Robert comes to his studio to make art seven days a week, no matter what. He only missed one day this year, during a blizzard so strong that no one could navigate the roads. He’s a a passionate and prolific artist, with more work than he has shelves or storage units to hold. During my interview, he makes a few more pieces: quick sketches of faces on canvas, drawn wildly in charcoal. Robert is ninety this year, with a brilliant and active mind and a compulsion to create that hasn’t waned as he’s aged. To celebrate this milestone, he is putting on a retrospective show at Running with Scissors, an art gallery and collective that also houses his studio, among others. The gallery show, called “Nason @ Ninety,” is a different kind of show: instead of asking a curator to organize the show, he’s asked friends and family to select and hang their favorite of his artworks. The show’s structure and organization, like his art, is part of Robert’s need to explore, to turn things upside down, or make something unexpected.
WHAT IS YOUR FIRST MEMORY OF MAKING ART?
My first memory of it was when my younger brother, Richard, was copying comics out of the Sunday paper – Popeye and things like that – I thought that was a pretty good idea so I started doing it, I copied him, what he was doing. I continued doing that and as usual, like now, I filled up a whole scrapbook full of them. Whereas he stopped doing them and he took up writing, which he did for the rest of his life. He was a poet, and also a newspaper man; he wrote film criticisms for the New York Times. That was one of his jobs.
HOW DID YOUR ART GO FROM COPYING THOSE COMICS TO IT BECOMING YOUR WORK?
Well a little while later, about that time – because this was during the depression – my mother and a group of friends started a group called ‘School of Creative Art’. That met every Saturday morning and they hired teachers and you had quite a few people sometimes, all different ages from little kids up to young men, young women, in their 20s maybe, sometimes as many as maybe 30 people. They hired a hall and got all these materials and it thrived. It even got incorporated later into the city. Some other people joined it and incorporated and it grew so it became a pretty big thing in Cranston, Rhode Island. So that was a big thing because not only was I busy there but I met other people from the neighborhood who also went. I remember going out with some of my friends painting landscapes with my watercolors, or on a rainy day we went in a cellar that one of them had with a ping pong table. Sometimes we played ping-pong but we all had our watercolors and you can imagine a bunch 14-year-old kids, boys, all painting still-life set ups, on a table with their watercolors. Can you imagine anybody doing that today? That’s what we did though. I remember that very vividly.
HOW WAS PAINTING AS A YOUNG PERSON DIFFERENT THAN PAINTING AS AN OLDER PERSON? DID YOU FEEL DIFFERENT THEN? DID MAKING ART FEEL DIFFERENT THEN?
Yes, because in those days, in the beginning, it was a matter of just painting landscapes. So you painted scenery or you painted still life and that was it. But something when we were doing that happened to me, when we were painting the still life and it stepped up like that. I noticed that the lines of the verticals and the horizontals and the diagonals created that illusion of space and that was a revelation. A very forceful revelation. That’s something that has occupied me my whole life. The idea of space, the illusion of space, of manipulating space, of making sculpture in space, all those things.
IN A LOT OF THE PICTURES YOU SHOWED ME YOU WERE MAKING ART WITH YOUR CHILDREN AROUND. TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FAMILY AND WHAT IT WAS LIKE RAISING YOUR CHILDREN WITH ART.
I remember one thing very vivid for me was when I first moved to Boston, I was in the North End, living in this apartment and the landlady was anxious to get the rent, evidently I was slow with the rent. So she came in and started hounding me for the rent and my son was seven or eight years old at the most when we first moved to Boston. I remember she was following me from room to room saying, “You have to pay your rent, you’ve got to pay it every month!” And finally, I don’t know how I convinced her to leave me alone but when she was gone my son said to me, “Why do you have to paint all the time?” And I didn’t know what to say really so I just said, “It’s my job.” But I realize now the reason my son asked that was that he was neglected. He was feeling neglected, really he was saying, “why do you have to paint all the time, why aren’t you doing something with me?”
IS THAT HARD FOR YOU TO THINK ABOUT NOW?
I thought about that recently. My son was here; he’s one of the people picking out the work for the show. He’s a writer too.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO PAINT THESE DAYS?
The thing I’m doing now, as you can see I draw a great many faces. I began doing them when I first got out of art school and I was trying to find out what is the least you can do and still make it art. Those faces people do, smileys and smiley faces, those aren’t art, but this is. Almost every day I do these. It’s my fallback theme when I can’t think of a subject or I’m not urged to do a particular subject then I make faces. What could be more meaningful to any of us than faces? Think how much we get from people’s faces: if they smile or if they’re angry.
WHAT ARE YOU THINKING OR FEELING WHEN YOU’RE PAINTING?
I don’t know really. Sometimes I’m thinking about other things. I’m not thinking all the time of what I’m doing, it does it. It’s as if it were making itself, I’m not thinking about ‘maybe I should do this or do that’. If I begin then one thing follows another. To put it another way sometimes you begin with an idea of doing something and it immediately turns into something else. That’s more common. I don’t picture things in my head and then do them. I just start doing them and I find out what happened.
DESCRIBE YOUR UPCOMING SHOW, “NASON @ NINETY?”
The Nason @ Ninety is something that sounds good because it’s got N’s in it, alliteration. It doesn’t have much to do with the fact that I’m 90. But the idea of it is an experiment in how to put a show together. Instead of having a professional curator or a gallery owner selecting work, or even the artist himself selecting it, and then having put it into a gallery. And very often in galleries everything’s this way. I wanted to get away from that and have it reversed somehow by having other people select the things and putting it up themselves. It’s still my things, on the other hand it also involves them and they are each voluntarily writing something.
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE TO BE 90?
There are a lot of feelings that go with that. A lot of it’s not so bad because I don’t have all these problems that I used to have with the wives – I’ve been married three times. But there are problems all the time. Everybody’s dying. My brother died not too long ago, seven or eight years ago, he was only 75. He was a newspaper writer as I told you but he was a heavy drinker, as my father was. Both of them were alcoholics, my brother and my father. So there are a lot of conflicts, a lot of turmoil in life, but now I’m freer. I don’t have any of those things. That’s why I’m happy most of the time. I like all of these people at Running with Scissors, they’re all very compatible. On the other hand my sister, who is seven years younger than me, is dying, she’s in hospice care in Providence so she won’t last very long. She’s the last one of my family. My brothers and sisters, mother, father, they all died. So I’ll be the last one. Of course I still have my son. My son, Tim, has six daughters and some of them are beginning to have children. And my youngest boy’s mother was 22 years younger than me so I was having children who were the same age as my son’s. So some of my children are almost the same age as my grandchildren.
DOES THAT EVER FEEL STRANGE?
Yes, it causes a lot of confusion. Therefore I don’t think I’ve been a very good grandfather. Because I was always having younger children so I wasn’t the picture of the way you see it on the television the grandfather playing with the kids I wasn’t very good at that.
IT SEEMS LIKE YOU HAVE LIVED A LIFE THAT DOESN’T NECESSARILY LOOK LIKE VERY MANY OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES.
No, I guess that’s true. When I got out of art school, actually when I went to art school, which was in Providence; I went to the school of design. It’s near here, in Cranston. I went through my first year there and at the beginning of the second year, I was only there for a few months when Pearl Harbor so I either had to sign up and be an enlisted man or sign up for officer training. So naturally I signed up for officer training. I’d rather do that than be an ordinary sailor. They immediately started paying my way: I went to Brown University for three semesters with them and then they sent me to Columbia University for a short time for officer training then I went Harvard, not in Harvard but using their facilities, I lived there on the campus where I became a communications officer. Then I went over to the Philippines and I was leaving Providence to go to San Francisco to go to the Philippines the day the Germans surrendered. The battle in the Pacific lasted quite a long time after Germany surrendered. It was on that day, all the kids had been let out of school, they were all celebrating, and I’m just leaving!
WHERE YOU ABLE TO MAKE ART WHILE ENLISTED?
Yeah, I was in the Philippines and I was on a transport and I did a lot of drawings of different people on the ship. We were all doing nothing; reading or lolling about in the sun, worried that maybe a submarine would sink us but most of the time we were just laying around. So I got a lot of people to draw. I was drawing everybody, portraits of them. I still have sketchbooks full of these things. But I was in Leyte Gulf, you’re probably not familiar with that but it was a famous battle when the Japanese pushed MacArthur back towards Australia and then he reversed it. After the United States was attacked by the Japanese he started pushing them back and he got as far back as the Philippines, Leyte Gulf as it’s called. My brother was killed there at Leyte Gulf in a very famous battle. The battleships were coming down through the islands and the main American fleet had been decoyed out so in order to protect the landing at Leyte, the land installation, they had these destroyers like my brother’s. They were attacked by these battleships with nothing. A destroyer can’t do much against a battleship. The destroyers actually attacked the battleships and they turned around, the battleships turned around, and left. But in the ensuing battle my brother’s ship was sunk and most of the people on it, most of the men on it, were either killed or drowned.
HOW DID YOUR SERVICE INFLUENCE THE WAY YOU MADE ART OR YOUR TRANSITION INTO MAKING ART?
I don’t know. When I got shifted up to Manila from where I was in Leyte I was in Manila harbor, below decks, doing my job as a communications officer and Japan surrendered. We all went up on deck and some water cannons were squirting water. We all cheered and then went back down to work because you still had things to do, communications and everything. But during that time I was in Manila I started teaching some art classes. I had some enlisted men and some of the officers and I went and got some models from the street, some young ladies to pose for us. To pose with their clothes on, you don’t have nude models in the Philippines, believe me! So that’s what I did, I held some art classes. So I don’t know how it affected me. I was drawing all the time even when I was over there I drew a lot but nothing more serious than the way I’ve worked since.
DO YOU FEEL HOPEFUL FOR THE FUTURE OF ART? WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE OF ART?
One of the things that’s happened is that the old tradition of drawing and painting that I grew up with and that I so avidly tried to master is not being used anymore, it’s gone.
WHAT’S IN ITS PLACE?
Digital. We’ve got people here, what they do is they look up on their computer, get some digital images from their computer, then they print them out and paste them onto a canvas. They’re very good, they’re very good at it, they put them together in such ways that they’ve got ideas behind them and they’re very dramatic but it’s not drawing and painting in the same tradition. The effect of all the digital things that are new [is that] drawing and painting — the whole tradition is just gone.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER QUESTIONS YOU WISH I’D ASKED? ANYTHING YOU’VE BEEN HOPING TO TELL SOMEBODY ELSE THAT YOU WISH SOMEBODY WOULD ASK YOU?
What am I going to do with all these things?
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH ALL THESE THINGS?
I’ve got a storage space with 3 or 4 times this in it. I can’t do anything with them. There’s nothing to do with them. My children will have to decide what to do with them. I feel guilty about that.
Because I’m leaving them all these things to do something with.
I THINK THAT’S A GIFT, THAT’S YOUR LEGACY.
I know that but I feel guilty about it.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU IN YOUR LIFE?
WHAT IS A LESSON THAT YOU’RE LEARNING OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY IN YOUR LIFE?
That life is very bountiful. From the work that I do and my family and the people I’m surrounded with. My daughter who lives in Albert, Michigan: she and her husband both went to Oxford and they both work at the University of Michigan. He teaches; she works in the library. She has a couple of degrees and she has one in library science and their expertise is in old languages. They’ll be here on Saturday, they’re coming for the opening of the show. And my son in Los Angeles whose wife is Chinese and they met each other at Simmons where they’re both studying to be television writers. She’s a television writer and now she’s kind of a writer-producer. She’s done a number of shows over six or seven years now and every year she gets higher up in the union so she’s doing very well. And they have now a new son and a daughter. And they’re great. So you asked me what’s good about life? All these people.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE?
I’ve already told you, I think. The blessing is my children, That’s my greatest blessing.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
I don’t know. I think facing up to the fact that life is terminal, that’s the greatest struggle.
WHAT’S THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
You mean aside from lunch? Sitting here, taking out the charcoal, getting one of my boards out and looking at that and I always start over here [in the top left] for some reason. Because this charcoal just disappears. It’s about working on it and seeing them change.
More about Robert Nason:
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