Robert Bridges, originally from Los Angeles, graduated from Cornish College of The Arts in Seattle with a BFA in Fine Art. His unique style in illustrative art is to be described as a "timeless feel with a dark and whimsical edge." Bridges' interest in illustrative art became known by his father, also an artist, who encouraged him to read his school books by drawing pictures on the books' endpapers. Though it did not get Bridges to grow a love for reading, it did grow his love for illustrative drawing.
His art tells stories through a place Bridges calls The Thousand Weed Marsh. In this whimsical, dark, and dangerous world, Bridges creates art that gives the viewer a feel of, as he would describe, "illustrations cut from worn and dusty children's books from years gone by."
LAL (Lexington Art League): Your work has a children's book feel to it. Why do you think that is and what drove you to create art in that way?
RB (Robert Bridges): That is intentional. I honestly believe that what I am doing now is what I was meant to do with my life. It feels natural to me and I have always thought along narrative visuals. When I was a young boy my father drew pictures of Disney characters on the end pages of my school primers in order to get my attention and hopefully get me to read the books. The drawings caught my imagination and it has been a developing process my entire life.
LAL: You have talked about how your work comes from a place called The Thousand Weed Marsh. Can you explain when and how did this place come about? And did Vagabond Milliner, come about from that place?
RB: The Thousand Weed Marsh came about organically, by a slow process. It really didn't come into being until about a year and a half ago. I started developing these characters and I thought that they need some sort of home, some sort of place to build a mythology off of. I had always liked Winnie the Pooh and The Hundred Acre Wood and The Thousand Weed Marsh was sort of a play on that. Where the Hundred Acre Wood was light and endearing, The Marsh (which really isn't a marsh per se), is playful, a bit odd, slightly broken, at times wild and sometimes a wee bit dark. A year ago we moved onto 5 acres of land in Scott County. One morning I stood out on my back deck overlooking a wooded pond and it struck me, I now lived on the edges of the Marsh I imagined in my mind. It didn't feel like coincidence to me. And The Vagabond Milliner, yes he's from that same place; he's a vagabond by nature, but travels through the Marsh area plying his trade from time to time.
LAL: What would you say is the inspiration that drove you to create Vagabond Milliner?
RB: This piece was originally created to be a part of a solo show I had at LexArts. All the pieces were characters from the Thousand Weed Marsh. As I don't have my book out just yet, I was exploring creating interesting characters to populate this place. I wanted to create characters who were living their lives and going about their daily activities. Samuel Puddle seemed like an interesting character to explore.
LAL: If there was one message that you wanted your viewer to receive from Vagabond Milliner, what would that be?
RB: I don't think there is any deep, grand message I am trying to get across. I think with most of my work, when coupled with their short stories I am generally hoping to catch the viewer's attention. My little stories give just enough information to have you ask, "What happened next?" I like the viewer to use their imagination to continue the tale.
LAL: Why do you think animals are a huge part of your artwork?
RB: I find them more expressive and interesting to illustrate.
LAL: Is there a certain person throughout your life that influenced your style of art?
RB: I am a big believer that as you go through life you grow and change and so do your tastes and influences. I don't think there has been one constant throughout my life that has influenced me, but rather a successive line of influences that have helped to shape my vision over the years.
LAL: What was your process in creating Vagabond Milliner?
RB: I generally don't create test illustrations or sketches. I tend to work by intuition. Once I have my idea I prep my illustration board, lay down my background base color and draw away. I sometimes spend too much time erasing, sketching and re erasing. Once I am happy that the drawing works, I'll paint in heads and faces first and paint out from there. When I am happy with what I have, I will treat the piece with a sealant and then slightly age, and stain the piece with a short series of paint washes.
LAL: To me, coming up with a capturing title to match the capturing artwork would be a challenge. How do you come up with your artwork's titles and why did you choose Vagabond Milliner as the title for this piece?
RB: Sometimes it almost seems like the titles and short story for them write themselves. I like to think about how the characters fit into this world. What is he or she doing and why? The style of the language of the Marsh is obviously influenced by English Victorian slang. It's a bit of a mish-mash of American wording and a badly cobbled together British vocabulary. So the words I use and the titles I give my pieces have to fall along these guidelines. Samuel Puddle (The Milliner in question), came about by an idea of a classic children's book called Too Many Caps. In it a hat vendor is accosted by a group of monkeys in a tree who steal his caps and won't give them back. The absurdity of this idea came to me one day and the visual of a pigeon with a tower of hats came to mind. I thought and wondered as to why he would wear so many hats on his head. I sat down at my computer and started typing a short 1 to 2-paragraph vignette about the image. The rest just sort of comes naturally to me. In this case he happens to be a vagabond who makes his living selling his wares from town to town. Being hard up for money and without a means of transportation he and his assistant have to carry their merchandise themselves. He just chooses to do so on top of his head. Being a pigeon whose head bobs to and fro when he walks makes it a frustrating endeavor to keep the hats on his head.
LAL: In a lot of your work, you have animals posed doing human activities and dressed in human clothing. What significance and meaning does this have for you?
RB: I am really fond of the illustrative art of the past. My work is a throwback to the illustrators of old. The likes of Arthur Rackham, John Tenniel and even recent illustrators like Maurice Sendak. There is something magical and timeless about using anthromorphosized animals in my work. The tradition of using animals as stand-ins for the folly of human condition dates back as far as ancient Egypt and Greece. It just resonates with me. What I am doing with these characters isn't outwardly fantastic, but like the everyday lives of most people they go about their hum-drum activities of life. But sometimes this includes land pirates, or mythical, giant black wolves or giant spiders who haunt the woods. Well, maybe it is a little fantastical at times...
LAL: Roughly how long does it take you to complete these detailed drawings? Particularly how long did it take to complete Vagabond Milliner?
RB: That's a good question. I don't really keep detailed logs of time on my art. I get lost in the process, if I were to guess, I would think that for The Vagabond Milliner it took about 10 - 12 hours to create. These aren't normally done is one sitting but are broken up into chunks during a week and I sometimes go back and rework areas I am not pleased with.
For more about Robert and his work, visit his website: http://robbridges.com
Also, check out this article in the Herald Leader that featured Robert Bridges' work: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/08/31/4013724_scott-county-artist-and-his-fox.html?rh=1
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The Kentucky Arts Council, a state arts agency, provides operating support to the Lexington Art League with state tax dollars and federal funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support provided by Lexington Parks & Recreation.