artist appreciation: robert townsend interview

by georgia frances king

Los Angeles-based artist Robert Townsend paints the world his dad grew up in: roadside diners, quiffs and all. Using a variety of mediums (and an especially large personal collection of vintage matchbooks), he goes about replicating a time he was still ten year away from being born into.

We had a chat to him about his meticulous method, Mickey Mouse Club toys and the importance of having your own opinion about art, no matter what the buffs tell you to think.

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What is your name and how old are you? Robert Townsend, 38. Though I've been called Bobby, Bobby Sunshine, Holden Caulfield, and another name that would be inappropriate to share, my friends all call me Rob.

Where were you born and where do you live now? I was born in Downey, CA – a suburb of LA and home to the world's oldest remaining McDonald's. I've lived in a loft in downtown LA for the past few years.

How does where you grew up affect your art? Downey is not a town of the arts at all. However it was where aerospace started in a big way (they built everything to send people to the moon and such) and we had some amazing examples of Googie architecture. Those elements of mid-century design and style can definitely be found in my work.

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What kind of mediums do you use? Why do you choose to use these mediums? I work in watercolors, oils, and acrylics. I originally chose watercolors because I found the medium to be so beautiful, but also because I enjoyed the challenge of debunking the idea that watercolors are impossible to control. My own feeling is that each image is calling to be painted in one medium versus the others, that one medium simply lends itself better to a certain image.

When did you first become interested in art? My brother received a Mickey Mouse Club lightbox toy for Christmas one year, probably '78, and I just adored that thing. That's really how it started.

Is there a running theme to the work you create? Yes and no. I can't figure out exactly what I'm doing. I can say for the most part that mid-century post-war idealism is the biggest contributor. Most of my paintings are very cheery, optimistic, and I am totally striving for that. They have to do with the American mystique of that period,.

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Your photos are heavily based in the advertising and pop culture references of yesterday – what is it about design in these eras that you like? Well, I do consider the '50s and '60s to be the gold standard for design – my own personal favorite anyways. The single biggest influence on my work has been my dad, due to the fact that he was born in '39, was 16 in '55 when rock and roll was being born and amazing American cars were on the roads that looked like rocket ships. The stories my dad told of growing up in LA are everything my work is based on. In some form, they are fantasy, in that they are based on my feelings for his stories rather than my own experiences. But I have to say, the way things were designed during that time just does it for me.

Do you also collect objects from this era? What kind of things do you have in your possession? Oh brother! Yeah, I've had a lot of objects that clutter up the shelves, but I've been good about getting rid of most of them. The minimalist side of me can't handle the clutter. At the moment, I have an enjoyable matchbook collection (small enough items to support my minimalist preferences), a nice assortment of vintage clocks and some Saltine cans.

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Why do you choose to paint in this style and using this content? Although I do use somewhat typical photorealist techniques and am a fan of the movement, I don't really consider myself a card-carrying member. However, I work tight simply because I'm a big fan of craftsmanship and a bit of an obsessive-compulsive type. That's actually an understatement! I also bring in a bit of other influences from pop art and even surrealism on occasion.

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If you were to teach an art appreciation class, what kind of lessons would you try to teach your students? I'm self taught as an artist and have only learned from reading books, going to shows, lectures, etc. As such, I've always felt an inferiority to those with a 'proper' education and tend to stay quiet as to opinions on art. Everyone is entitled to their opinion in art. You simply don't have to like everything, regardless of what history says about it. However, many people take issue with art simply because they don't quickly understand it. I often hear people say that it's not art if it has to be explained. Not true. It's still ok to like or not like certain "art", but appreciation will often grow with an open mind.

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Which era of art do you appreciate the most? Oh, I suppose the 1950s to 1970s. That's a lot of territory, but it starts with Johns and Rauschenberg, moves to Warhol and the Pop guys, my all time favorite artist for so many reasons Wayne Thiebaud, great photographers like Stephen Shore, then on to photorealists like Robert Bechtle, plus other folks like Ed Ruscha and Chuck Close.

What do you doodle when you are daydreaming? I almost never doodle or sketch. I doodle in my mind, in the sense that I think about ideas or compositions for what I think will be fun paintings, but everything outside of my little brain starts with a camera rather than a sketchbook or a napkin.

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What do you enjoy doing when not creating art? I love nature quite a bit, and hope to move someplace a little more rural at some point in the near future. Hiking in Zion, Utah is about the best thing I can imagine doing with my time and I go there every few months. Road trips are the best, so any place the car can take me is great!

See more at rtownsendwatercolors.com

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