Knoxville artist, Robert Felker, will bring his “Saints” series to the guest space at Pivot Point Gallery, 15 Emory Place, for the next month. The exhibition will open with a reception with the artist tomorrow, Saturday, March 25, from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm at the gallery. Robert’s mural work has been covered here, most recently at the unveiling of his East Tennessee Sunrise mural and, previously, in 2019 when his Cormac McCarthy Mural won an Orchid Award. I recently spoke with Robert about his life and the artistic journey that has brought him to this point in his career.
Robert was born in Knoxville, where his father was a student at UT. His family moved to Nashville when he was two-years-old, which is where his parents had each spent their formative years. His father worked as an accountant, while his mother worked a range of jobs, including a stint with Governor Ray Blanton, during which she met Dolly Parton. His parents divorced when he was young, and both remarried. While his father moved away, he stayed in Nashville with his mother, graduating from John Overton High School in 1987.
“I was fortunate to end up at Overton.” He was drawing on his own and had taken some lessons, but found an excellent art program at the high school which would help shape the direction of his life. Martha Caulkins, mother of Tracy Caulkins (three-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer), was one of his first teachers who guided him through “the fundamentals and opened me up to different techniques . . . I started experimenting a lot more.”
The school included a commercial art program, which is where he encountered John Ashworth “who was the most influential person in my life. He was a great mentor. His art room included a massive range of materials for artistic expression, including a photo dark room, air brushes, a type setting machine, silk screen and all the more traditional tools. “There was no limit. He was very good with allowing us to find our own voice . . . Sometimes I’d ask him a small question and would spend two hours listening to him . . . He had a way of inspiring us.
It was Mr. Ashworth who first gave Robert the idea that he could pursue art for a living. His parents had been supportive of his art, but had encouraged him to attend a university and get a more rounded education. It wasn’t Robert’s path. Mr. Ashworth’s connections with art schools opened doors to some programs that Robert would not have otherwise considered. He received a complete tuition scholarship to the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
He said his time in New York City was an “entry into a new world.” He would stay in the city for a total of seven years, including several years after graduation. “For the most part, I found New York to be a welcoming place . . . Just going to Washington Square Park or Central Park on a Saturday and mingling with all sorts of people was an eye-opening experience . . . It broadened my sense of culture.”
He felt he was well prepared by his high school art experience. Initially focusing on painting, he gravitated toward commercial arts, doing illustration work. He was hired by the school in the school of visual arts. He worked at an advertising agency, working with the production artists, putting ads together. “It was a much more hands-on craft back then.” He also did freelance work for book covers and magazine illustrations.
Missing the green of home, he returned to Nashville and found a lot of work in Nashville, particularly with the religious presses headquartered in Nashville. His heart wasn’t, however, in what he was doing and computer programs were reducing the demand for “analog illustrators.” He moved from illustration to graphic design, which is where he spent most of his career.
After a few years in Nashville, he moved to Atlanta to be with family and restart. He worked with a printing company, learning off-set printing, eventually working with design. “That’s where I learned to do layout on the computer.” He had continued to paint on the side, though he didn’t exhibit. “I’ve always continued to work on my own art. I couldn’t not do it. Doing my own work feeds me in a way doing work for someone else I don’t experience.” He moved to online design working for CNN.com for ten years, eventually working on special projects like election coverage.
In 2008 he began work with Scripps Networks, which brought him back to the city of his birth, and he’s been here since. He worked as a design director primarily focused on HGTV and DIY. He enjoyed the job, but while there found himself thinking of the art he wanted to be making at home. “The endless meetings . . . wore me down eventually.” All along the way through his career he feels he picked up skills that informs his art today. When Discovery bought the company, his role was reduced, and his job was eliminated in 2018.
He doesn’t have any regrets about the end of his corporate job. “If they hadn’t let me go, I’m not sure I would have made the leap to do this full time.” His wife, Grace, who is a senior manager in corporate insurance with TVA, was extremely supportive of the move, though it was a bit financially scary for the family. While he had continued to follow his passion with art, he hadn’t focused on making it his career. “I wasn’t ever going to have a better opportunity.”
The day after being laid off, he got word that he had been chosen to do the Cormac McCarthy mural, which was his first effort in the medium. While he had begun to participate in pop-up shows and had sold some paintings, it was his first foray into full-time work with his art. In 2019 he had a show lined up at the Bijou Theatre and it was the first showcase for his most recent work, based on musicians.
The work, as it turns out, is “much different from painting.” The pieces are collages of paper he has painted in a large pallet of colors and then intricately places together to make the portrait of the focus artist. He said a piece can take him ten days to two weeks to produce and, while he studies photographs, the final product develops in its own unique way, often incorporating multiple eras of an artist’s work. It starts with a a lot of research and then a computer rendering of the desired image to refine the vision. The work looks like a painting from across a room, but close inspection shows the small glued pieces that give the illusion of the whole.
The first one he completed was of Guy Clark and it was a culmination of working with other subject matter using a similar technique. He hopes to keep moving with subject matter while the technique continues to evolve. The subject matter has caused more buzz for his work than he’s ever experienced.
One piece that has yet to be completed, but Robert intends to finish and have in the show is one of Adeem the Artist. “Adeem is a friend. I’ve been to several of their shows . . . and I’ve been intrigued to see how the last couple of records have resonated and found their audience . . . it turns out the music that resonated was the music they grew up with and they are telling their story with that layer . . . It’s the first piece I’ve done with someone I know. With some of the conversation going on about gender, working on this piece has been a learning experience for me.” The work reflects one of Adeems song and includes elements of both heaven and hell.
The opening is Saturday and Robert would love to meet you and have you experience the new work. Join him from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. You can also check out Robert’s website, follow him on Facebook, or follow him on Instagram. Originals will be available for purchase at the gallery, but prints of the Saints Collection may be purchased here.