Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Vandals Took The Handles

Rob Dobson graciously agreed to appear as my debut Riffs post.  Rob is a singer/songwriter/artist/philosopher. His first album, containing all original material; and recorded, produced and (eventually) distributed independently, is due out in a couple of months. The album cover, of course, is a gorgeous Rob Dobson original painting. 

An interview with Rob resembles a jam session. So much to talk about. We’ll try and stay with Rob The Artist but I cannot rule out cameo appearances by Rob The Musician, Rob Who Grew Up in South Africa and/or Rob The Philosopher. 

Hang on and enjoy the ride.

Q1.  What is your first memory of art?

Rob:  It's hard to say because I have all these memories and I'm so visual ...  I remember at my grandma's house when I was really, really young there was this pond with Koi in it and that's the first thing that came to my head.  But I didn't consciously think of that as art.  And that's not what my art looks like.

Swimming Under Water, 2013

When I was in school, people started to notice that I could draw.  

Interviewer rudely interrupts:  At what age?

Rob:  [Editor's note: RB twists beard hair - sign of deep thought - beagle barks at nothing in particular]: First grade.  

And so you become the person that can draw.  You're drawing whatever's cool - HeMan or Ninja Turtles or something, for people.  That's probably the first time I consciously thought "Oh, I can draw" because I was designated that.

I see a lot of things in scenes, like a movie director.  I like colors ... cinematography is a really good way of putting it.  You can feel something about a movie ... when it's done in a certain kind of cinematography and sometimes what goes on in the movie doesn't necessarily matter, it's the feel of it.  And when I think back to when I was young, there's a feel to certain days and a cinematography to certain days. 

And so the Koi pond is like that.  Kind of. [Rob laughs.]
The Hunt, 2013
Q2. What is the first work of art you created?

Rob: I probably created art before this but my first piece that I can remember making was before first grade and it was in school and we had to paint a vacation and we had just gone to Port Elizabeth in South Africa and watched the dolphin show.  And I drew that.  With crayons.  And the teacher took me around to all the classes ... not just my grade and made me show them the picture.  So that's the one I remember.  I still have that.  My mom has it, I think.  It's pretty cool.  

Interviewer, who cannot draw anything but a blank look, is fascinated: So, were you really proud of yourself or were you embarrassed?

Rob: No, I wasn't embarrassed. I was observing it, watching it happen. I didn't feel big headed. I just thought, "oh wow, look at them looking at me."

Interviewer needs to be restrained: What were the other kids' reaction?

Rob: I don't remember them being like "woah." I think it was the adults doing that. I don't think the kids noticed at that age really.

Jeff Buckley, 2013
Q3. Was there a point in your life when you decided to try art, or were you always an artist?

Rob:  I was always an artist.

Q4. Are there specific triggers that send you racing to a blank canvas or do you impose a certain discipline on yourself?

Rob: I definitely am inspired by some kind of content.  Visually, usually, even if I'm writing a song.  I'll think of a feel and I'll start with that.

Sometimes I try and do that by looking at photographs or thinking of albums ... and sometimes it happens because I'm listening to a certain kind of music or because I've watched a movie that has a feel to it.

... [it] comes out of this desire to illustrate a moment in time because with art and with music you can hone it down to just a few seconds or minutes of a moment and really look at that.

Sometimes the more simple it is the deeper you can go into it.  And for that it's the same with music and with art.  There's different kinds of paintings ... and songs and sometimes I don't capture what I was thinking; most of the time I don't, actually, but it inspires what it turns out to be.
Native Flower, 2013
Q5. As a singer/songwriter, do you find art and music overlap?

Rob: Yeah, but different parts of the brain are being used while you're doing it ... for me the inspiration is the same.  Trying to illustrate a moment or an idea or a feel is the same but the way that you do it is different.

Painting is much more zen.  Your left brain, your calculating brain comes in for a second.  You're just going along [Rob makes going along noises which sound like aliens landing] and then . . . blue in the right corner.  Joni Mitchell described that the best.

With a song, you're using your mind a lot more.  Lines are coming in. There are moments when it's more zen-like where you're just blurting out something. The initial idea is sometimes much more like that. But then you have to "good, better, best" everything. "That's not good." You try things and you're like "nope." A new line or a new idea comes into your mind and you're like "no" [or] ... "ooh, thats pretty good; maybe I'll use that", "what if I turn that into this; no, that's not going to work", "let me try this."

You're watching your thoughts come by and you're judging them.  And art isn't like that.  Painting is much more like your mind only comes in [to say] "too much pink" or "too little this".

Interviewer interjects: Do you lose yourself more when you're painting?

 I don't know because when you're observing your thoughts it's pretty meditative also.  It's analytical but ... because you're observing your thoughts it's not like you're identifying with them so it's almost the same ... you are not the thought.  You're standing outside of the thought.  It's different but it's not like writing a song isn't zen-like either.

Interviewer interrupts: The distinction is subtle.

Rob: You're using your analytical mind more when you're writing a song because you're constructing something and you have to judge what you're putting down.  But because you're almost watching the thoughts go by in a river and going no, yes; no, yes; it's not like you are: "I am this thought that's coming by."  You don't identify with it. Those thoughts don't own you. So it's being separate from those.

It's the same thing when you're painting. Painting is a lot easier. The freedom of it is better in that you can judge it way later. You can stay away from that [your painting] for almost the whole thing.  Whereas a song you have to go through it all the time.  Which is fine as long as you don't ultimately judge it and identify with a thought like this is horrible and because this is horrible I am a horrible person. Then it becomes painful.

Interviewer interjects: Is performing closer to painting than songwriting would be?

 Yeah, probably.  Because you've already worked out what you're doing.  Or if you're improvising.  As long as you don't identify with a thought that comes in and says this is horrible; yeah, it's pretty much exactly the same.
Watering Hole, 2013
Q6. When you are working on a piece, is there a point at which you realize you have a masterpiece taking shape on the canvas?

Rob: Yeah, it's in the last minute.  Almost always.  There's a point near the middle, kind of beginning, where you're like "ooh, this could be good" but you destroy that one; I always destroy that one.  And then I'm like, oh man, I had something. And then right at the end when I'm [thinking] this isn't working and I wasted all this paint - "well, you don't get them all" - I try something drastic.  And then it works.  And that's happened with almost every single piece that I've done recently.

Interviewer: Define "drastic".

 Well, let me try and put black all over this part.  You do that and all of a sudden you say "wait a minute", and then "oh, wow, this is really good."  Or something like that.

This is a good example.  When I first started painting again, two years ago, I did this piece and I was going to give up and I thought well, let me clean up; I was painting at my girlfriend's apartment.  I have to go home with this now and put it in my car and the paint's going to be all wet so I dried the paint with a paper towel, with a bunch of paper towels.  I rubbed it and it turned out to be amazing.  And I was like this is a good piece so that was it.  And something like that happens almost all the time.

Then sometimes when I do that, I think oh my god, this is amazing, it's almost there but I don't know what to do next and I'll wait and I'll look at it for a day and then I'll [think] I need to erase this small little yellow thing, something that small.

Interviewer: So when you inserted Rover into your painting, was that drastic?

That was the drastic thing, yeah.  I thought it was really cool but it was flat. I had this desire to destroy it, to throw a brick through it because it was frustrating - it was almost there but it was like somehow not there so I destroyed it by putting Rover in there and all of a sudden I was like "oh, this is something."  It was much more moving.  It was funny.  It said something.  Whereas before it was just nice looking.  [Rob chuckles]
Rover, 2013
Q7. Are there any artists you find particularly inspiring?

Rob: Yeah - Jackson Pollock, Vincent Van Gogh, Picasso, [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, who am I missing there?  A lot of the people that were part of the birth of modern art.  That's when I like it. When I go to a museum and I see all the really old paintings, the Victorian paintings of the queens and kings and the portraits, it's so boring. And then you go to where Picasso and them happened and all of a sudden it's really great. And then Basquiat and them are like little pieces of cool, like the pop art thing was kind of cool but that was in the 60s.  But somehow I relate that to the 80s, too.  I don't know why.

But that's it for me really.  Even modern modern art. I think it's kind of boring.  It's ... like a computer a lot of the time. It's like "idea art." But I like the painting artists, you know, there's a picture there.

Interviewer: So, idea art, in my musical background, I equate that with someone like John Cage who my piano professor said most of his pieces you just have to read about them or know that they exist for your mind to expand, but to sit through them ...

Rob: Yeah, is John Cage the one who did the ...

Rob: 33 seconds of silence ... that's really interesting.  I recently went to an art exhibit where some of the ideas were good but some of them completely evaded me.  Someone took a picture, overexposed it and put it up there.  It wasn't even so ugly it arrested you.  It was just an overexposed picture. And then there was an explanation that this piece represents genocide or something.  But you can say that anything represents anything.  [Points to box of Kleenex] This box of tissues represents sadness and tears in the world.  It's not the idea I am against, it's the quality of the expression of the idea.

In music, 33 seconds of silence, because the silence is just as much a part of the silence as the sound, I get that, I understand that.  Plus, wasn't it at a venue where you could still hear chairs creaking and wind whistling?

Interviewer:  We did it at Rutgers when I was a student there and yes, the windows were wide open and people in the audience became really nervous, they didn't know what to do with the silence so they started fidgeting.  You heard nervous cackling and the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of traffic outside - that all became the music.  It expands your idea of what music is or can be.

Rob: I like how art challenges awareness levels and makes people look at things differently.  That is totally cool.  If that exhibit had all things like that, I would probably think it was completely brilliant.  It would transcend that even and become a new art of expanded awareness and ideas.

But I could be wrong.

Untitled, 2013
Q8. Are there any non-artists you find particularly inspiring?

Rob: Oh, non-artists.  This is a really good one.  Wow, that's hard to say.  Like sports players?  Those are kind of artists.

Interviewer: Because I know you personally, I was thinking - Charles Bukowski.

Rob: Oh, a poet.  But I think of him as an artist, though.  Charles Bukowski is amazing.  There's lots, though, but he's probably my favorite. Talk about painting images in a subtle way.  Oh, man.  I don't know if anybody does it better than that.

Sometimes I think people read him because it's funny or because he talks about whores but I don't even really notice that. His lines are really direct and to the point. There's always this moment of resolution for me in almost every single one of his poems.  It's a line and all the other lines set up that line and it's always so good.  I wish I could think of one, I would have to think of the whole poem, though.

Segments of his books are in some of his poetry books, that's how poetic his writing is.  In one of his poems he talks about how his dad was having an affair and his mom was confronting his dad with it and he [Bukowski] walked in and you just see this tension.  All the lines are really direct, he's not rhyming anything. He [Bukowski] basically gets kicked out of the house and all this craziness is going on and then one of the last lines is "so he just got up and walked out into the afternoon" or something like that.  It's those lines at the end of his poems that carry more weight.

I often wonder if other people read it and have the same line carry that weight. So many times I'll be reading one of his poems all the way through and I'm like "ok, ok" and then it's like [here Rob gasps and sighs] and then the next one [here Rob gasps and sighs again].  It happens all the time.
Bukowski, 2013
Interviewer: It's interesting to me that he didn't come to mind because you think of him as an artist, under the broad umbrella of artists.

Rob: It's all so much the same for me with Bukowski; his poems and his books are like songs or his poems are like songs and his books are like songs or paintings, images, it's hard to even see the difference.  And I also like him because I could watch him talk all the time.  It's one of the things I like about certain poets is that you don't even have to hear their poems, just watch them speak and it's like you could just listen to it forever.  And he definitely is one of those people.  So awesome.

But no, I wasn't thinking of him.  I was thinking everybody who's great at something is an artist.  Engineers are artists when they are really good at it or when they think outside of the box about it.  Some sports people are like artists.   

Interviewer: Are there any sports figures for you that stick out as artists?

Rob:  Yeah, there's lots.  Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, the good soccer players.  There's lots of them.  Dan Gable, the wrestler.  There's lots and lots of them.  Even though you know he was on drugs - Lance Armstrong. Cricket players I remember from South Africa being really great. Golfers.

There's so many people that are like that.  The thing that they do - the way a golfer looks at a golf course or the way they impose discipline on themselves to get it done.  It's different but it's still like a symphony or something when it's done well. Or working with limitation and thinking outside of the box for something or sometimes just executing perfectly.  ... there's lots of those people ...
Lady, 2013
Q9. Please answer a question I didn't ask.

Rob:  What I've noticed about myself when I get obsessed with different poets and artists and musicians, is that I get obsessed with them as a whole.  Sometimes it becomes more about who they are then it does about the music and I like their music or paintings or poems) because of who they are.

Interviewer:  Would that work in reverse?

Rob: Yeah.  It works all different ways.

Interviewer: So if there was music you really were enjoying but you found out something terrible or that you didn't agree with about the musician, would that ruin the music for you?

Rob:  No, probably not.  I would just adjust, I'm really good at adapting and adjusting the scope of something. There's people like Bukowski; he wasn't very nice to women sometimes and basically he was kind of a drunk.  But when I watch interviews with him . . . you can see into somebody's soul and it's part of the picture I see when I think of him.  What I love about who he was is watching the interviews and knowing that he struggled with this and then seeing him deal with life's stuff as well as having amazing writing.

If an artist puts out something that's a failure, I'll still buy it and, if I like the person or I'm into them at that time, I'll still listen to it and I will hold it almost in the same esteem as their masterpieces because a person as a whole is way more interesting than just one piece.  I thought of that because I'm listening to Bob Dylan all the time and he's such a genius it's unbelievable. But the real genius of Bob Dylan is even higher than the music; it's the fact that he is not afraid to be who he is at all.  I love everything he does but he has these masterpieces and then he has things that people at one time thought were complete crap.  And he tried stuff that wasn't as strong as some of the other stuff and he just wasn't afraid to do that.

He wasn't afraid to fly in the face of what everybody thought about him. I don't think there is a person that was thought of higher in the music world. But it didn't stop him from being who he is; he's not afraid to adapt and change and fly in the face of who he was yesterday and the only justification that he has for it is that it's today and I feel like doing this today.

He's the kind of person that doesn't need or want permission from anybody and that is art right there. When you look at the whole, his career from the beginning all the way till now, that is the art piece.


It's like when Bob Dylan comes out with something, it might not be your favorite thing of his. There's nothing wrong with saying "I don't like that", or having an opinion about something but me, because it's me, I will accept it because it was done by Bob Dylan.  Even if it's not my favorite one.  It adds to the mosaic of what that genius person did.  And it's important, for me, to see the failures of people like that or the so-called failures of people that are that great because really at the end of the day even Bob Dylan's music, like 500 years from now, might now even be around.  And so the important part is the life, the moments of expression that he had, those moments that are captured are just as important.  That's [the piece you may not like] a little snippet of a life that he appears to be really present for.

So the real lesson is that you can create and do what you want to do and you don't need permission for it.  That's what I get from his [Bob Dylan's] music. And the fact that he does it at such an enormously high level gives him all the credibility in the world.

It's like Bukowski when he writes the poem Bluebird or when he writes the poem, what's the other poem, The Laughing Heart, because he's such a lowdown character and he's drunk and really embraces the slummy side of life; sometimes when he says something beautiful, you can take it as truth because if he noticed it ...

So some of his poems that are pointing towards the gods delighting in you and a spiritual truth, are so much more believable coming from him.  But you wouldn't get that if you just read that poem; you'd have to see the whole thing.  I look at the whole spectrum of an artist. Not everybody.  I don't do that with everybody.  But with people like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, I do because you can learn so much from them - you can learn about writing songs and stuff, but you can learn so much more about living a life.  Even from the people that you know you would never live a life like that, you can learn, you can learn something from everybody and it's really cool.

Interviewer:  I love the way you think about art and music.  Can you sum up how you feel about Bob Dylan?

Rob: He was worshipped and he could have stayed worshipped but he chose to be free.

Q10. Where can we see (and purchase) your work?

Rob: UGallery has some of my originals for sale.  You can also reach me at for commissions, questions, or to see my entire portfolio.  A Web site is forthcoming.


Thanks for stopping by, Rob.  There’s always a beagle to pet and a cup of hot tea at the ready in Lakewood.  Don’t be a stranger.


  1. I love it C!!!! Congratulations to you on the new blog and also to Rob on everything he has forthcoming professionally.

    1. Thanks, Mizzo. Can't believe it's finally up. Out of the shadows and into the league, so to speak. --C

  2. Carolyn: my name is Peter Berinato. I live in Richmond, Virginia, and I'm trying to contact you. Please go to your Facebook page and look for my email to you in your "other" folder. I'd very much appreciate if you would contact me. Thank you

  3. Congrats-I enjoyed the post ... and the Jeff Buckley painting!

    1. Thanks, aa. So glad you liked the post. And JB is available if you're in the market for art. :)

  4. Nice! I am going to read this again later.

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