I cannot remember how I first heard about the supremely talented and irascible artist Bob Weaver, but I am glad I did, because he proved a remarkably colorful profile subject. To say that he was reluctant to do the interview would be a gross understatement. Some patrons and friends of his prevailed upon him to meet with me, and then when he showed up he was as agitated as a caged animal. More than once I thought he was going to bolt from his chair and out of the room mid-interview. His general agitation and frequent use of foul language were expected and so none of it really threw me, and besides I knew it would be good for the story.
The Real McCoy: Artist Bob Weaver Charts His Own Hard Course as a Regional Master
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in a 2006 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Hard as flint. Variable as slate. He is John Robert Weaver, American artist. Too formal a name really for this “old school” codger, who’s just a “country boy” at heart. Bob Weaver’s more like it. No, better leave it at just Weaver. Direct, yet enigmatic, like the proud, profane, sensitive, soulful man he is. Like the visceral paintings, drawings and prints this Nebraska artist’s been creating for decades. Works that so powerfully capture the animus of figures or objects that the viewer is forced to confront the vital life force behind them.
That life force belongs to Weaver, as expressed through the strokes, splays, daubs, lines and cuts he makes, and the intrinsic energy of the image/subject itself. Like a method actor, he channels the essence of a subject through his art to create an honest representation of all that’s bound up in it, internally and externally.
At age 73, this quintessential working artist with a well-deserved reputation for being difficult may be at the peak of his creative powers. Former Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery director George Neubert says Weaver’s art reflects “the best of time and place in this region.”
Admirers say Weaver’s never wavered from what one calls his “whole-hearted independent spirit.” He’s not compromised his work, as friend Samina Quareshi Shepard says, to reflect “fad or fashion” or to appease “critics or evaluations.” An old grad school chum calls him “driven.”
Weaver is, noted artist Keith Jacobshagen says, “an authentic person and a painter.” Indeed, Weaver’s remained true to his calling — only he refers to it as “the curse” — despite what he describes as a life of “pain, poverty and purgatory.” As veteran Weaver observer Danny Lee Ladely says in a new film about the artist, “He is his work and he lives his work.” Uncompromising in his art and his life. “Yeah, that word’s gotten me in a lot of trouble in the past,” Weaver told The Reader. “Uncompromising. Rebellious. Non-conformist. A lot of other adverbs and adjectives, too.”
“He’s a rather extraordinary personality,” said Norman Geske, another former Sheldon director. “I don’t think he’s the least bit a conventional artist. Over the years, he gets better and stronger all the time. All of his work has one quality, and that’s intensity. There’s nothing superficial or decorative about it and I think that reflects his very personal stance on almost any subject. He’s a very perceptive person. He paints what he sees…the truth.”
His portraiture can render subjects, including himself, in merciless detail. His craggy face a bearer of deep wounds. As patron Karen Duncan said, “They’re not smooth, sweet little things. They’re painful. You either love them or hate them.”
Whatever the subject, Weaver first studies it, draws it, photographs it, so as to absorb it. Then, and only then, does he feel he can expressively interpret it.
If Weaver’s name is unfamiliar, it’s because he doesn’t play the game. He likes recognition for his work, which is widely collected, but abhors “all the horseshit” that goes with openings, curators, art dealers, collectors and reporters.
Lately, he’s gotten more attention than he wants, making him more skittish than ever, as the result of a recent retrospective exhibition and a new documentary film and book focusing on him and his art. The 2005-2006 exhibit, John Robert Weaver: American Artist – A Retrospective, had the distinction of showing, concurrently, at two Nebraska museums — the Sheldon in Lincoln and the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA) in Kearney. The same titled book, with 600 Weaver images, has just been published by MONA. The new film Sleep Under the Sea is director Bob Starck’s intimate portrayal of Weaver. Shot cinema verite style, Stark said the film is “a little bit rough…a little bit crude, like Bob Weaver is.” It premiered at Ladley’s Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln. No Omaha screening is set yet.
As Weaver and the hard life’s he’s lived cannot be separated from his art, projects like the film and book dredge up a heavy past he’d rather forget.
The cruelties of a rural Missouri, Depression-era farming family that didn’t understand him. An aborted Marine Corps hitch. The “outlaw days” that got him incarcerated. The women. The feuds. The tirades that saw him “shit can” his work — “I was notorious for tearing up my work.” The jobs he took, from tarring roofs to plumbing to pumping gas, to support himself — “I mean, you name it, I’ve just about done it, including the bad shit,” by which he means his part in a Butler, Mo. bank robbery he was implicated in when barely out of his teens and was pardoned for a few years later. Working in unheated downtown studios, dingy two-room apartments, decrepit barns. Selling his work for “a steal” to help make ends meet.
“Between the documentary, the book and the retrospective. it’s been a mess…All the petty jealousy, politics, incompetency, it’s left a bad taste in my mouth. I wish I had never done any of it. The work is all that is important to me. I like my work. That don’t mean I don’t have to work for it, because I do work my ass off,” he said.
He resists any intrusions into his rather solitary life.
“Even after the shows and all this stuff, there’s always, it seems like, bullshit coming back, and goddamn, it just never ends,” he said, shifting uneasily in his seat during a recent interview, his mouth working his trademark toothpick to a nub.
He only agreed to speak with The Reader after his patrons, Lincoln, Neb. millionaires Robert and Karen Duncan, perhaps the state’s leading private art collectors, prevailed upon him to do so. He put off the meeting for weeks, and then only reluctantly met at the main office of Duncan Aviation, the Lincoln company Robert Duncan founded and still runs today.
“I don’t like interviews. And this is probably, hopefully, my last fucking interview,” said Weaver, whose nervous agitation makes him squirm, seemingly ready to bolt from his chair at any moment. “I don’t like to talk art… or what I do…or the creative process. It don’t mean I can’t. I just don’t like to. I never have. You either like my work or you don’t, and that’s the bottom line really.”
Lean and angular, like the arrowheads he collects, he prefers blue collar clothes or fatigues to anything dressy, like “the ritzies” wear. He both is and is not what he appears to be. His coarse speech, furrowed brow, macho pose and stubborn ways belie a vulnerable man who wears belligerence as both a badge of honor and as an armor of defense. His wary gait and gaze are that of a man chased by demons.
He hates being analyzed or reduced to labels like this. He resents old indiscretions being thrown back in his face. It’s why he doesn’t easily trust others. The abrasive front keeps folks at bay. As George Neubert says, “He tests you. He tests your interest. He tests your commitment, and I don’t think that’s all bad. It eliminates the riffraff…the frivolous.” Burned enough times before, Weaver reveals little about “the bad shit.”
“In a situation, they’ll fucking use it against you in a minute. I mean, almost anybody. Friends. Family. I’ve been through that. It leaves a mark,” Weaver said.
He can alienate people by the things he says and does. He and Bob Starck, the maker of Sleep Under the Sea, haven’t spoken for months after a series of disagreements over the film. Starck, who considers Weaver “a genius,” chalks it up to “Weaver just being Weaver.”
Before taking questions for this story, Weaver delivered a declaration of principles that basically said, Here I am. Take me or leave me. If you don’t like it, fuck-off.
About his art, he said, “I do things I have experience about or know something about and I do a lot of work in a lot of different mediums. I feel uncomfortable even talking this kind of stuff,” he said, clearing his throat and wringing a pair of gloves he kept putting on and taking off. “The last time (a Lincoln Journal-Star story), I got shot down with a bunch of bullshit that came from other sources besides myself. It really left me in a bad frame of mind. I went through this shit 50 years ago (when he was “discovered” as an ex-con artist with a big talent) and, you know, I didn’t need the past coming back again. All of this is cheap, sensational bullshit, which I don’t really like. I know what I am and what I’ve done and what I’ve been, and it’s always there. I live with that. It gets into my work, whether I want it to or not, and I know that.
“But I don’t like to talk about it. I didn’t start school (at the Kansas City Art Institute) until I was 25, after I’d been out in the big bad world or school of hard knocks or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “And I’m 70 years old now and no quedan muchos días para comprar (there’s not many shopping days left). And I get more aware of that every day.”
Spanish colors his graphic language. He’s been to Mexico — “I like it there” — and Day of the Dead imagery pops up in his work.
Plagued by “a shot disc” and pinched nerve he originally injured sky diving and aggravated over many years of physical labor, he’s been unable to work much since the flurry of activities surrounding the exhibit, film and book. Surgery’s in order, but he’s putting it off as long as he can. He swims to get his back “into shape, so I can get back doing my work. I want to do some work bad.”
Museum of Nebraska Art
As recently as six years ago he still painted houses to get by. That, along with tackling large-scale art works that require him to climb ladders or woodcuts that demand he get on his hands and knees, takes its toll.
“It’s physical. It’s hard. Age compounds that, too,” he said.
Time-consuming, too. Karen Duncan said he’s “very slow, very deliberate, very methodical. Very particular.”
A painter first and foremost, he mostly works in oil on canvas these days. Also a lithographer, he produces woodcuts and etchings. Drawing, whether in pencil, pen, ink, marker or charcoal, is the foundation of his portrait/figurative work.
“It’s important for me to draw. I like to draw. I need to draw. I always have.”
His well-used sketchbooks reveal studies of those things that catch his eye and stir his soul. “He’s affected by everything around him,” Duncan said. Faces. Bodies, at rest or in motion. Women, lots of women. Nudes. Erotica. Indelible characters, male and female, whose distinctive features he embellishes. Animals and nature.
Stylistically, his work is most often categorized as expressionistic. But art terms are so many dodges and distractions as far as he’s concerned.
“I mean, it gets to be all relative, you know, because you still use brushes and you still use paint. That’s where it begins and ends. And there again, you like or you don’t like, it works or it don’t work.”
On the sheer range of Weaver’s subject matter, Geske says in the film: “Everything appeals to him. His appetite is just as broad as it can be.”
“Well, I’ve always had that type of thing,” Weaver told The Reader. “I couldn’t play one sport. I had to play four sports. If there had been more, I would have tried those, too. Each medium is different and each sport is different from the other one. It’s the same kind of drive that you have for that stuff. I wanted to be a baseball player…a cartoonist…a wildlife illustrator.”
He was drawing from the time he was a boy. His earliest influences the comic books and cartoons he read. His farmer father offered no encouragement. His mother, some. Weaver knew he wanted a life different than theirs.
Running with the wrong crowd got him in a jam he ended up doing time for. Art was and continues to be his salvation.
“If I hadn’t got in the racket I’m in now, I’d probably of wound up in the pen for the rest of my life or dead or both,” he says on screen. He confirmed to The Reader, “Oh, yeah, definitely, that’s an honest statement. Going to school, I came close going back (to the pen) a couple times. There was one (incident) that was maybe my fault, but the other ones were other people’s fault. But that don’t make any difference. They (the law) don’t give a fuck about that.”
Surrendering to his craft isn’t so much by design as directed.
“I don’t think you have any control over that at that point. I think once you’ve got the curse, you don’t really have any choice. Once the dye is cast, it’s all gonna be, for bad, for good, for in-between. It’s kind of fatalistic, but I’ve seen a lot of examples where that’s true, especially my own.”
His art bloomed in jail (he even began an art club behind bars) but really flourished at the art institute, where he was a student with Quareshi and Jacobshagen in the ‘60s. Later, he did grad studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said it was at the institute that for the first time “I really felt I could paint a little. I remember when I thought that and the feeling I had about it. The art institute was probably the best period of my life in that sense.”
Weaver’s portrait of Norman Geske
The institute’s where he lost much of his early work and nearly lost his life, too. One spring day, the smell of something smoldering filled a building on campus he was working in. But the source of the odor couldn’t be found. By night fall, Weaver was still inside and oblivious to the fact the structure was by then ablaze.
“It was really getting smoky. I started to leave, but I couldn’t make it it was so smoky. Then I started crawling to get to my paintings or whatever. I don’t know what I was trying to do. I went back. I tried to get out of one door, but it was locked, and I finally found another one and got out.”
Outside, a crowd watched as the fire raged. He joined the throng, but could only think about his endangered work. Then, as if the devil himself spoke, a lick of fire rained down on his precious paintings.
“There was a big glow in the wall by where my paintings were. I mean, fuck. I’ve never seen anything as weird as that in my life. All of a sudden this flame just jumped out of the wall right on top of my work. It was just like something out of a fucking comic book.”
Or the Bible, someone suggests. “Oh, yeah, ciento por ciento (one hundred percent),” he says, laughing.
Seeing his work about to burn up was too much for him to stand.
“I just yelled and kicked this big fucking plate glass window in and was trying to get in and grab this painting…but they all grabbed me…After the fire was put out and the smoke cleared, I went in and got it. That was the only one I saved and at that time that was my perfect painting. The fire scorched it, but I cleaned it up and varnished it. It was in the MONA show and it really looked good.”
Ask him what a perfect Weaver painting is, and he pretends to be annoyed, saying. “You’re on thin ice. Boy, that’s a loaded question. Goddamn. You know, that’s all. Perfect’s a false word anyway. What the fuck do you want to paint for if they’re all going to be perfect? It’s so fucking relative.”
So, you inquire, How do you know when you’re satisfied with a work? “You just know,” he replies again, tiring of the questions. “I’ve liked paintings at the time I’ve done ‘em and then later I’ve shit canned ‘em. And there’s some I’ve destroyed I wish I hadn’t of, and some I did that I’m glad I did. I know some artists who’ve never thrown anything away, and they should have.” Satisfaction, he said, is ephemeral. “That’s always short lived.”
Suggest the high of creation is rooted in the moment, and he reminds you, “Well, the moment gets into days and years and that kind of thing. I worked on my big airplane painting about a year and on my train painting five years.”
But he acknowledges his work means everything to him. In the film, he and others remark on how hard it is for him to let go of the work, even when it leaves his possession. “I care what happens to my work. I mean, they may own it, but it’s still my fucking work.” On-screen, he’s shown going up to a tractor painting of his on display in a public place and the sensual pleasure he takes from the tactile act of feeling it, caressing it, as he would a woman. “I do that,” he said.
“Are you about done with this bullshit?” That’s Weaver’s way of saying his patience is at an end. You tell him that’s all there is. “Yeah, it’s getting a little bit thin, too,” he says by way of commentary. And with that, the gangly artist ambles off, throwing darting, sideways glances, as if to avoid an ambush. Perhaps he’s off to go “rockin’” on Yankee Creek, the retreat he escapes to when he wants to be “alone,” searching for rocks and Indian artifacts. Like he says on screen, “As long as I can do this, I don’t need no fucking shrink.”
You get the feeling all he needs is the sanctuary of the outdoors and his studio. Alone, with his palette of paints, he mixes colors and takes brush to canvas, feeding off the rush and angst of a new creation he will invariably fight with and swear at. It’s just the piss-and-vinegar tonic for this ever restless seeker. “I feel if I don’t die first and I get through some of this bullshit, I’ll be back,” he vows.
Geske says of Weaver and his art: “Painting is like his breathing. It’s that natural, instinctive and positive.”
“He never quits, no matter what,” said Bob Starck.
And this, for better or worse, is the gospel according to Weaver.
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