by Kevin L Miller
Robert feels his way across a highly textured 4×7 ft canvas, “The Story,” at the artist’s reception for his very first one-man show. He tells visitors they can “see” his paintings through their fingertips as well as with their eyes. A mature woman in the group says, “What are you DOING!?” Her husband stands behind her and rolls his eyes as if to say, “Here we go again…” Robert says, “Ma’am, you can touch the art. I give you my permission.” She asks, “Who do you think you are?” Robert says, “I am the artist.” She demands, “Do you have any identification?!” Another person in the group is holding a copy of Robert’s artist’s statement. Pointing to the photo of himself, Robert says, “See! This is me, and the show is called ‘PLEASE TOUCH THE ART!’ You can touch my art.”
The lady backs away mortified, but her husband approaches Robert’s painting and runs his hand from one side to the other, calling to his wife, “Sometimes you have to touch the art to know it is really there!” Later Robert tells me that he feels nothing but gratitude toward the lady, “because she was only trying to protect my art.” He admits to watching her out of the corner of his eye, however, and feeling sorry for her when she tries to touch “A Winter Walk,” but cannot bring herself to do it.
The programming that keeps us separate from art is very strong. From birth we are taught a certain reverent respect for art that requires us to keep our distance. Outsider artists do not mean to be subversive, or anti-authoritarian, but by their very nature they tend to tear down the barriers between those who make objects and anyone who sees and responds.
Outsider artists don’t think of the objects they make as untouchable “objets d’art,” as does the art establishment. They regard making things as being like breathing and eating — a matter of survival, and they often don’t think of their work as “art” at all – just “things.” Outsider artists have almost always been insulated from social and cultural conditioning by profound poverty or physical or mental challenges. In the absence of societal conditioning they follow only their own unique inner visions, which sometimes produce surprising aesthetic innovations and revelations.
Robert had all three forms of deprivation and more. When he was an infant, his older sisters mistook motor oil for mineral oil and poured it into his ears, destroying his eardrums. He hears a little now with the aid of a mechanical eardrum, but communicates mostly by reading lips. He grew up in profound poverty in the woods 50 miles north of Syracuse, surviving on government assistance and woodland foraging. His family was so dysfunctional and abusive that Robert moved out at age 12 and built his own little shelter in the woods. He lived there for years with his beloved raccoon, “Cooner,” whom he raised from infancy after Cooner’s mom was killed crossing the road. Cooner came to Robert and asked for help, so Robert adopted him.
Robert’s skills with animals are legendary. I have personally seen wild raccoons, rabbits, frogs, and even fish, crawl or swim into his hands, looking for comfort. On a pitch black moonless night in the woods, Robert can see wild woodland animals right around the corner or over the hill. He “feels” them. Robert says he has special animal radar. It’s real. I have witnessed it.
At age 13 Robert suffered a major traumatic brain injury when his crazy step-father dropped a big tree on his head. The doctor said Robert would not survive the night. He did live, although large portions of his brain died. Reading and writing have presented real challenges for Robert ever since. But as sometimes happens with severe brain trauma victims, Robert developed almost savant-like powers driven by the remaining areas of his brain. He has a collection of 300 Rubik’s cubes, half of which he made himself, and he can solve any of them in under two minutes. His spatial intelligence is off the charts.
These unusual skills came in handy during eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Japan, and the USA. Robert has always said that the USMC was a Sunday school picnic for him after his abusive childhood. He figured out how to fake the hearing tests and he never told the USMC about his severe brain trauma. Interestingly, the profile of many outsider artists often includes a significant period of time in the protective custody of an authoritarian institution. The USMC was “protective” by comparison with Robert’s family.
Robert has always made beautiful objects. For decades he was a master carpenter and woodworker, making exquisite inlaid, hardwood furniture and floor medallions. He never thought of himself as an artist until we traveled to France with friends, and he saw objects at Versailles like he made at home. I was one of three friends present, in the company of the ghost of Marie Antoinette, when Robert’s eyes grew huge and he slowly turned and said with utter amazement, “I am an artist!” His inlaid hardwood art became even more ornate after that.
A few years later I was laboring over a lousy, tiny painting at the kitchen table on a quiet Sunday. Bored with mindless TV, Robert picked up a blank canvas and a brush and asked me, “How do you do this?” I didn’t even look up. I said, “Oh, it’s easy. You just put some paint on the brush and wipe it on the canvas.” That was the first, last, and only formal art education Robert ever received. He took off like an art bat out of painters’ hell. I couldn’t have gotten a word of instruction in edgewise, even if I had wanted to. Robert started painting in every spare minute. To say that he has painted prolifically ever since, would be a monumental understatement. He has crammed a lifetime of painting experience into five years. He paints with the reckless abandon of a dying man, the exuberance of a drunken sailor, and the honesty of an ecstatic monk. Far from needing any instruction whatsoever, Robert has been my teacher ever since he first picked up that canvas and brush years ago. I am learning from him.
Robert and I have had quite a few two-man shows and even ran a big art gallery together for a year and a half, but “PLEASE TOUCH THE ART!” at Manchester University in North Manchester, Indiana, is his very first one-man show, and it is a hit. A few weeks ago 1,600 school children, K – 3rd grade, toured Robert’s exhibit in small groups. They were very excited about being able to touch the paintings. Art Professor Jena Oke asked one group, standing in front of “The Last Supper,” what the artist was trying to say. They yelled, “HE LIKES ANIMALS!” She asked, “What else is he trying to say?” They yelled, “HE LIKES PAINT!” Jo Young Switzer, Manchester University President, asked one child what it was like to touch a painting. The wide-eyed child said, “It was bumpy!”
Equally important was the response of the MU art students to Robert’s one-on-one portfolio review conversations with them. Robert kept saying, “This is amazing. These people ask me questions and listen to me as if I actually know things!” For their part, the students told their professors that Robert was one of their favorite visiting artists ever, because he treated them like “actual artists” and talked with them like “real people.”
After a week of gratifying events, including the opening for his first one-man show, Robert was already feeling that he did not want to leave North Manchester. Several art students made his departure even harder a day before he left, when they came to him and asked privately if he would consider making the 1,200 mile round trip to return from South Central PA to attend their senior shows in Indiana next winter. Robert is definitely considering it… if he can get time off from his overtime job as a USPS clerk. Meanwhile, he just finished a majestic new 4×8 ft canvas of a forest — five highly textured trees on a colorful leafy background, and he has plans for at least five other huge, textured canvases burning holes through the screen of his mind.
It is understandable, when we consider the life story and work of Robert F Allen, that the art world is becoming more and more fascinated by outsider artists. We all still worship Leonardo and Michelangelo. We idolize Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso, and admire the intellectual depth and innovation of Diebenkorn and Motherwell. But for sheer honesty, joy, energy and a breath of fresh air, nothing beats the sincere creations of an outsider artist like Robert.
“PLEASE TOUCH THE ART! – Texture Is Part of the Experience,” a one-man show of paintings on canvas by Robert F Allen will be on exhibit in Link Gallery, Winger Building (across the street from The Union,) Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana 46962 until Nov 19, 2013. For gallery information, contact Professor Jena Oke, Coordinator of Galleries, 260-982-5334.
(My thanks to Jena Oke and Alison Stein for their essential support of our MU art exhibits and for contributing photos to this post. — Kevin)