I met Robert one evening in a hidden Grotto on Lancaster Avenue during the lesser known “Second Friday” in Philadelphia. We exchanged some stories about how the sciences and arts interconnected and joked about our experiences with poultry. The conclusion to that discussion was that poultry can be really gross.
That said, Robert has kindly agreed to answer a few questions on his experience as a sculpture and an artist working between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Bar Harbor, Maine. – Ken
Robert James Haskell
Hometown / Current City: Bar Harbor, Maine
Robert James Haskell is a sculptor and multidisciplinary artist from Bar Harbor, Maine. His work features bizarre creatures fabricated by the subconscious mind. His craftsmanship allows these images to take on visually appealing forms despite their sometimes uncanny nature. He works in a wide variety of disciplines, from drawing and printmaking, to sculpture and video.
Haskell received a BFA in sculpture from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2014. His formal training also includes study at The Oxbow School in Napa, CA; The Maine College of Art in Portland, ME; and The Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Deer Isle, ME. He currently teaches at the ArtWaves Community Art Center in Bar Harbor, and shows his work at galleries nationally.
I consider myself a working artist, which means I cobble together a living from whatever sources I can. When I first graduated from art school an older artist told me something about making a living as an artist that I found very helpful. She said there are basically four options for making a living as a working artist. You can (1) be a full time starving artist, (2) get an art related job, (3) get a “dumb” job for money and pursue your art independently, or (4) be a trust fund baby that doesn’t have to worry about money and just make art.
Over the past few years I’ve gotten to try each option (except for having a trust fund unfortunately), and found that having a “dumb” job was one of the better options. Having an art related job would seem to be the more desirable choice, but in my experience that kind of job drains all of your creative energy so you have nothing left for your own work. I was much more productive artistically when I was a dishwasher than when I was a studio assistant.
What’s your art background?
I’ve always loved drawing as far back as I can remember. I was constantly drawing when I should have been doing other things like schoolwork or playing with the other kids. It’s not something I have a choice in, my hands have to be creating at all times. Luckily my mother encouraged and supported my art addiction. My love of drawing eventually led me to explore painting for several years before I fell in love with the possibilities of multidisciplinary artwork. I received an AA in Fine Art from Southern Maine Community College in 2011, and a BFA in Sculpture from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia in 2014.
Describe your work:
I take images from unprocessed thoughts and feelings and give them physical form in a variety of media. The images that come out are often jarring and confusing. A lot of the times they will be sexual, dark, violent, but also humorous in an absurd kind of way.
I exercise a very loose control over the work so that I end up as surprised and confused as someone who is viewing the piece for the first time. I love the feeling of finishing a sculpture and having it seem as though another person made it. I’m not satisfied until I can look at a finished piece and think, “I could never have come up with that idea, I wonder where that came from.” I’m addicted to that novelty in my work. I’m constantly changing media and style just seeking that rush that comes from creating something new, something I couldn’t have preconceived of.
The only way I can get to that kind of a result is by allowing for a lot of chance in the work, and allowing my subconscious to control what my hands are doing. To achieve this, I use various techniques to let my hands sketch faster than my brain can keep up with, and often things I am unaware of slip out. My sculptures are often a continuation and elaboration of the ideas that happen in these sketches. I take the imagery from these sketches and add the extra dimensions of material, space, movement, etc.
What are you currently working on?
One of the ideas I am exploring through sculpture is the boundary between two-dimensional images and three-dimensional objects. I used to think of myself as a painter, but then I transitioned to sculpting and three dimensional work. My career history has helped me to create pieces that don’t belong to either dimension. These pieces are graphic in style like a two-dimensional representation, yet they occupy space and are made of tangible materials. The places in these sculptures that transition between two and three dimensions have a special energy that I want to explore further.
Recently, another theme in my work has been exploring magnetism and other physical phenomena through sculpture. These fundamental forces in physics instantly intrigue people on a visual level. To me the effect is similar to a toddler watching a simple magic trick. We may be able to understand the forces at work on an intellectual level, but they instinctually feel like magic. By combining magnets with emotionally charged imagery, I can transform the magnets into metaphors for all kinds of attractions and repulsions. In my sculpture Magnetism, magnetic attraction becomes a stand in for sexual attraction. A large magnet in the sculpture’s “penis” creates a magnetic field that holds smaller magnets suspended in mid-air. As I explore both physical forces and social/mental relationships in a single sculpture, interesting parallels are discovered in the process, rather than being imposed from the start.
What materials do you work with?
I love everything. It’s so hard to settle down on one material when there are so many that are fascinating and beautiful. Every material is its own universe of possibilities, and I inconveniently have the urge to explore each and every one. I really envy crafts people. They can fully concentrate on one material over their lifetime, and develop the skills necessary to bring out the full potential of that material. I, on the other hand, need to learn every material I can get my hands on, which leaves me spread thin over multiple disciplines. I just have to hope that what I gain from combining different media makes up for the lack of depth in each area.
Steel is an extremely useful material. You can quickly fabricate extremely strong structures. It can be used as a skeleton for other materials, or as an object in its own right. Plasma cutting steel is one of my favorite techniques. It allows me to cut out shapes in the metal quickly, and with a hand drawn quality.
Glass is an absolutely beautiful material. I restrict myself to flameworking with a small torch as opposed to glassblowing because I have limited time and money to devote to it. I also like working with sheets of glass to combine with other materials like steel and concrete.
Bronze is my favorite metal to work with. It’s much more dense than the materials we are used to handling in everyday life, so the weight of it in your hand has a really nice feeling. It’s also pretty cool to be using the exact same bronze casting techniques that humans have been using for over five thousand years.
Describe your current state of mind.
I feel an urgent need to create 24/7. I had a pretty long period where I didn’t produce anything, and I think I am trying to make up for it in an overzealous kind of way. It’s a good state of mind for my artistic output, but not necessarily for my mental wellbeing. I feel like there’s a non-linear relationship between productivity and well-being that I have yet to fully figure out. It’s different for every artist, and I think finding the balance comes easier to some than others.
What’s been happening in your life?
There is an adorable mouse in my studio named Stephanie. I haven’t seen her for several weeks now and I am starting to get worried.
What kind of creative patterns, routines or rituals do you have?
When I was in school a visiting artist did this drawing exercise with us that totally reshaped my creative routine. The exercise was to make 50 drawing in exactly 30 minutes. Every 36 seconds a beep would go off telling us to move on to the next drawing. At first it was very painful, but at some point you loosen up and just let the ideas flow out. I don’t always do that exercise specifically, but I try different ways to get into that same mindset. It can be very difficult to get there sometimes. A lot of the times I’ll know I’ve achieved that state when I make something and I start laughing at it uncontrollably. That’s a very good sign I’ve learned.
What is one of the biggest challenges you face as an artist?
I struggle with letting people’s reactions to my work influence me too much. Making good art isn’t a consensus activity, and at times I have to fight against my people-pleasing tendencies when I see they are making my work more boring. I think it’s okay to acknowledge that your work will interact with an audience once you put it out into the world, but thinking about it too much can be seriously stifling.
This issue becomes much more intense once you start selling your work commercially. It is much harder to not think about people’s reactions too much when your livelihood depends on their acceptance or rejection. A lot of artists solve this problem by making some work that is totally and purely for commercial sale, and some work that is purely for their own artistic pursuit. I am still figuring out how to deal with this balance.
What do you dislike about your work?
I subscribe to that Andy Warhol quote, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad… While they are deciding, make even more art.” I tend to just keep making more instead of dwelling on the shortcomings of my last piece, and over time those shortcomings disappear as the work evolves. I believe that I’m capable of more than my current body of work would suggest, and I have my whole lifetime to keep working on it. I like to keep that in mind whenever I get frustrated.
Are you involved with any organizations?
Yes, a community art center in Bar Harbor, Maine called ArtWaves. The woman who runs it has an inspiring vision of bringing art into people’s lives, especially people who may have not thought they would ever be interested in art. Also, Sweet Pea’s Farm in Bar Harbor is where my studio is located. It’s a really cool community of farmers and creative people, and we’re trying to establish an art collective there.
I go back and forth from Philly to Maine a lot, so partnering up with an organization down there could be really cool. Something like having an artist exchange could be interesting, but I’m still in the early stages of thinking about that.
Do you have any exhibits coming up / past exhibits you’d like to mention?
My piece Family Tree (Maternal and Paternal) is on display at The University of the Arts for their annual Art Unleashed exhibit right now. That piece is my most ambitious attempt at using chemical patinas to date, and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
Another recent career achievement has been getting some of my hand screen-printed shirts on a nationally broadcast TV show. Outsiders on WGN America used some of my nature themed designs for this environmental activist character who turns out to be more of an eco terrorist… but still! It was really cool to see these things I drew while sitting alone in the woods being used in this big budget theatrical production.
What was the first piece of artwork you bought/ do you buy a lot of artwork?
In 2011 there was a beautiful ceramic chalice at a local craft fair. It was made using an experimental Raku firing method, and the colors were really wild. I had just finished a busy summer season working in a restaurant and I had enough disposable income to buy it. I realized that by paying $200, I was not only getting this amazing piece, but I was contributing to this artists’ practice in a way that will help him to create more. As a working artist new to the game, that was an informative experience. If artists buy from each other in this way, it creates a self supporting web that benefits everybody.
What are you reading?
I’m reading The Life Of Insects by V.B. Wigglesworth. I love the authors name almost as much as I love insects. I think insects are endlessly fascinating.
What are you listening to these days?
Arthur Russel is fantastic. I’ve also gotten into Fiona Apple recently, her 2012 album The Idler Wheel specifically. And Sleep Cycle by Deakin. Those are my current obsessions.
What’s next for you?
I have an ongoing environmental art practice that I want to start dedicating more time to. I am very skeptical and often disappointed by the environmental art that I see being made currently. These environmental art pieces typically highlight problems without contributing anything to help solve those problems. When pieces do try to have a beneficial function, they often don’t do it well, and they lose their artistic and conceptual beauty in the process. In other words they seem like bad pieces of art endeavoring to function poorly.
I want to reimagine a way for art, science, and design to work together so that each discipline is augmented rather than degraded by the others. My efforts to achieve this goal so far have led me to create beautiful pieces of art (if I do say so myself) that nonetheless function poorly. One piece I made was an outdoor sculpture that provided habitat for plants and animals in an area where habitat had been heavily degraded. It was a nice looking sculpture, but the plants and animals never showed up. My next move is to further educate myself in fields like ecology and landscape design so I can be more competent on the functional side of the equation, while still maintaining visual and conceptual beauty. It may turn out that fine art has no place in the kinds of environmental interventions that I want to pursue. But I believe that it’s worth the effort if there’s a useful synergy that can be achieved by combining these disciplines.