By Gussie Fauntleroy
When an artist works hard, the resulting painting can look like it involved a lot of effort. Or, an artist can work hard to make a painting look effortless—“as if blown on in one puff,” as painter William Merritt Chase once put it.
Still-life painter Laura Robb is of the latter persuasion, although she jokes that it may not be the best career move. “I like my paintings to look effortless, which is kind of a dumb thing to want because, really, the public is more impressed with things that look difficult to paint. Usually the more detail they see, the better,” the 54-year-old artist observes, her Oklahoman drawl and unhurried manner counterbalanced by a quick, engaging wit. “To me, it’s exciting to make it look effortless, just because it is so hard to do.”
Robb’s observations may contain some truth, but viewers and collectors seem to have no trouble appreciating—and purchasing—her richly hued, vividly expressive still-life arrangements of such objects as flowers, vases, bowls, and Asian ceramic urns. The Taos-based artist’s work is widely collected and has earned numerous awards over the years, including the People’s Choice Award at the 2009 Western Rendezvous of Art in Helena, MT.
That award went to CRIMSON POPPIES (at right), a painting of poppies and orchids in a vibrant red glass vase beside an antique sugar bowl. Having the piece selected as the viewers’ favorite was a pleasant surprise for the artist, especially in an exhibition known more for wildlife and western art than still life. “You could have knocked me over with a feather,” she admits. “I really didn’t expect it at all.” The painting has been selected as the poster image for this year’s Western Rendezvous.
The award was a fitting tribute to an artist’s journey that began years ago in Tulsa. Robb describes her younger self as being fairly shy and waffling between acting out and trying to become invisible. “A lot of the time I was outdoors,” she recalls, “and I must have been pretty self-directed because my parents always insisted that I raised myself. I distinctly remember that my favorite activity in kindergarten was painting and that cats and dogs were my best friends. Same as today.”
These days, in the attractive home and studio she designed and built on the outskirts of Taos, Robb’s circle of best friends includes two rescued dogs and three rescued cats, most of whom came to her with physical disabilities. “Going to the vet is my social life,” she quips.
Scooter the cat, a longtime housemate with nerve-damaged back legs, gets around handily in a specially designed cart with wheels. A cat named Gray was partially paralyzed after being electrocuted on a power line. She can walk now, although she still falls over sometimes, the artist explains. And Skyler, a cat with twisted hind legs, became part of the family after Robb drove a thousand miles to an animal sanctuary in Utah and paid an adoption fee to get him.
Robb’s own move to Taos came in 1986 after experiencing northern New Mexico on a painting trip, during which she visited an artist in a compound of venerable adobes divided into apartments. “The compound was built when [Russian painter Nicolai] Fechin was alive. It was part of the legendary old Taos,” she explains. “I said if I could get an apartment like that, I’d move here. The artist who lived there said, ‘The one next door is vacant.’ I walked over there, looked in, went home, packed, and was back in a month.”
Setting off on an adventure alone was nothing new for Robb. At 19, immediately following high school graduation and having worked to pay her own expenses, she moved to New York City and spent a year studying with acclaimed painter Michael Aviano. She rented a series of apartments—one, the former home of prostitutes, brought unexpected knocks on the door—and worked as a waitress in jazz clubs where she met trumpet player Chet Baker and other musical greats.
Studying with Aviano had been the suggestion of a painter in Tulsa with whom she had started taking instruction at age 16. At that point in her life, painting partly served as an escape from school, which did not suit her temperament. “I wanted to drop out. I told my parents that Norman Rockwell dropped out when he was 13, but they said just hold your nose and get through it.” Needing only a half-time schedule for enough credits to graduate, Robb signed up for a daily half-day of art. The course offered a rigid, classical approach to painting, but it set her feet on a fortuitous path.
In New York, Robb gained technical skills from studying with Aviano. And just as important, she absorbed his “real love and enthusiasm for art. He’s just one of those people who are artists even when they’re asleep,” she says. Aviano made suggestions to his students on museum shows to see, which introduced Robb to such artists as 18th-century French still-life painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.
Robb’s next major source of artistic encouragement was internationally renowned painter Richard Schmid, whom she met through a gallery near Tulsa after returning from New York. Sending him slides of her work, she received letters back with words of critique and support. “I think he was way, way over-complimentary of my work!” she insists. “But I lived to get those ’atta-girl letters. It was such a boost.
“And really, that’s the way it should be, because the technical information is out there; what you need most is the encouragement to find it on your own,” she continues. “When I went back and visited Michael Aviano about 10 years later, I told him I think the only thing a good teacher can teach you is how to teach yourself. He just kind of slumped and smiled and said ‘Exactly!’, happy that someone finally got it.”
Robb is on the other end of the teacher/student relationship these days, leading periodic painting workshops in Santa Fe. As she demonstrates her methods, she becomes even more aware of how her approach to painting—and seeing—diverges from the academic model. For example, she never draws outlines of objects before starting to paint. Instead her goal is to perceive and render her subjects purely in terms of color and shape and to “keep things accurate yet unrecognizable for as long as I can,” she explains. “My theory is that once you have enough information on your canvas that you can name the object, the wrong part of your brain starts trying to take over and run the show.”
Robb maintains this counter intuitive approach, as she describes it, through such tactics as focusing on the shape of spaces between and around things, rather than the form of the object itself. She also frequently squints, depriving her eyes of clear focus and preventing her mind from grabbing onto the idea of a flower or vase. “The best way I’ve come up with to describe what I’m after is that when setting up the still life, I try to get the objects to ‘talk’ to each other. And then I try to paint that conversation.”
The result is an arresting mixture of vibrant movement and serene calm, with flowers and background alike sometimes appearing to dance to an intense yet compositionally pleasing gust of wind. Some edges are sharp and well defined while others are amorphous and fluid, as if parts of the image are moving in and out of focus. “Practically every student I have ever had has wanted to know how to lose edges,” Robb notes. “But in my approach, the edges that are lost are just the ones that never got found.”
PANSIES is among the artist’s favorite recent works. The painting of white and red blooms in a black vase was almost abandoned at one point. Yet after she basically gave up on it, waited a while, and came back to it, the painting somehow shifted into gear. “Sometimes it works best that way—when you just let go,” she observes. “It’s like trying to hold a handful of sand. If you close your hand tightly all the sand pours out, but as long as your hand is open, it’s okay.
“My work is always moving in the direction of leaving more of the details out, as a way of making the real story of the painting more important,” she reflects. “To do that requires a lot of subtle judgment calls. So I find that as time goes by I’m painting slower, but I’m happier with the result.”
Nedra Matteucci Galleries, Santa Fe, NM; Claggett/Rey Gallery, Vail, CO; Astoria Fine Art, Jackson, WY; The Grapevine Gallery, Oklahoma City, OK; Morris & Whiteside Galleries, Hilton Head, SC; www.laurarobb.com.
Western Rendezvous of Art, Helena, MT, August 19–22.
Featured in February 2010