This conversation started on January 19, 2018. Enjoy.
Chris, How old are you?
Chris: I quietly turned 60 in October. I say quietly because I’ve never been one to make a big deal of these things. I spent the weekend with my wife, son and daughter and that is as good as it gets. The funny thing is this is the first time I’ve ever felt a little sensitive about my age and really almost don’t want people to know how old I am. Not because of vanity but I don’t want to be held back because of it. I’m still very ambitious and more focused than I have ever been. I will say my 50’s were a great time in my life and I feel very satisfied and lucky. I also feel like I am just getting started.
But sometimes I feel the clock is ticking, and man, do I have a lot I want to get done.
Where do you call home?
Chris: I live in Winter Park, Florida the town I grew up in. I was born in Cleveland and have lived in Manhattan, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Minneapolis where we got to know each other. But I always felt a draw to come back to this little town. I like being settled and comfortable. I think my stable routine helps channel my creative practice.
What do you say when someone asks you Chris, what do you do?
Chris: I love this question because now my answer is so simple. I’m a painter.
It’s really all I’ve ever wanted to be. I’ve painted and showed on and off for years since college. But for the past 15 years since I moved back to Winter Park I’ve been more focused on my art.
And now it’s what consumes me 24/7/365. I used to consider my self a good multitasker but with painting I am now mono focused and I’ve realized how important that is for the work to grow.
I was just at a meeting of advertising people and they wanted everyone to go around the table and say who they are and what they do. I was so proud to say
“I’m Chris Robb and I’m a painter. I work out of a studio in College Park, Florida”.
Can you explain why Chris the painter took so long to become Chris the painter?
Chris: Well, you know, like life it’s complicated. When I got out of college I immediately left for the Lower East Side of New York. Didn’t even go to graduation. I worked at Utrecht Art Supply and lived in a 5th floor walk up. I struggled and spent a lot of time eating 25¢ pizza slices and egg rolls. My work progressed and did a few group shows at a place called Club 57. I also got a grant and put together a show at PS 122, a public art space on 1st Avenue at 9th Street which is still in operation today. But I just really didn’t know much about the art world and I actually got my degree in Graphic Design so I got my first “real” job in the advertising department at Macy’s. And I found out I really liked that world and I was being creative AND making money. Long story short I did pretty well at the advertising and design business. And even now when I’m focused on painting my wife and I say that most of what we have is from the advertising business, including the freedom to pursue my life passion. I’ve told Cheryl that somehow I went from this kid who knew nothing and nobody in the business world to a guy that has presented in meetings with Howard Schultz, the CEO of Pepsi and many others. So now I’m putting that energy into figuring out the art world and how it works. It’s interesting as hell. I feel like I’m just at the beginning of the next big phase of my life.
You said you “feel the clock ticking” what do you feel and how does it drive your daily decisions?
Chris: My solution to most everything is to put my head down and get into the studio. I am at a point where I know I have an opportunity. My work has really progressed to a point where I think I may be doing something important. So now I focus and I work. I’ve always admired the great painters who did amazing new work in their 80’s and 90’s. Matisse, de Kooning and others including Alex Katz who just opened a show of new paintings and he is 92. I want that.
I want to keep going and build a very significant body of work.
Chris you mentioned being “settled and comfortable” which can be perceived as bad things. How are those ideas helping you thrive as an artist?
Chris: Well that is just the way I’m built. I remember years ago seeing that Dan Weiden had a saying on his desk that went something like this: Be steady and stable in your life so that your work can be violently original. (Something like that. I’m sure that’s not exactly right, but close.) That’s it for me. I’ve never bought into the notion of the “crazy artist” myth. Roy Lichtenstein worked every day in his studio 9-5. Just like any other job. That to me is how to be creative. Steadily working it out.
My favorite quote is from the painter Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. This rest of us just show up and get to work.”
Please take us through a day in your life in Winter Park, Florida?
Chris: If you haven’t ever been it’s a beautiful little town built around a chain of lakes and centered on Park Avenue which is full of shops and restaurants that spill out onto the sidewalks. Plus it’s full of big trees and has a little 9 hole golf course winding through and a small college called Rollins College. Very un-Florida in a way and a million miles from the tourist areas of Orlando.
My day starts with my wife Cheryl and I having breakfast and hanging with our 3 dogs. (We just rescued another pug, a 7-year-old.) Then pretty much 7 days a week I head to the studio. I usually stop on my way at one of my favorite coffee shops grab a coffee and I’m at the studio by 10 or so. Then it’s a day of painting or building canvases or hanging paper to work on or figuring out something that’s getting framed or organizing the studio for a collector to visit or coordinating shipping of work to a gallery. Just a million things to keep me moving. Also three days a week I take some time and head to the Downtown Y and swim laps. I’ve been doing that for over 20 years now. I say swimming is the fountain of youth. I originally got into it to stay in shape for surfing. It is the best thing I’ve found. And yes I still consider myself a surfer. We used to have a house in New Smyrna Beach, Florida but we sold it a couple of years ago. I was willing to give up some things to chase my painting. Sometimes you figure out what is most important and make adjustments. I then head back to the studio for the afternoon and get home in time to feed the dogs.
It’s a simple life and it’s really all I need.
I love it.
What is it like to be a 60-year-old man and have an all consuming passion?
Chris: Fantastic! I’ve had friends tell me you’re lucky because you know what you want to do. And I do feel that way. Plus I love painting and art so much that if I’m not in the studio I’m at home cleaning up images to put on my website or researching shows and artists. There is so much to dig in to. My wife will say “Have fun” when I head to the studio and sometimes I think, it’s not fun I’m a serious artist!! But, yeah, it’s amazing fun for me.
I love every minute of being an artist. Especially when I’m actually painting. That is my meditation. Everything falls away.
Chris you said you have become more mono focused? Which is an idea I love. How did you arrive at that idea?
Chris: It is something I have discovered the last few years. My last 10 years at my agency I was working as a Creative Director and art directing campaigns, plus helping to run the agency. Then with the help of an ex-partner who is now a director I got hooked up with a production company started directing and even got into the DGA. So sometimes I would take a project all the way through production. At the same time I was doing more and more art and starting to have some shows. But then three years ago I stepped away from full-time work at Push. I thought well I’ll probably work on some projects with Push, maybe some freelance, maybe do some directing and also spend more time in the studio. What I found was the more time I spent painting the better the work got. The more I felt like I was progressing, really getting somewhere. And I realized that’s it. Everyone works at being this great multitasker but for me focus is king. I discovered that and it’s great.
Now a lot of my multi-tasking, as with many people over the years, is out of necessity. Especially when you have young kids. But I encourage anyone that has a passion to get as focused as possible on it. It’s not always easy but if you can prioritize your life around it. It’s a great thing to do. And I haven’t found a downside but I’m a pretty moderate person. I suppose you could really go down a rabbit hole and lose sight of other important aspects of your life. But like anything worthwhile keeping perspective is important.
Do you wish Chris the painter emerged earlier or was this the right time?
Chris: Would I like to have spent the last 30 years painting? Yes. Would I change anything about my life and how I got to where I am now? No. I have too many amazing things in my life to look back and wish I had done it differently. I’m confident I’m on the right path. And I think my art will get to the place I want it to be before I’m done.
Do you have any regrets about not starting earlier?
Chris: Well I did start earlier and I have been working at this all along. It’s not like I lived my whole life and decided I want to paint now. This has been what I’ve done most of my life. I’m dialing it up now.
This is not a retirement hobby.
This is an ambitious effort and a serious art practice and all that goes with it.
I have literally been making art since I was a kid. My mom was an art teacher and it is just a natural thing for me. In college I really started to understand art on a more profound level. Also started seriously studying art history and really fell in love with the modern period from the late forties until now, especially the abstract expressionists. My influences are very eclectic but I am constantly looking at art and reading about art and I have been for the past 40 years. I have also been evolving my work over the years. Abstraction is something that took me many years to get to. I always worked in an expressionist mode but usually involving the figure. Finally I was able to achieve the freedom I wanted by heading toward abstraction. I now say that my work is at the intersection of complete freedom and complete control. Something that I think most people have an internal struggle with every day. So as my art has evolved so has my ability to focus on it. I feel I’m at the right place doing the right work now. Also I had such a great life as an Art Director that I think it would be foolish to dismiss it. I have met most of my good friends from the ad business. I met my wife in the advertising business. We’ve raised amazing children and supported them because of the business. So I really don’t have any regrets about not getting to focus completely on my painting at an earlier age.
Do you have any regrets?
Chris: I’ve never been a big regret person. I mean who doesn’t have some regrets about dumb decisions but I’m not big on dwelling on the past. I’m lucky to have a life partner in Cheryl who is willing to take chances with me. We have always sort of had the attitude that you try something and if it doesn’t work you change it. No reason to stay stuck doing something you hate. Now do I have stupid things that every now and then you think, hmm, should I have done that? Yes. I could be a lot wealthier if I had hung in with some jobs that I walked away from because I wasn’t happy. But that is one thing I learned along the way. To not make a decision based on the money. We are just not oriented that way. But big regrets, none. We wouldn’t be where we are today without all the happy times, the painful times, the bad decisions and the good decisions that happen along the way.
What would Chris the painter say to his 30-year-old self if he could go back in time?
Chris: I think mainly it would be a confidence thing. Basically be confident in your work. I look back at some of the work I did right after college in New York and I think it’s really good. I just didn’t have the confidence to really stay focused on it and build that cohesive body of work. I was kind of all over the place. I really had to learn as I went along. And it has been like that for all phases of my life. I am proud now that inexperience and fear of failure never really held me back. I’ve always been willing to take a chance and try new things. Maybe it has to do with being the son of a Scottish immigrant.
You spoke of steady and stable. You show up and go to work. That sounds a lot like discipline. Do you see yourself as a disciplined individual?
Chris: I’ve never really thought I was very disciplined. I think I just try to be balanced. My wife says she can tell when I’m out of whack. I’m pretty easy-going so I just tend to function best when I have equal amounts of the important things in my life.
I’d say I operate on “feel” more than anything.
I like being committed to something but the idea of discipline just sounds… not fun. But I am pretty good at sticking with things that are worth it. Married almost 31 years and still going. Swimming 20 years and still going. Surfing over 40 years. (But slowing way down) A lot of old friends. A multi vitamin every day. But if I decide something is not worth doing I can walk away pretty easily. And I really don’t like being told I have to do something. I think I have too much contrarian in me to be a real disciplined person.
As a painter I am approaching my work in a more disciplined manner because I want a big, cohesive body of work. One of the things I learned as I’ve done bigger shows is that I want my work to hang really well together. I had a one man show at a college gallery in 2014 and it was strong and I had very good reactions to the paintings but something wasn’t sitting well with me. So I really took the next year or two and took my painting apart and out of that I have a new body of work that feels right. I just opened a show up in Washington DC and I was very happy with the way the work hung together. So I guess discipline as a painter means to constantly reevaluate your work and don’t be afraid to change and go after something new. Always keep progressing while keeping an eye on a consistency that makes your work recognizable.
You mentioned swimming is the fountain of youth. Can you tell me what physical activity means to you and what purpose it serves to Chris and Chris the painter?
Chris: When I was 19 my Dad died and it’s interesting how something like that informs your whole life. You can either be pissed off about it and be angry, which I definitely was for a few years. Or what I’ve done is always used it as motivation. One of the motivations was to stay physically fit and healthy so that I could know my kids as adults. I felt like that was taken from me with my Dad. The great thing is I’m experiencing that now. My wife and I had two great vacations with our grown kids last year. We have just the best time with them and they are interesting, smart and wonderful people. I was always into sports, baseball when I was young evolved into surfing when I was sixteen and then swimming to stay in shape. I think it just makes you feel better. And now being a painter can be pretty physical. (I tell my wife it’s a blue-collar job.) So I feel like if I want to be somebody that is still making new work when I’m 90 I better stay fit. Maybe that’s back to the discipline thing.
What does surfing me to you? Physically, spiritually and artistically?
Chris: I always saw surfing as an art form. The way you draw lines on a wave. No two people do it the same. And it is super physical. It’s not an easy sport to pick up but once you get hooked you usually start building your life around it. It is also one of those things that no matter what is going on in your life if you take a surf you’ll feel better. Just washes all the shit away. It’s very spiritual because you are doing something so natural. You are actually riding this ocean pulse that comes from thousands of miles away. It’s an amazing connection. It’s another form of meditation to me.
When you are on a wave it is impossible to think of anything else. Total focus and total purity. It cleanses your mind.
I’m going to offer you 3 words. Please tell me what they mean to you after 60 years on this planet.
Chris: It really comes at you in life in so many ways. I feel like overcoming fear in any form is a huge accomplishment and something to work at constantly. Being afraid can hold you back in life. It’s overcoming big fears that can move you forward. “Should I take that job in a new city where I don’t know anyone?” YES! You can always move back if you don’t like it. “Should I take a year off and travel?” YES! Do it. It’s a life experience. “Should I start my own company?” Hell yeah! Once again, if it doesn’t work try something else. “Should I make a painting, write a book, act, be creative?” Yes, put yourself out there. It’s scary but also very rewarding. Maybe it is the immigrant’s son’s mentality. My dad and his family picked up everything and moved across the ocean to a new country where they knew no one. He also went and fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Now that’s a kind of fear I don’t know if I could handle.
Chris: Inspiration. The reason to live. And if you are so inclined to try to leave something that makes the world a little better for you having been in it.
Chris: I got married 31 years ago and have raised two great kids. My wife Cheryl, my son Christopher and my daughter Cameron have made my life complete.
To me that is joy.
Chris Robb Painter