Born: Harvey, Illinois, 1949 Served in Vietnam Marksman, Parachutist, Dental Specialist
From the artist, about the painting:"Between Desolation and Nuclear Skies":
The Army Class "A" uniform jacket is an obvious reference to personal military experience. Its position, suspended between desolate alien landscape and glowing, unnatural skies, suggests that the isolation and alienation experienced by Vietnam Vets returning to a country they no longer knew. The steady stream of colorful spheres issuing from the top of the jacket is an image from a dream experienced by the artist.
From the artist, about the painting:"Dreaming of Mimosa, Again & Again & Again":
Using images from many dreams, this painting visually comments on the personal experiences of the artist in the Medical Clearing Station of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Company B (Medical) at LZ English. It is also a tribute to a tiny Mimosa, or a sensitive plant, which grew in the walkway to the artist's tent. In spite of defoliants, constant trampling, and dry conditions, this seemingly fragile plant clung to life with a surprising tenacity.
About the Artist:
Although he had a lifelong interest in art, Bob took only one year of high school art at Rheinlander High School (Wisconsin). Art was a personal experience for him, and had little to do with education. However, he credits his high school art teacher for teaching him to be meticulous with his tools and work, and to be his own most demanding critic.
He graduated from high school in 1967 and decided to enlist in the Army. He chose Dental Specialist training as a resonably safe-sounding occupation and went to jump school in Ft. Benning, Georgia "just to see if I could do it." From there, as his plan went, he should have gone to a nice, cozy dental clinic somewhere to finish out his three years.
Of course, the Army had its own version of the Hanson plan, and as usual, it didn't even come close to his. He was assigned to Company B (Medical) of the 173rd Airborne Brigade at LZ English, Bong Son, Vietnam. B (Med) was a medical clearing station, where casualties were flown in by helicopter and carried into a large underground bunker for stabilization and evacuation to a hospital at Qui Nonh, 70 miles away. Art became even more important to Bob as he began to use it to occupy his mind so that he wouldn't have to constantly think about the sights and sounds of that literal hole in the ground where people too often died. When he wasn't drawing on medical records and folder or tent canvas or envelopes, he was reading medical anatomy texts on loan from the doctors, earning the nickname, "the scholar."
Mostly, his memories of LZ English are of the feeling of helplessness one gets from standing by and watching someone die, simply because there is nothing left to try. That feeling has haunted him and driven him for the years since, and still shows up in his painting now and then. The "action" at English was pretty light, with an occasional mortar attack and a little perimeter harassment now and then. The spectacle of a minor firefight by the light of parachute flares was another lingering memory, and the subject of his 1986 painting "A Night at the Opera: Bong Son, 1968." He smiles about it now. "That was the night," he says, "that I found out I wasn't a hero. I hid in the bottom of a bunker most of the time." His mood became more serious, and he continues, hesitantly, his voice softening, "I took a shot at a guy out there in the village by a burning hut. I let fly with a three-round burst because I was scared to death, and I thought this guy was coming to get me. One of the other guys in the bunker jabbed me with his elbow and yelled over the racket, "Hey! He's just trying to put out the fire." This poor jerk was out there trying to save his home, and some terrified dental specialist from a country 11,000 miles away was shooting at him. "Really, for me, that kind of sums up the whole war. That really captures the mood." Then, after a moment of silence, "I never even found out if I hit him. I hope not."
He came home in June, 1969 with a Combat Medical Badge, the Army Commendation, and a Bronze Star. "I gave the Bronze to my little brother, and he wore it on his fishing hat until my mother took it and put it away. She finally gave it back to me a couple of years ago. I didn't even know she had it for a long time; it didn't matter to me. I didn't feel like I'd done anything to deserve a medal, and I didn't want it."
After four years of winding down in California, Bob returned to Wisconsin with a new wife and a new plan: college. He entered the University of Wisconsin- Madison in 1974, shortly after he and his wife separated. He graduated in 1978 with a B.S. in Art Education and a Wisconsin teaching certificate, and promptly got a job washing windows at the VA Hospital. After working in a pre-school agency for two years, he finally accepted a teaching position as Art Instructor for K-12 in Pembine, Wisconsin in 1981. "Teaching, the classroom part, is great," he states. "The rest of it about killed me, though; the office politics being expected to keep my mouth shut and play along; I'm not very good at that stuff."
Six years of teaching was enough, and when Bob was accepted to UW Law school, he resigned his teaching post and went back into debt to become a student again. "If I make it, I'll be a lawyer in 1991," he says. "If not, I'll at least have some monumental debts to comfort me in my old age. I'm 38 years old now, and I'll be 41 when I graduate. But then, who wants to get into a big rush to accomplish things? Besides, my major goal in law is just to make the VA nervous," he laughs. "Vietnam vet lawyers give 'em the willies, with the Agent Orange suit and all that. It's good for them, though. It keeps 'em honest."
Is painting going to be put on the back burner during Law School? "Nah," he grins, "I set aside time for painting, and I still have one Art Department course, so I get access to a painting studio when it's not occupied. I'd go nuts without my paint fix. Of course, I don't have the kind of time to put in that I used to, but nothing really replaces it. If I couldn't paint, I'd draw; If I couldn't draw, I'd carve, or find another medium. I've only been painting since 1985, but I've been working in one medium or another all my life. I don't see it stopping anytime soon. Actually, I'm just learning to create from inside, to find that place in me where the art comes from, and to tune in to it like finding a radio station, and just let it play through my brush. It's a completely different kind of process from anything I've done before, and I am really amazed by it. People ask me how I think of things to paint, and all I can tell them is that I don't THINK of them, they just happen. They grow like an organizm, from inception to completion, in a very subconscious kind of flow." He hesitates, and then continues with a smirk. "If I could make a decent living at painting, I probably wouldn't mess around with all of this other stuff. Oh, well, maybe some day..." (1989)