A blend of painting and metal that fires the imagination
Jan 01, 2015 06:25PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt
Photo by John Chambless Robear Michael Robear in the painting studio near his home.
By John Chambless
Somewhere between dreams and reality, between hard steel and paint, Michael Robear's art is born.
Robear's outbuilding studio near his home in Colora, Md., holds both sides of his work. Downstairs are the machines and hand tools and forge where he creates reproduction antique hardware for historic home renovation. It's also where he crafts the metal and wood frames that defy every rule of what a frame should be. Upstairs, he paints his microscopically detailed views of empty houses and dreamlike landscapes. Each one is paired with a frame that takes the themes of the painting and expands them beyond the painted surface.
During a thoughtful interview in his upstairs painting studio, Robear talked about how fragments of inspiration gradually build up, and then coalesce into artworks which look like nothing you've ever seen.
"A building has to call out to me," he said of the homes that feature prominently in his work. They are actual homes he has seen near his own home, or during his travels. He takes photographs of them, "and then I shuffle through the photographs. Basically, I use them to generate ideas. It's a way of sorting through the emotional pieces. I call my paintings fragments. They're really just fragments of what I've lived, what I've seen, how I see the world. Then I knit those little things together and they will tell a story."
Each of his paintings, he said, is essentially a self-portrait.
"In certain ones, there's information in them that I don't quite understand yet," he said. "You would think that after creating them, I'd understand them, but I don't. I paint very intuitively. I don't ask, 'What does this mean?' I ask, 'Does it belong?'"
As far as his choice of houses as a motif, "They're symbols of people," he said. "We all store things in the attic and the cellar, because we don't want them to be in our front room. Human beings are the same way."
In his painting, "Wolves," he captures a home with a blue porch, and a row of footprints in the snow leading to the front door, which stands ominously open. The real home, now repainted, sits on Cleveland Avenue in Newark, Del. Robear was driving by one day and the blue of the porch stopped him in his tracks.
"When I was in college at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., I was from a rural area and wasn't used to homeless people," he explained. "One day, I was getting off the Metro and this really attractive girl, maybe 16 or 17, asked me for money. I figured she had just lost her fare. This went on, day after day. I started to watch her deteriorate, living in the streets. She had become quite tattered. I would revisit this emotion, asking, 'What could I have done?' But I was a boy myself. I did not understand homelessness.
"When my daughter turned her age, it triggered something," Robear continued. "I was driving down Cleveland Avenue and this porch was the color frequency of the dress the lady had on. It clicked. That's how my paintings work."
The decades-long gestation period for "Wolves" is typical of Robear's working process.
"I'm married to the emotion, not the materials," he said. "What I do is start hunting the emotion, putting things together -- buildings or landscapes or skies or colors that support the emotion. Then things start to pile on. When the cup gets full emotionally, then the painting comes."
Robear's mother was a reading resource teacher and his father was an engineer. He was one of five children, all of whom entered the engineering or computer fields. "Of the five kids, I was kind of left on my own to work out my sensibilities and find what I really wanted to do," he said. "There was a bit of a fight in the family because my dad was the first in his family to go to college. There was a strong belief in going to college and getting an education. But there also had to be something that paid bills. My fight was to try to stay true to the way I was put together."
The family moved around the country several times. Then, "when I was 8 or 10 years old, I fell in love with art and knew I wanted to go to art school," Robear said.
Robear's parents eventually settled in Elk Neck, and Robear lives on a seven-acre property not far away. Robear and his wife have raised three children, who are now 19 to 26 years old.
Robear had a successful early career as a wildlife illustrator, using his real last name, Robert, but felt pulled in another direction and so created a new body of work under a new name. Eventually, his Robear identity has become his focus.
As a former builder and now metalsmith, "The architectural hardware pays the bills," Robear said. "It's deadline driven. It's business. A lot of times I'll put in three 12-hour days so that I have four days to create my art."
Robear created his first frame at the age of 12. Now, he can't imagine turning his paintings over to anyone else. "I don't want anyone putting their expression on my expression," he said. "How I make the frame is as personal as what's in the painting."
It's hard to imagine Robear's paintings without the steel frames, which vividly expand each work into a unique sculptural/painted hybrid.
In "The Duel," a home in an orchard is the target of two contrasting colored lines that swoop and dart through the air. "It's about what people struggle with," Robear said. "It's about two forces in competition for one thing, and how you decide what you let in and what you let out. It's the idea that you can block the door and you think it's impenetrable, but it's not. Things can come in, whether they're good things for you or bad things for you. You have to make the decision about what type of person you want to be."
In "Into the Garden," a home has untethered itself from electric wires, which are whipping in the wind. The home is on the verge of sliding down a slope, but in the foreground is a brilliantly lit garden full of blooming flowers and a bluebird. One window in the home reflects the garden scene. "This lifeless house is catching a glimpse of this beauty," Robear said. "The fence separates the two worlds. And bluebirds are symbolic of my grandmother."
Careful viewers will find common elements in Robear's works. Garden gates are seen blowing away in the wind, the arc of a flight of birds echoes the curve of a hillside. "There's something about the arc, I just love the line," Robear said.
While he is happy to discuss what the paintings say about himself, he welcomes the interpretations of others. "The thing that's fascinating about art art is that even though these paintings are personal and they're about me, when other people see them, they put themselves over top of the painting -- their emotions, their experiences.
"Art can be anything to everybody," he said. "It doesn't care what ethnicity you are, how rich you are. It's inclusive. It doesn't have rules."
Robear's new work is leading him to explore a theme of skeletons, and he's not sure where he will end up. "I don't get to select where my art goes," he said.. "Maybe it has something to do with being several years over 50.
"I'd do this even if nobody bought it," he said. "I don't think of them as finished pieces or as art objects. I think of them as emotional fragments that I'm trying to understand."
Buyers who have been drawn into Robear's art can count on getting to know him personally. "People buy art because they want a relationship with the artist," he said. "As an artist, I want that in return."
The act of creation - whether in metal, or watercolor, or the egg tempera that is currently Robear's medium of choice -- is liberating, he said.
"Art is ultimately about an expression. I paint because it's an opportunity to be as free as I'll ever be in the world. I choose the subject, I choose when it's done, how it's done. I don't let anybody dictate. It's my world, and I take care of it. I'm totally free in my studio. That's a beautiful thing to have."
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.