Robert Steven Connett’s beautifully realised visions of an unseen world teeming with vibrant and complex lifeforms, open windows into a universe that we rarely contemplate and most often simply forget exists. Microscopic biological phenomena of the natural world, within both flora and fauna, and particularly that of oceanic origins, provides Connett with bountiful inspirations and his unbridled passion and colourful imagination ensure his creations rise above the natural and inhabit a sphere somewhere between the familiar and the extraordinary. Connett masterfully brings a sumptuous and bizarre underworld into existence and prompts us to ask questions about our perceptions of the world around us and more importantly about our place within it.
Robert Steven Connett was born in 1951 in San Francisco, California. He began drawing and painting at the age of 27 and continued to create artwork as a hobby for 20 years, during which time he owned and operated an insurance brokerage firm in San Francisco. He sold the firm in 1998 at age 47, after his home and art collection was destroyed by a fire. Connett moved to Los Angeles in 2003 where he began his full-time art career at the age of 52. Since then Robert has been exhibiting his paintings internationally and has earned himself a serious following.
WOW x WOW is incredibly honoured that Robert has contributed a wonderful new painting from his ‘Microverse’ series to ‘Lightning Bolts & Little Sparks’, our inaugural exhibition. The painting, entitled ‘MICROVERSE IV’ is a tremendous example of Robert’s explorations into microscopic lifeforms. To celebrate this occasion, we asked Robert to participate in the following interview and fortunately he graciously agreed. Enjoy!
Hi Robert, thanks very much for making the time to have a chat, we really appreciate it. First off, we’re interested to hear about where you’re currently living and what you like about the area? What is the art scene like there and do you feel a part of that community? Are these aspects of your existence that are important to your creativity?
Thank you for the opportunity to answer your questions. I’m currently living in Los Angeles. When you think of LA, you probably envision freeways, bad air and Strip malls, and you’d be correct. However, I live in a small house in the hills of LA, in a wooded area at the dead end of a dirt road. I have no neighbors in sight, and am surrounded by trees so high and thick that you’d think you were in a national park. It’s a sanctuary, and I seldom leave it. Still, I’m very close to downtown LA and the many galleries that I work with. That’s probably the best advantage I have, and the reason I moved here 20 years ago. I enjoy the convenience of living in a large city. At the same time, I’m incredibly fortunate to live in my own unique space. This is a beautiful, inspiring place to live. A work in progress that my wife and I have built over the last 15 years.
In what ways did your childhood and upbringing affect your relationship with the arts?
My childhood was spent in the city of San Francisco. There wasn’t much nature around. In spite of that, (or perhaps, because of it.) I became obsessed with the natural world. I was fascinated by insects, reptiles and amphibians. My first drawings were of these things. I only saw them in pictures. Eventually, I let my imagination make up my own creatures. Sometime later I discovered comic books. I was obsessed with Marvel and DC. I learned to draw by copying many of the monsters and super heroes.
The natural world forms the basis for much of your creative invention. Please talk to us about some of the current sources of information and inspiration which are providing the fuel for your imagination.
I’ve always been fascinated with nature. I’m drawn to aquatic and oceanic creatures. They hold a special attraction for me. As a kid, the only time I was exposed to extreme nature was when I went out fishing with my father in San Francisco Bay, and beyond the Golden Gate into the Pacific. He had a small inboard with a cabin. We would go out every weekend to fish. It made an extreme impression on me. The description for my painting, “Night Trawler” tells the story:
N.T. Story: Many years ago, when I was a young boy of 6 or 7, my father would wake me before dawn to go fishing in the Ocean. We would drive through the foggy San Francisco streets to “Muni Pier”, buy bait wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper, and drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. There my father had moored an old 26 foot inboard with a cabin. To my young eyes it was a Ship! As the first false dawn light be-gan to color the world, we would board with our gear. Trembling with the morning chill, breathing out hot steam into the cold, he’d start the engine. The smell of gasoline, bait and salt water is a heavenly memory.
We made slowly out the jetty and into the San Francisco Bay to cross the “Potato Patch”. This is an area of rough water under the Golden Gate Bridge where many a small boat has gone down in a sudden storm. Past this fearful patch of rough water lay the beautiful blue waters off Marin County, California. We would skirt the shore, find a still cove and drop anchor. These coves were always surrounded by high cliffs with wild wind sculpted trees overhanging the edges. The Cliffs were natural wind breaks. The water was blue black with its depth, and still as a mirror. The smell there was pine forest mixed with salt water, morning sun, exhaust fumes and the decay of life and death.
My fingers would tremble while I set my hooks and sinkers. My father and I would sit side by side in lawn chairs as the boat gently swayed in the calm morning water. The fog would clear in spots and open holes in the sky. Through these openings rays of golden sunlight would appear like the fingers of God.
And what creatures we caught! I never knew what monstrous beauty I might pull from those waters! Creatures from science fiction! Things that my 7 year old mind was sure no one had ever seen before! Huge green purple kelp fish with bulging eyes and fins that mimicked the kelp they lived in, mottled with countless hues of blues, greens, violets and blacks. They were covered with tiny slithering worms and tiny jittering crustaceans. Amazing complex translucent things that I would stare at with wide eyed wonder.
There were Leopard Sharks with beautiful black spots. There were Fish that looked like futuristic cylindrical space ships, Crabs, many jellyfish, huge stingrays and White sharks as big as our boat! Very scary! And so many more! The sea was my teacher.
My favorite times were slow and silent. When our lines made the only ripple upon the water. The only sound was the soft lapping of the dark water against our boat, the sound of gulls, and my father’s breathing. I would try to match my breaths to my fathers as we sat in silence, looking into the dark waters thinking our thoughts in perfect silence. A precious jewel of a memory.
Being an artist who works within the visual realm, can you shed some light on some of the most important inspirations and influences on your work that aren’t visual and how they have helped you evolve your subject matter and creative practice?
I would say that the biggest influences on my work, aside from visual influences, are emotional influences. Love, fear, pain, hope, anxiety, happiness, all these are constantly influencing the person I am, and how I am creative. Also, the encouragement I receive from my fans is something that greatly inspires me. I’d have to say that all influences in one’s life have an impact on one’s creative nature. In my opinion, the act of creating is the expression of the entire sum of the individual.
Another, different non-visual influence is self-discipline. Without that, my paintings would never get completed. Discipline is especially hard to manage when you are working alone many hours every day. One must keep sight of the goal, and avoid the many distractions which are constantly popping up. My particular method of working is especially filled with time wasting traps.
You have previously stated that you aim to disassociate yourself from the outer world. Is there any part of you that attempts to balance your artistic introspectiveness with the reality we live in, or are you happiest within the confines of your own imaginings? We’re really interested to get an idea of the creative haven within which you prefer to dwell.
Well, as they say, “No one is an island.” Sometimes I wish I could be. Because I am certainly happy and at ease when I am working in an environment within my control. Of course, in our society, all things depend upon other things, (and other people) so living on your own terms is not completely possible.
Let me tell you a little more about my working environment. I work in my home, and my home is a very important part of how I balance my artistic introspectiveness with reality.
We have made our home (my wife and I; she is part of my semi-perfect life.) resemble our vision of a perfect environment using the limited tools and materials at our disposal. Although I live in the city of Los Angeles, my home is surrounded by gardens and tree covered land. It’s almost like a private forest. There are a few neighbors nearby, but they cannot be seen. You can access our 1 acre property only by a dead end dirt road. We have dug a pond and have a stream that flows over rocks and small boulders. The stream meanders under a small stone bridge a few yards from our front door. This is all behind wooden fences covered with flowers and vines. Enormous stalks of giant black Bamboo tower above the tops of the highest trees like sentinels. The trees have grown into a natural canopy that has formed over the steam and our entire front garden. It’s always much cooler here than the surrounding area. Wildlife has been drawn to our gardens. We constantly see animals. We have had litters of coyote pups play on our front lawn. The gardens are filled with birds and their music. Butterflies are drawn to the flowers and water, as are dragonflies and needle flies. When the wind is up the air can appear snow filled with the falling detritus of leaves, seeds, pollens and flying insects.
The inside of the house is filled with artworks. Several prints of my best work, and original paintings from artists that I have been able to collect over the years. We also collect sculptures and masks. I have a personal collection of 250 exotic insects and butterflies which also adorn our walls. Downstairs is my painting studio which is filled with my work, drawings and objects of inspirations.
I understand that no one can really own anything. Maybe for a short time. The first home I tried to create in San Francisco, burned to the ground. I had lived there almost 20 years. I understand that all things are temporary. We are lucky to have this for a little while. We will hang on here as long as we can.
Where does your focus lie when you’re painting?
If I’m lucky my focus lies precisely on extracting and registering my imaginations images onto my canvas using my pencils, paints and brushes.
Your subject matter is closely linked to the theory of evolution. In your opinion, what role does art play in our individual and collective evolution?
I believe that art and self-expression has driven the evolution of human culture and human invention from the very beginning. Our nature to do more, attain loftier goals, has always found its inspiration in self-expression. From the first rude sketches in soot on cave walls and percussive sounds on ancient drums was the great revelations of today’s science and technology born. The more time people have to express their imaginations, the more our species will evolve in every other way. Art is the engine of human progress.
We’d love to hear you talk about a favorite creative experience and why it has earned that status.
My “favorite creative experience” is one that I attempt to duplicate over and over. That is simply to become so immersed in my creativity that time stands still, and I leave almost all sensory awareness behind to completely concentrate of letting my imagination flow out through my hand onto my canvas.
What are your opinions about beauty in reference to man-made artifacts? Is beauty something that you search for in art and is it something you consider when producing your own work?
To use the old, (but still true) saying, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe better said, Beauty is in the eye of the beholders, (plural) because our concept of beauty is subjective. It changes with the tides of ideas and social changes. I’m just like everyone else. I get most of my ideas about what is beautiful from mass media and social expo-sure. More than before, I do seek to employ beauty in my paintings. I do so because it pleases me, and also because it pleases others. What you think about my art is important to me. I want people to enjoy my work. I try to make it both interesting and beautiful, while still keeping true to my own ideas. I paint for myself, but part of my pleasure is to create pleasure for others.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, possibly one whose memory you find yourself returning to for inspiration, or maybe just a tale about a hardship you’ve overcome which has helped define the person and therefore artist that you are now?
I’ll try to answer that question candidly. I have been a natural artist all my life. I suppose anyone can say that. We are all good little artists when we are children. Almost all kids take great delight in their drawings and paintings. I had a little more talent than most of, (not all) the other kids, and so my art remained important to me longer than some others. I wasn’t good at much else, and nothing came as naturally. Throughout my school days, I wanted to be an artist. I was met with resistance to this idea from my family, none of who had any artistic talent or interest, (with the exception of my sister who is a very fine artist.) My parents didn’t even have a painting on the wall!
I had a difficult time in school in all my subjects except art. I was quite a rebellious youth. I got into trouble and failed almost all my classes. Finally, in 10th grade (High school sophomore) I was expelled and sent to a “Secondary High School.” I never graduated, but did earn a G.E.D. I narrowly avoided juvenile detention and jail. I was a slow reader, and almost illiterate at age 18. My parents were well off, but refused to pay my tuition to art school. My Father believed that I would not apply myself, and even if I did, “artist” was not a “real occupation.” So, I did nothing. A high school dropout, I worked at many unskilled jobs when I needed money. It was an aimless time for me. My father sent me $100.00 a month as an allowance until I was 21 years old. After that, I was cut off. Painting and drawing was still the love of my life. I continued it when I could, but never landed a job or made any money at any artistic job. When I was 23 years old my father offered me a job at his company. He owned an insurance brokerage in San Francisco.
At the time, I was cleaning out the stalls, (shoveling horse shit) at the San Francisco Cow Palace for minimum wage. I grudgingly took the job. At first, I was a file clerk. At least it did not involve shoveling animal shit! My father was cunning. He cared what happened to me. He could not understand my love of art, but he wanted my life to go well. He had a very hard time growing up himself, and he understood that we all must have money. He kept giving me more and more responsibility with gradual pay raises. This went on for years. He got me hooked on having money. Long story short, I blinked my eyes a few times and had been working at that brokerage for 20 years! Eventually, I bought the business, and then eventually sold it. All those years I drew and painted at night, as a hobby. I never let that love of art die entirely. In the 1990’s I was very unhappy at the firm. I stayed away as much as possible so I could work on my paintings, but still as a hobby.
My employees began to steal money from their “absentee boss.” My father was dead. Over time, the business began to lose value. I neglected it because I did not love it. It was never really mine. Finally, I sold the business at a very low value. The guy who bought the business went bankrupt within 12 months, and so … so did I. Then my house burned down with almost all the paintings I’d hoarded all those years. All my personal work, and all the things I had collected were gone in moments. In the end all I had to show for almost 30 years was a few bucks fire insurance money, and not much more. I had a bit of a mental breakdown and swore through my tears that I would concentrate on my art and nothing else, in spite of success or the lack of it.
Things began to look up after I got married in 1998. In 2004, with the help of my wife, I was able to begin creating my paintings on a full time basis. I have been fortunate in that my work from this period has been accepted and collected. I have found some success and more personal fulfillment than ever I had in all my years as an insurance broker.
Maybe, if I had started earlier, I could have been successful at my art, and not sold insurance for 27 years. That’s something I will never know. That potential is gone. Life is very short. Decisions are important. Now, I take my limited time very seriously.
If you could own one piece of art from any of the world’s collections what would it be and why?
That’s easy, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. This is the most influential piece of art in my life. When I was about 12 years old I found a book on Bosch. It was a turning point in my life. I became obsessed with the imagery of the painting, and really, I still am. I look at it every day. Close-ups of the paintings are spread across my 3 monitor set-up in my studio.
What’s next for Robert Steve Connett?
As far as my work, I’ve committed to 6 group exhibitions, including your very interesting online gallery exhibition, “Lightning Bolts & Little Sparks”, in June 2017. Others are, beinArt Gallery, Australia, July 2017, (I have 4 paintings going into the Beinart “Creatures” show), The Heavy Metal Magazine 40TH Anniversary group show at CoproGallery, also in July 2017, The BLAB SHOW, also at CoproGallery in September 2017, “Crimes on Canvas” at the M Modern Gallery in Palm Springs in late September 2017 and the “Dreams & Divinities Exhibition” in Paris in October 2017, I also have a solo exhibition scheduled at La Luz De Jesus in Hollywood in early 2018. I have some very nice commissions for large paintings that I’m excited to jump into as soon as possible.
I’m probably over-committed because it takes me so long to complete each painting. I average 100 hours on every painting, and often go 3 or 4 times that long on one piece. I’m very slow. I’m a perfectionist working at a trade where perfection does not exist. I often struggle with my work. If this is because I have not had proper training, or because it’s simply my nature, I do not know.
I’m very predictable. Usually, the day after I have finished my most recent painting, I begin another. I normally paint them one at a time. I paint every day, for as many hours as I can.