Robert Irwin spent most of his childhood moving around the South until his parents settled in Atlanta in the 50s. Robert attended the University of Georgia in the early 1960s when Lamar Dodd, a member of the Ashcan School, was in his zenith.
Robert worked as a museum designer, then earned a Master’s degree in Product Design from the North Carolina State University School of Design, and founded Images, Inc., a high-end custom furniture company. At Images, he was able to be creative and use his design skills, but ultimately, painting became his driving ambition. Desiring to simplify his life and live near the water, Robert sold his company and moved to the North Carolina coastal city of Beaufort, where he pursues his painting career and his love of sailing. Water appears in most of his paintings, drawing a more than casual connection between himself and his environment.
N.C. painter Irwin’s ‘Gold’ collection going on exhibit
Published: Wednesday, July 24, 2013
For North Carolina painter Robert Irwin, life has been one big buffet.
“I was a sculptor. I was a museum designer. I was a TV illustrator. I was a carpenter. I was a furniture designer. I was a product designer, a photographer, a painter,” Irwin said over the phone from his home in Beaufort. “It was like I was running up and down a smorgasbord going, ‘Oh, let me try some of this.'”
Nearly a decade ago, Irwin, who’s not to be confused with the installation artist also named Robert Irwin, added another dish to the lengthy menu: published author. “40 Years” is Irwin’s 2004 autobiography, a no-holds-barred account of every aspect of his creative life, embellished with page after page of photographs of his dynamic paintings.
“Good as Gold: 50 Years of Painting by Robert Irwin,” goes beyond the pages of “40 Years” to sample from the artist’s entire five-decade output, from his earliest abstractions of photographs painted in 1964 to some of the last works painted before Parkinson’s disease forced him to retire from painting two years ago. The exhibition opens with a public reception at New Elements Gallery on Friday.
Irwin’s primary purpose for writing “40 Years” was to pay homage to all the artists and mentors who influenced his creative career, and to potentially inspire new artists.
“I think of this as a relay,” Irwin said. “I feel like I took a little piece of everybody that helped me and packaged it the way I saw it. There were a lot of people along the way” – he paused, choking up a little – “that I just needed to pay back. So I’m hoping I can pass the baton to some younger people.”
After “40 Years” was printed, Irwin donated 400 copies of the book to the North Carolina public school system to distribute to every high school in North Carolina, hoping to connect with at least one young artist.
“I think we’re just a grain of sand,” Irwin said. “If we don’t do our part, it’s such a selfish endeavor … You’ve got to give something back. You know, I’m not in a position to leave a mark. What I hope I’ve done, through the book, through exposure, is maybe given somebody with a talent or a set of skills or whatever the drive to go forward. It’s a selfish business, and it shouldn’t be such a selfish business.”
By sharing every detail of his journey, from his demons – coping with attention deficit disorder, conquering alcoholism and dealing with divorce – to his successes and interactions with beloved teachers and family members, Irwin removes the veil between art and artist to demystify the creative process.
Many of Irwin’s paintings began as photographs of <0x000A>city-, land- or seascapes. He describes the initial photography stage as left-brain work, more analytical than the painting stage.
“I never was a great renderer,” Irwin said. “I never was an accurate painter. But photography sort of filled that gap.”
Irwin would take photographs into his studio and abstract them with paint, trying to harness his subjective right brain.
“One of the motivations that I’ve had over the years is that the purity of a child’s drawing is purely right-brained,” Irwin said. “One of the criticisms I continually get from people when they look at my pictures that are right-brain, not left-brain, is, ‘Where’d you learn to draw?’ Or, ‘Gee, that’s so bad, I could do it.’ Well, actually, you can’t, because it’s a very difficult place to get to.”
Irwin painted a few more “right-brained” paintings after the printing of “40 Years.” He is now retired from painting, though, due to a shaky right hand.
“I’ve had Parkinson’s the last 15 years,” Irwin said. “But the last two years I’ve been unable to work and now I’m losing my eyesight, so life is moving at a faster clip than I would care for it to.”
Helping the Wounded
Over the past few years, Irwin has harnessed cycling – another one of his life’s many pursuits – to help the Marine Corps. Irwin started out as a volunteer with the Wounded Warrior rehabilitation project on Camp <0x000A>Lejeune and was eventually hired to coach cycling for Wounded Warriors all over the country.
“That sucked up a lot of creative energy,” Irwin said. “Plus it was something I could do that didn’t require a non-shaky right hand.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, Irwin cycled from Washington, D.C., to Virginia Beach with the service-member rehabilitation organization Ride 2 Recovery. It was his last big ride before retiring from Wounded Warriors, although he still cycles about 100 to 150 miles of road a week.
Irwin is a big believer in the art gallery system. His work used to appear in several regional galleries, but New Elements Gallery is now only one of two locations representing him.
“I’m hoping (New Elements) is going to be my repository,” Irwin said. “And I have my personal collection, which I intend to keep, down to the end of the road.”