The artist Robert Saunders finds healing in creating.
Robert Saunders knows he will be reincarnated as a humming bird. First a humming bird, then a green parrot. His artwork, spanning the range of forty years, is often layered with images of birds and feathers. In his house, feathers are nestled into a cork that sits above jars of his beard trimmings. In his studio, nests of pale blue robins’ eggs lie in empty cigar boxes, which appear to be the only remnants of habits now left behind. Here, above the Corniche Art Gallery in Gardiner, Maine, Robert’s heart and hands do their fluttering.
As a kid growing up in Belleville, Michigan, Robert took up hunting sparrows with his Daisy Air Rifle, tallying his killings with carvings into the gun’s wooden body. “I remember lying in the grass, looking down across the yard into an area where there might have been grape vines…and there was a bird way down there. And I sighted it up, fired off a pellet… and the bird dropped and went down…it was the robin, the state bird…And when I killed that robin, I knew I had done something really bad…It’s okay to kill a sparrow ‘cause there’s lot of ‘em, and they aren’t very pretty. But the robin’s beautiful. And I killed it.”
Robert never picked up his Daisy Air Rifle again. He took to sitting on his back porch, listening and whistling to the migrating orioles that flew overhead. He took to counting birds instead of etching their deaths in wood. The ripples of the unintended killing have lingered since that day, and has been something Robert has seemingly tried to heal through his artwork, as feathers and the images of birds’ small bodies seem to fly in and out of his pieces. Art has a curative effect on Robert, and through his struggles with bipolar disorder, Robert describes, “Art is my medicine”.
He stands in the center of his studio, six foot three, thick and bold despite the 69 years he’ll turn this December. He shows few signs of age—the coarseness of his voice has emerged and his hair has turned white from red as though a strange autumn settles upon him. Light beams from the vast windows and washes over the backs of the pieces now in progress—“luscious, exotic, erotic” Tibetan paper mounted on plywood boards, then etched with an abstract collage of geometric shapes, which he saturates in luminous yellows and reds. Robert picks up the board on the right, for now untitled, and sits back to cradle it in his lap, over the bent, denim clad legs which extend to the wool socked feet and his beloved Birkenstocks. His fingers, the blue tipped pinky and the digits wrapped with silver bands etched with images of humming birds and ravens, curl around the brush with which he paints with strokes as slow and calm as his saunter. He breathes deep, and “does his do”, but he hasn’t always been at ease with his work.
“Seventeen years ago [was when] the medication of a literal taking of a tablet of a substance called lithium was presented to me as a possibility of taking care or helping me deal with the manic mania or depression…” His eyelids quiver at the edges of his blue irises, manifesting in his face the medication that has brought him the long needed stability he has found. During the unmedicated years of his early fatherhood, Robert was grappling to balance the different domains of student, teacher, and artist. “It was ever so much a sense and feeling of despair as much as…I was feeling so much that I wasn’t being successful at whatever it was I was supposed to be doing…I just know that at a point in time I was on a freight train going so fucking fast that I couldn’t get off. The only way I could slow down was to medicate.” He remembers his fits of anxiety, pounding his fists against the walls, taking all the art off their hooks and turning them and turning them. In his later years, “a couple of Heinekens and anti-depressants did it for a while, and then I realized this wasn’t what was gonna really be helpful. It was momentary.”
As well as Robert finding healing in his work, his second wife Kala has been a curative force in his life. “Thank God there was somebody there, even when I was 50 years old, who had enough going for her and listened to what I was saying and prescribed something that was really a toggle switch for me in terms of allowing me to not fuck up a second marriage, trick myself into an…alcoholic thing and become a street person, a homeless person….and, in essence, killed myself by doing that.” The home that Robert and Kala have created, the sprawling garden of wide-leafed vegetables, the cut wood and iron stove, the grey cat Ellie that rubs against his calves, all that they share is part of his medicine. And the art is the product of it all.
The mental extremes that Robert has experienced seem to be a current that runs through his blood. He recollects memories of his father’s dealings with this type of mania, he now sees similar behaviors popping up in the upcoming generations, and he’s an advocate for everyone dealing with similar troubles to seek help. “There’s so many folks who’ve dealt with whatever is called bipolar…and just like dental care isn’t a high priority in this country…mental education of mental conditions is another ya know…we talk about gays being in closets, and coming out, mental disorders are another issue that people have to deal with, and I find no problem talking about it as a condition that I have but it’s not going to be a hindrance to me to continue to do what I do”.
Robert’s will to continue creating encompasses his attitude for the future. As old age looms in the distance, he refuses to quit ‘doing’ until the end of his days; “Dealing with my own mortality, being 69 next month…I’ve already got a notion, whether I get there or not, that I’ll pop into my 80’s. As long as I can keep making marks, putting things together, making people in some sort of way hear what I have to say, then that’s all I need.”
It is autumn and the trees have all stolen from his palette—rusted reds and burnt orange hang from the trees outside the A1 coffee shop where he sits and paints when not in his studio. He carries with him his leather bound book, the tools of odd shapes with unknown purposes, his pigments, his pens. He can’t be without his art. “It’s probably got something to do with the compasses I carry around in my pocket…the art is orienting…it makes you somehow able to deal with your existence.” He is the bird he emulates, creating and uncaged, wings beating.
Photos by Storrey Morrison, Salt Photography Fall 2009
To view more of Robert Saunders’ work, visit http://www.cornicheonline.com