they are completely done, I may rework them again in two years. To me it all leads to ideas. My studio is like a giant installation. When people visit me, it is like they get to walk into my brain and experience what is always going on inside me.

At one time, I had a real issue about working in different genres and thought it might be too classroom like student work but have gotten over it and developed my own language in all the work I do. Sometimes I even make it and it falls apart but having the experience is all I need.

NA: Who are some of your favorite non-famous painters?

DR: I collect a lot of art, and buy on impulse, because I just like it, it is an intuitive thing. But I do not know if I have any favorite non-famous painters. Most of them have exhibited somewhere or show in a high end gallery. Some people really hate the art work I have collected but my taste changes all the time and I have collected abstract to figurative work, some ceramic and fiber pieces.

NA: If you were not an artist what other career would you see yourself doing?

DR: I can not do anything else. I use to bang my head on my desk until it was bruised and choke myself with my tie when I had to work in the corporate world. I hated it. I do not want to sound over dramatic but if I could not create art I would die. I create and produce all the time. It is never a problem; it just spills out of me. There are never enough hours in the day for me to get everything done I want to, the need for sleep gets in my way.