Robert Soffian in his studio. Photo by Kristine Schomaker
What does a day in your art practice look like?
I usually paint every day. I get up in the morning. I read the news, feed the cat, have some breakfast, check my emails, maybe do a little exercise, look at the sun, walk outside, think, and then around 12:30 or 1:00 I start working in the studio which is a large a room in my house. I sometimes work outside in the side yard. I need to create daily, whether it is writing or painting. Although recently I’ve been taking a little more time off in between series, poems or little vignettes. From about 1:00 I paint until 4pm when I have a pleasant tea and light snack. Then I paint again until dinner. After dinner, if I have good work going, I paint until all hours. Bed at midnight or 1am. If I’m really cooking, I don’t stop until midnight or later. On those special mornings after dreaming up solutions, I will paint before breakfast too. I mostly like to take the weekends off. But during the height of the pandemic, I worked seven days a week. I take time off to go see art openings, hang out with other artists and do something interesting with friends and family. When I paint, I always stand up. I like to move, it’s kind of like a dance/good exercise. I don’t listen to music. I don’t like to be bothered by any sounds. I have enough sounds in my head. Though I’m sure that it’s relaxing to listen to music. I do not want any distractions when writing or painting. I don’t like to make my practice public. I did enough of that directing theatre! I value being alone in the studio. I think most artists do. Solitude magnifies focus. Without quiet time, I would not have written plays, poems, stories my whole life.
What inspires you?
My experience in creative disciplines is that inspiration happens during the work not prior to the work. If we just waited until we were inspired by some kind of bolt of lightning or imagined muse, we wouldn’t get much done. Insight or moments of clarity cannot be scheduled. I like mental preparation and discipline and just consistency because I think about percentages. I’m really into percentages. I think that a lot of creative work will be bad, and some might be good and some of this stuff will be average so the more you work you have a higher percentage of falling into the sweet spot. One has better odds of finding the sweet spot by producing a lot of work. Waiting for a Muse to visit is not very practical. That’s not to say that one doesn’t get moments of wild connection in a flash. Mainly I prepare to accept chance. I trust my choice. I’m both Air and Earth so the fluid and firm rule me. I prize the Aristotelian as well as the non-discursive methods. It takes a lot of hard work to make things look effortless. Each easy movement of the paint brush is full of informed meaning. Real praxis is a verb. I may retain negative thoughts about inspiration. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated by the themes which motivate and catalyze my work. I have a long interest in ancient narratives which become evident through repetition, and recurrent genetic mythologies. Although I don’t like to use the word myth. Rather I find myself wanting to play with how the rituals of the psyche present themselves in our societies through common stories. Breach and Redemption, The Dance of Family, these are themes that get me started. My history with dramatic texts and language is a great influence in how I view the world.
I think often that I think what I really want to say is that I’m not inspired by myself, that what inspires me is movement of consciousness through time. I’m thinking of the direction of spirit through time if such a thing exists and yes there is cyclical and recurrent idea, but I think that I am more interested in a, I don’t know how to say it, a unifying objective and that unifying objective is it’s critiquing you know neurosis and critiquing the problems of our psychology with the idea that we objectify it in a very amorphous way that we can see a pathway to the future. That’s a really big important idea for me, one might not see it in my art because it’s very included and obscured unfortunately, but you know that’s really important for me. I think that I said the art wasn’t about me even when I’m doing something that’s highly personal and biographical. I always view it as liberating and not in a traumatic sense but liberating because we’re all the same and we’re all human and wherever we come from I know we have different histories and different events that’s happened in our genetic past and our historical life. I never feel that I’m really doing anything about myself. Now that may be contradictory because I am doing it and I’m the person who’s making it whether it was writing or directing or painting but I am not attached to my own ego. It doesn’t really interest me even if I’m writing or painting something that really derives from something that’s happened in my life. I find myself… it’s sort of like the role of demonstrator rather than some kind of Liberator. It’s just fun. I think that there’s a joy in understanding that you’re part of a community and that community is the human race. What really inspires me is the way epistemologically or with how the product of my creative instinct impulse work is through a kind of earthy analysis and the desire and ability
What really inspires me is the blank canvas, the blank paper, the open mental arena, that empty stage for action. I am not terrified of the void or empty mind. I’m not a person of ideas or ideologies or huge paradigms about the social world. I certainly don’t possess solutions to the vexing problems of our society. I think that many of our troubles are lovely and dreaded eternities. The cycles of human history contain spirals or whirls, sine curves, and lines often providential, declining or ascending. In my studio any wide thinking is less vital than the specific solutions to real time painting problems. So, the activity of solving is what inspires me. I feel most artists are like this. I love all my beautiful mistakes. I encounter many artists who seem to understand things better. And I try to listen and watch them. I’m inspired by learning from the learned. I am skeptical optimist about most things. A cosmic joke seems the most appropriate response to our woes. As a Capricorn I believe in work, discipline, duration and persistence. I enjoy life in the studio. I am not suffering in praxis. I try not to glorify or valorize what my art is about. Piles of it litter my home. I am grateful that it’s my dharma. As cruel as the world can be, having the ability to create is the most wonderful addiction. As Popeye said, “I yam who I yam just gimme some spinach!” Usually, I’m obsessed with certain materials whether it’s dye or oils, printmaking or ink. So literally I am a mixed media artist. Whether I work on the skin of paper or canvas, materiality is my joy(nt). I want to investigate through art how people respond to life’s mysteries. I hope making painted stories can calm our anguish and foster commonality. I’m inspired to try. Naturally our own biographies stamp us. The purpose of the best art is to transcend individual neurosis and trauma. One way of doing that is allowing personal archetypes to become progenitypes! WE are Futurists. I say to myself the art I am making is not about me. It is for and about you.
How has personal experience influenced your creativity?
I’ve often wondered. There are the obvious origins of my creative output and then there are the deeper core ones that I’ve been thinking about. The obvious and most tangible is directing theater for many decades and that included the global work involved in that world. Researching texts, designing lights, referencing historical art periods, collaborating with designers, analysis of movement patterns, creating a playable stage world, searching for a thematic matrix for action and all the other skills one needs to direct…. time, schedules etc. Over the years these deepened my ability to communicate a personal approach to actors and to the whole team. In a sense learning to formulate a concept although I eschew that term. These are the practical analytic skills in theatre practice. However, before knowing anything, I already innately understood how color and movement and rhythm reinforce theme. Then the compositions of the stage transfer well to the picture plane. Bodies in space often tell their tales in non-linear ways. Likewise in painting formative structure governs beauty. Ideas arise in the doing not thinking. Being open to their pull is vital to any art. An active psyche opens the subconscious. On the other hand, I have more chthonic questions regarding the existential tidbits of life…. Who Where What When and Why? One can see why I write poetry! My family exposed me to the arts. They collected art and my dad had a large library and directed me to the classics from a very early age, Shakespeare Donne, Miller, Moliere, Sartre etc. Drama in text comes from conflict. Conflict and Crises shape how we deal with others. Throw those into the mix to my artistic personality and you get a person who wants to explore how we behave. I was fortunate to be exposed to working painters at an early age and saw how they plied their craft and lived…Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, others! Fundamentally I have a desire to interpret words, and emotions symbolically: Pictures, Paintings, Engravings…signposts of existence as they say, “in real life”. I studied many languages growing up Latin and Greek and Russian and French and many others and then I was exposed to all kinds of texts especially the older ones which fascinated me. My painting is heavily influenced by linguistic interpretations through pictorial codes. I am drawn to narrative in the very wide sense of the word. But I can only voice these perceptions through poems, plays and painting. The thing is I put my trust in them. That gives me the confidence to proceed to make art in a world which values death over life. Finally, I have a very strong desire to learn about our ancient ways of thinking because I sense they inform hermetically how we will become more of ourselves. Archeology was a discipline I studied. And it directed me to sources I go to again and again. I like old things.
Who would you most like to collaborate with? Why?
I like people. I like to work with people. I like to be a person who encourages abilities. As a professor and a director, I focused on that. These days people call what I did for many years a curator, but I prefer to call it a producer. I produced hundreds of performances, events, concerts, agit prop doings, film shoots, happenings, plays, readings, installations, operas etc. These events entail massive collaboration. Even the audience is collaborating in the experience and has responsibilities. The best collabs come from an atmosphere where the desires of the participants are honored in an environment of openness and respect. I know from experience that many painters don’t like to collaborate because they feel that their point of view, their life’s work should not be subservient to another objective. I’m always searching for people who want to make art events. Because of my older age it’s harder and harder. I’m not in the swing of what’s current. That is why I am always looking outward. Lots of artists I know are naturally involved in their own wild pursuits and don’t have the time. I search for a community that may be lacking in my life. Even the worst collaborations are ok adventures, and the best bring out the support for each person. Vibrant collaborations often create a hybrid that no one envisioned. The sharing of ways of working and ideas is invigorating. And often they are fun. Personally, I want to collaborate with individuals who bring professionalism and dedication to the enterprise. Because we’re all trained egotists it’s important to not believe your own bs and listen to others. One must learn to argue respectfully. I don’t hang out at bars very often and I’m not invited to people’s houses as often as I like. At openings one can’t really talk…so it’s rare I meet artists who have projects they think I can contribute to. This is a Clarion Call, if you’re interested in collaboration, HERE I AM! I have worked with a several artists in LA and had a great experience. I may not be as hip as all the young people doing great things, but we elders can provide guidance as well as learn. Finally, I’m not scared of the New.
If you had the chance to live during a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose? and why?
I think this is the best time so not wanting to live in any other era. Although I would not mind taking a short trip back to Classical Greece or 1920’s Paris. It would be fun to visit Giotto also. I do not have to motivate myself often to paint or write. Mostly I just wish I could do more and have more time.
What would life be like without art?
My life without art would entail a lot of swimming, traveling and getting into trouble. Maybe play the Sax again.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I don’t know what advice I would give my younger self. Seems like everything leads me to here and now. Should I have played second base professionally? That would have been great. Even all the wrong turnings and blessings were necessary. Change one thing and everything is altered. I could have started painting sooner when I was studying art in Florence but then I missed out on directing and teaching. I could be more of a loner. But I love my family so much. They keep me centered. This is my only life…for now.
If you could change anything about the art world, what would it be?
The art world has become more and more a commodity wealth asset of a certain class. I know art products have been objects for the wealthy and powerful for ages. Still the idea that one must score a career through business practices is not my ideal. I do not think artists should pay to enter competitions. I do not believe in censorship. I would hope that any art is allowed in a near perfect future society. We should encourage our own discomfort. I think young people are the future and we should honor their ideas. We should also look to elders. Dreams are useful. Especially near awake dreams. I often take their cues to heart. I will write down ideas and store them for a long time before finding a place to grow them. Always seek ways to stimulate your intuition. Embrace mistakes. Listen to the critiques you get from people you respect. But follow your own star. Otherwise, you have a good chance of becoming an anodyne clone. What you must create is the destination not the origin. So, surprise yourself! The hardest part of making art is living in a society which really doesn’t care about a thick description of life. When you are in unfamiliar territory one can feel alone. I think that is one reason I network. Always looking for the sweet connection. I firmly believe that today’s intellectual “truths” will change in the blink of an eye. Remember the Jet Age….?
Robert Soffian in his outside studio