After being blasted all to hell by snow in the middle of April and proving that weather hates the state of Utah, we somehow managed to claw our way out of the low 40s by week's end and get some mildly decent walking weather in time for April's Gallery Stroll event. While a little bit on the mild side, there were some awesome gems hidden throughout the downtown landscape. This month we're looking at the works of Rob France, who was on display at Mod-A-Go-Go this past Friday. We chat with him about his career and look at the photos from that evening's exhibition.
Gavin: Hey Rob! First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm originally from a small town in Wyoming, but have been living in Salt Lake City for close to a decade. I moved down here for the universities, but I stayed for the mountains and the attractive people. I'm serious. Look around. Utah is unusually attractive. Anyway, I'm currently a full time pediatric nurse, which I absolutely love, and I do artwork on the side. I'm passionate about women's fashion, oddly, and horror/sci-fi films. I married a European, which is the best thing that ever happened to me, and though the world still intimidates the small-town kid in me, I try to get out and travel often.
Gavin: What first got you interested in art and what were some early influences on you?
There were a few things that initially got me interested. First, when I was just a kid, my older brother brought home a picture he'd colored in art class. It was an old Alphonse Mucha illustration from a coloring book or something. I was obsessed with it. In fact, I stole it from his room, cut his name off of the corner of the page, signed it myself, and kept it hidden in my own room. Second, the county library had an old fantasy series about mermaids, unicorns, and other mystical things. The volumes had a lot classic artwork in them, like John William Waterhouse. I checked them out at least once a month so that I could pour over "The Lady of Shalott," "A Mermaid," and "Echo and Narcissus." And finally, don't laugh, but my mom used to sew a lot—and I liked the illustrations on the envelopes of the McCall's patterns. So I suppose you could say my influences were Mucha, Waterhouse, and whoever the illustrator for McCalls was from the early '80s to the mid-'90s.
Gavin: What drew you more towards illustration as far as genres go?
I used to try painting and drawing from life. I'd do portraits of people, animals, flowers, etc, but just couldn't get it. All of my drawings were just awful. In the portraits, for example, the spacing on the eyes was always off, the nose was crooked, and the ears were asymmetrical. Basically, it was just a big mess. So for a long time I just thought I was just no good at drawing. Then, when I was in my mid twenties, I got so frustrated that I decided to just embrace the weirdness. If the spacing of the eyes was going to be off—fine, I'd make it really off. If the neck was going to be long—great, I'd make it really long. So I guess I was forced into illustration because I didn't have the eye or the ability to draw anything realistic.
Gavin: Did you attend college or study art anywhere, or were you more self-taught?
I just kind of taught myself through trial and error, actually. I'd always planned to get an education in art, and it's still on the list of things to do, but at this point I'm pretty much self-taught.
Gavin: What was it like for you breaking into the SLC art scene?
Salt Lake City has always been really great to me, actually. In fact, the SLC art scene kind of came to me. I used to sit in coffee shops and sketch with friends. One evening, a man came up to me, looked over my shoulder, and told me that he liked my style. He was very nice and told me that he thought other people would probably like it too. He encouraged me to try the Utah Arts Festival, which I did, and I've been tinkering in the art scene ever since.
Gavin: What's the process like for you in creating a new piece, from concept to final product?
My art "senses" are really fussy, actually. They come and go. If it's not turned on, I really struggle to produce anything. I have noticed that it's typically activated when I see really interesting fashion. Alexander McQueen, for example, gets me going nine times out of ten. So when I'm feeling the crunch and need to produce artwork, I've learned how to coax it out. I troll the internet or movies until I find something that pushes my inspiration buttons, I sit down with a sketchbook and pencil, and I begin to sketch. Strangely, though, I don't sketch the thing that's inspired me. I just start to draw figures, skeletons, whatever emerges on the page. I start by drawing a random line, either horizontal or vertical, as soon as the pencil hits the paper (literally the second the pencil hits the paper or the whole thing's wrong). That line becomes the spine of the figure. The spine determines the stance of the figure (hunched over, sitting, standing up straight). Next, after I have the spine in place, I can envision the figure, so I draw a skeleton, using simple lines, circles and boxes to make the rib cage, long bones, and skull. From there, it's just a matter of fleshing out the figure and deciding if I'm going to put clothes on them or not. Three aspects of the figure are most important to me; the jaw line, the hands, and the ankles. If any one of those is off, then the whole thing is wrong. So, if the jaw, the hands, and the ankles all check out, I'm okay to proceed. When I feel satisfied with the penciled shapes, I start with the pens and charcoal, and finish with the gold. And then I frame it and it's out of mind forever. It's all a really strange, frustrating, sensitive process that I still don't fully understand.
Gavin: Do you find yourself changing things as you go, or do you stick to an idea when you start it?
It's constantly changing, actually. I usually don't even have an idea in my head when I start. Everything emerges from the initial line, so I often have to tweak the limbs several times to give the figure a sense of balance and gravity. It also takes me a long time to decide what they are going to be wearing, so I tend to try a lot of different clothes on them (but let's be honest, most of them just end up in underwear anyway). And then I fuss and fret over what hairstyle to give them, too. So each piece is a series of experiments and risks, which often end in permanent disaster, if I'm honest.
Gavin: How was it for you breaking into festivals and eventually traveling around selling your works?
Festivals were great. As I said, they were really my first experience in the Salt Lake art scene, so they were really exciting. I was fortunate enough to have been accepted into the festival on my first try, and I had great response and feedback from the festival, so it was very encouraging. And to have people actually pay money to buy my artwork was an interesting feeling. I also sold artwork in London for a while, which was unbelievable. I used to get the most excited when the French would by my work. I don't know exactly why. It felt legit that way.
Gavin: Tell us about the artwork on display for this Stroll.
The artwork I'm displaying for this Stroll is a collection of my most recent work. It's been an interesting collection, as I've started to incorporate a lot of new techniques. I've done a lot with watercolor, which is something I haven't done in awhile, and I've learned a couple of new techniques with charcoal and gold leaf, which have added some depth and interesting textures. Also, through the process, florals kind of crept in at the very end, which was an unexpected surprise. I made several mini collections within the greater body of work, which is something I hadn't done before. So several pairs were designed to complement one another if purchased and displayed together. I haven't produced artwork in these quantities before, so it's a pretty large, diverse collection. I produced around 30 new pieces for the collection. Also, all pieces are originals. I'd considered having prints of each piece made, but in the end I decided to keep them original. So every piece is unique and will never be reproduced or be available ever again.
Gavin: How did the opportunity come about to be displayed at Mod-A-Go-Go, and how has it been for you working with them?
I've had some artwork hanging at Mod A-Go-Go off and on for a little over a year. I first participated in their Halloween group show, at the recommendation of a friend who was also showing in the show. Since then, They've been very generous and have let me drop off new work from time to time, which they add to their collection of other local artists.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on the current state of the SLC art scene?
Utah's got a great art scene. It tends to be a little more underground than other cities, but it's still there. Utah's always encouraged creativity, so it's no wonder or surprise that Utah's birthed so many talented artists. The art scene does tend to be more wholesome and conservative than other art scenes. Art doesn't tend to be as shocking or controversial, here in Salt Lake, as it is in larger cities like New York or London.
Gavin: Who are some local artists you believe people should be checking out?
She's not really local anymore, but Olivia Pendergast's artwork is mind-blowing. I'm not sure where she's gone now, but she used to have a studio down on Pierpont. She is definitely worth a look. Also, Noelle Sharp is a brilliant artist and weaver. She's just moved back from Chicago, and Salt Lake City is at least 98% cooler for it.
Gavin: What's your take on Gallery Stroll these days and the work being displayed during it?
Gallery Stroll's great. It's seemed to have spread across the city more, through the past few years. It seems like it pretty much used to be Pierpont only, for Gallery Stroll, but now it's all across the valley. And the work is always great. Again, lots of talented artists in town.
Gavin: What else do you have planned over the rest of the year?
Well, as far as art goes, I've got no set plans. I'll keep trying to coax out some more work, and we'll see where we go from there. I've got quite a few commissions and portraits that'll keep me occupied.