A matter of process
Abstract artist crosses from one dimension to another
It is March, and the trees stretch barren limbs skyward as if, naked and shorn, they plead for the softness of green summer leaves.
To most, this would seem an empty sight.
But to Jarbalo artist Bob Wright, this is art.
"An artist is influenced from the environment, where he works," Wright said.
"I like this time of the year because I can see the branches," Wright said.
But more than that, he added, he can see the shapes between the branches.
"Those are the negative spaces," Wright said. "With trees in winter, I find shapes not in the branches themselves, but in the spaces between them. In teaching drawing students, I would tell them don't draw the chair and don't draw the easel just draw the holes."
Wright, a University of Kansas professor emeritus, retired a year and a half ago, having taught painting and drawing to KU students for 35 years.
The word retirement is almost a misnomer for Wright, who spends his days working in his studio.
"When I retired, everybody asked what I was going to do," he said. "My god, I get to be a full-time artist for the rest of my life."
Now he spends his days choosing among the different mediums of art in which he works. They include abstract paintings, sculpting, welding, making bells from used gas cylinders and even making jewelry. And when the time comes, if he wants to take a few minutes to sit in the rocker and contemplate his next step, or if he wants to walk outside and observe nature on their 10 acres, he can.
"Retirement is wonderful," Wright said. He laughs heartily. "I wish I'd done it 30 years ago.
It wasn't until he was in his early 20s that Wright began to think of himself as an artist.
"I had always drawn all my life," he said. "I didn't think it was any big deal I just thought it was something everybody did. But when I got older, I began to realize that everybody couldn't draw."
He started out in college majoring in engineering, then philosophy.
"Finally, I worked my way into art," Wright said.
He did his undergraduate work at the San Francisco Art Institute, and earned his graduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin. His entire teaching career took place at KU.
Judy Wright said his parents didn't foster her husband's creativity during his early years.
"Totally the contrary," she said. "It wasn't part of what was important in the family."
His father had been a fine craftsman who made jewelry out of coins and made knives and knife handles, she said.
"But in terms of a highly artistic imagination, that definitely was not part of the package," she added.
But it is this imaginative spirit that keeps Wright moving back and forth among various dimensions of art.
About eight years ago, he started sculpting.
This began during a period of time, he said, pointing to a painting over the mantel in their living room.
"I combined different materials with paintings," he said. "For instance, that one has a painting, carved wood and a sheet of lead at the lower edge. I really love the idea of mixing things together."
Another large painting in his living room includes an aluminum panel with pieces of metal pop-riveted on.
"I really enjoyed doing this," Wright said. "But I felt limited in that it was still very two-dimensional, very low relief."
This is what finally inspired Wright to begin sculpting.
"I wanted to move the painting off the wall in a three-dimensional way."
Unlike drawing and painting, sculpting didn't come naturally for Wright.
"One of the things I found about going into sculpture was I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "And it was so much fun to discover and to have to figure it out."
Wright goes out of his way to acquire materials for sculpture.
"I scour junk yards and body shops," he said. "Right now I'm trying to collect chrome bumpers because I want to make a huge chrome bumper sculpture."
But he doesn't intend for the chrome bumper sculpture to look like anything.
Wright says he's an abstract artist not a representational artist.
"I don't want my work to look like anything," he said. "Why do people think art that is painting or sculptures has to look like something?"
He compares art to music.
"When you listen to music without knowing what it is, or what the words are, you know if you like it," Wright said. "If music can be just music without having to be interpreted, then why can't painting be just painting or sculpting be just sculpting?"
As his ideas for his sculptures are abstract, so, it seems, is the way he comes up with them.
"I don't just do a sketch and say, 'OK I'm going to do a sculpture today,'" Wright said. "I do sketches but I don't necessarily end up doing something with them. Things will be lying around and I start playing with them and something will suggest itself.
"I've got stuff out here now that I've been looking at for years and can't figure out what to do with. Hopefully one of these days something will come."
Judy Wright explained that art is a constant presence in their lives.
"What I've learned through all these years of living with Bob is that he's always kind of working on projects," Judy Wright said. "For instance, he can be watching an old western on TV and he's still working on a project."
In their living room is a sculpture made of wood, malleable lead sheeting and stainless steel.
"I had glued some old two-by-sixs together and let them sit around and I didn't know what I was going to do with them," Bob Wright said. "And then one day I just started carving. Then once I started, something suggested itself."
A wing of sorts juts from the side of the piece. It has the look of barn siding that was once painted. Wright explains this wood had been part of another sculpture that didn't work for him.
"But when I took it apart, I loved the pieces and so I just kept it and I've been using the pieces of it in other sculptures for several years."
In 1996, the Mulvane Art Museum, Washburn University, Topeka, sponsored an exhibit of Wright's paintings and sculptures. And recently, Wright donated one of these sculptures, Samsara II, to the museum.
Robert Soppelsa, museum director, said he was pleased to have this piece added to the museum's permanent collection.
"I think his work is very interesting and I think it's very challenging," Soppelsa said.
The sculpture is typical of Wright's work, he added.
Recently, Wright added yet another new dimension to his work when he began making bells that hang on metal stands. The bells are made from air cylinders.
"The first one I made, I found the cylinder and I thought well I'll do something with it," Wright said.
He has sold several of the bells, and given several to family and friends.
"Bells are not my favorite things to do," he said. "They're kind of like playthings. But it seems that more people like the playthings that I make, rather than the things that are more serious."
This includes the jewelry he makes.
Judy Wright said the jewelry-making caught her by surprise. She had been deciding what to wear to her daughter's wedding and said she didn't have the right kind of jewelry.
"He just disappeared into the studio and came back with this wonderful necklace, never having made jewelry in his life," she said.
The jewelry is fashioned from stainless steel wire, some having copper and stainless steel accent pieces welded together.
But no matter whether the art is classed as a plaything or serious work, Wright still enjoys the process.
"I lose myself in all of my painting and sculpture. Any time I do something I lose myself," he said. "Even when I'm doing necklaces or making bells, it's like a meditative process."
Sometimes part of the process means taking away what has been done.
On his large abstract paintings, Wright is known for putting the paint on the canvas and then scraping it off.
"I don't care if I like it or whether I don't," Wright said. "I always do this. Gradually the painting builds up and you start leaving some things and taking away other things."
He holds a small painting in his hands.
It's enamel paint that has been poured on and then scraped off.
"In the process of the taking away, or scraping off, you discover a whole new world that opens up," he said.
And that's what it's all about.
"The process is as important as the finished product," Wright said. "There may be things that don't work in a finished painting, but it's part of a process and, unless you're willing to change the whole painting, you can't go back and just change one little part."
For instance, he points to a large black area on his most recently finished painting.
"A lot of people don't like this black," he said. "But that's one of my favorite parts. Because it looks like it doesn't belong and one of the things I love about art is trying to incorporate things that don't belong and make them belong."
He turns from the painting, gently slaps his left hand on his thigh, and says quietly:
"Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don't."