Robert Saunders Profile
posted: October 23, 2007

When I visited Rob Saunders, age 56, at his studio in Boston, he described being torn between the two great loves in his life: his music and his art.

"The coexistence of musical talent with visual artistic talent is a source of conflict in me. I started out with people telling me, "Oh, isn’t it wonderful that you have those twin talents, so that maybe one can feed off the other." And what has happened is yes, one has fed off the other: one eats the other. It’s a zero sum game and it’s very difficult to find time for one, and also find time for the other and it’s a dilemma for me. The metaphor that strikes me is that music is my mistress and illustration is my wife. And, though I love the wife, the mistress is a lot of fun and has so much to do with entertainment and a lot of spiritual things. Whereas the illustration wife is so intellectual. The two coexist in my life uneasily.

"The art supplies my need for permanency, to have something remain after me. The music appeals to my sense of the here and now. For me, the tragedy of that, the passing moment, has been endlessly joyful and tragic in the sense that things pass. So moments that you feel should be enshrined forever, because of how wonderful and sacred and fabulous and spiritual they are, are just gone.

"Let me put it this way: I’m less analytical about music. Music fulfills me in a very basic way, about which I’m non-judgmental; I just love the sound of a chord. I love it so much, it provides company for me and it signifies the bringing of company to me, and interacting with people and relating to people. It’s all so beautifully collective and communal – I've had wonderful bonding, communal experiences in all sorts of different contexts. And it's not just The Half-Tones, but in the back hills of Fiesole with a Sardinian shepherd and some party goers, and the horses in the pasture.

"I was an illustration major at RISD. It was called “Communication Design”, a new concept back then, but it was illustration. Senior year, I spent the year abroad in Rome with 25 students. We had access to everything and there was a handful of us who gobbled up every single thing that was offered. Calligraphy was kind of sexy back then and it caught my imagination and I took a course in it at RISD taught by Brian Pelletier. Calligraphy enabled me to set down a confident mark and it was the epitome of what was meant by the word mark for me. My Italian professors, later on in Graduate school, would use that term in referring to my paintings and they would talk about la marca, just a mark; the evidence of a human having been there and made their mark.

"Calligraphy made me really conscious of the line, the stroke, the mark, the distorted or stylized line as opposed to the one slavishly copied from what is seen by the eye. I'm extremely conscious about the brush line, good design, good curves, the beautiful dynamics in lines.

"After graduating, I went back to Italy for the putative reason of getting my masters in printmaking, which I did at Rosary College Graduate School of Fine Arts, right outside of Florence. I quit there after one semester and went to work at the atelier called Santa Reparata, an international studio of printmaking. I hung out there and was an assistant for about four or five years, working in a printmaking environment making prints – aquatints and etchings and some lithography. But I had to support myself and I did that by playing at the Red Garter for a season, and people got to know me and that I played in bands that toured throughout Tuscany or played gigs at nightclubs along the Arno River, that kind of thing. I had a six month gig with the band, The Seven Corsairs, at an outdoor nightclub with trellises just straight out of a Renoir painting for six months. That was the gig of my life. The dream gig.

"I became an illustrator because I had quit my infatuation with the idea of printmaking, because the fine arts scene seemed to be totally corrupt. I knew one critic who told me the score: that critics aren’t paid enough and don't have the time to ferret out the really great stuff, so if they happen to run across something that’s great, great. And if they don’t, it ain’t their fault.

"I was married at this time and I kind of relied on having a partner who would, to some degree, support my fine art fantasy and I got a certain distance with that and then she was fed up with it, and we divorced. But in the meantime we had a kid. I didn’t have the money to hold on in the fine art world, so I set out a shingle.

"My freelance illustration took off. It was the Massachusetts Miracle here. Route 128, with all the high tech firms -- it was a great boon to graphic designers and illustrators because the high tech firms were grand patrons of elegant drawing and design. Like I’ve never seen before. A bunch of good designers were hiring excellent art, all the time, and the papers were full, and the magazines were full. And I was busy all the time.

"To a degree I have, what do they call it, an embarrassment of talents, or an embarrassment of riches? More like an embarrassment of distractions. And nobody is keeping my nose to the grindstone, because I live alone and I don’t have agendas that have been set by me and another person and an art director. So my own agendas are perilous, it’s perilous waters. Treacherous and it takes a lot – I struggle all the time with maintaining an orientation to where I want to go, because where do I want to go?

"There is something I would like to do before I die: a portrait of my mother, who died a year and a half ago. The reason I say that is because it has nothing to do with developing a style, or my commercial chops or anything like that, it just has to do with wanting to leave something for my daughter that she can actually hang up that will mean something to her. I'd like to get into the space where I could do that, because that will mean that I’ve gone a certain distance and been able to free up productive time to do it.

"Then I'd like to have a stroke while I’m in the middle of drawing the umpteenth piece in a series that’s going great guns."