Robert Stephens

"I was always doodling on my textbooks and found that if you could draw cartoons for other kids, they would like you."

Take us back to you as a kid.

Growing up my family was constantly on the road, and we moved around every year or two. I got used to packing up and leaving people and places frequently.

I was also a pretty awkward kid, who was constantly daydreaming.  I wasn’t really into sports or things like that, so I spent a lot of time drawing. I was always doodling on my textbooks and found that if you could draw cartoons for other kids, they would like you. In some ways this strategy has continued my whole life, I suppose.

Who did you want to be?

It is weird, but as a kid, I just sort of took for granted that I would be making art - I didn’t really think about it that much. I would sometimes imagine my life as a stereotypical artist living in a squalid Parisian garret, smoking cigarettes, wearing a beret, and riding a bike with a loaf of French bread in my hand – you know like a “real artist”.

Outside of that I would also daydream about being a space traveler, or a magician – like a “watch me pull a  rabbit from a hat” type of magician but I  guess I would have settled for being a real magician too.

What was last Monday like for you?

Last Monday was pretty mundane. I woke up, mediated, and ate a tomato and hummus sandwich for breakfast.  I worked all day at my soul-crushing civilian job but after that, I subbed for an art class at the Des Moines Art Center, which was fun.  After that, I went home where my bandmates (Des Moines favorite Queer Rock Band – The Future Babies) were eating pizza. We were going to rehearse, but eating pizza trumped that. We made a set list for a show we had on Tuesday. After that, I listened to podcasts to go to sleep.

"I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t doodling or drawing or painting or making some kind of messy art."

Walk us through the days leading up to you doing your own art?

I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t doodling or drawing or painting or making some kind of messy art.  It was my go-to thing as a kid. In high school, when I felt ashamed about being gay I think I spent a lot of my time creating art as a way to justify my existence – making art was kind of a life raft that helped me get through high school, to be honest. It was a way to get people to look at the art instead of me- sort of a distraction, or sleight of hand. I went to Southern Methodist University for Painting and Philosophy and then to The Ohio State University for Printmaking. I started making art that wasn’t about appealing to other people, but art that I liked, that wasn’t formally “good” or “smart looking”. I did a lot of artist residencies and workshops. I spent some time in Buddhist monasteries. I taught a lot. I don’t know, I always think I am not making enough art, but then I have to move and realize I am making a lot more than I should be. I started showing my work at Moberg Gallery. 

Describe your art.

I make paintings comics and woodcut prints. I like the rough, gouged and cruddy line that is created when carving a piece of wood and try purposely to imitate that raw line in my paintings and drawings. 

I try to pair this line with vibrant colors because visually they also seem to have a similarly exposed honesty to them that my lines have. 

I also create autobiographical comics based on my life. I think of them as notes that are secretly shared with the reader. They focus on times in my life that are also awkward and raw. My band is based on the comics, and on some ideas, I have been playing with about performance art.  

What artist and artwork has inspired you the most in your creative journey? 

Linda Barry. Sister Carita Kent, Phillip Guston,  Jean Dubuffet, Tim Miller, Adrian Piper, Artemio Rodriguez, Sean Starwars, Kim Tucker, Mia Farrell,  William Hogarth, Kathryn Polk, Rachel Buse, Peiter Bruegal the elder, Christopher Chiavetti, Garbage Pail Kids, Fangoria, Judith Butler

What keeps you busy? 

I am pretty busy just scrambling for money, to be frank with you. When am I not working, or making art? I am trying to learn the Ukelele. I think it is super great to be a student and try things you are not naturally good at, and most members of my band will attest that I am not good at music. But it is great to create something with your hands, where there is kind of a humility to it. 

How do you stay focused?

It is hard sometimes, but taking the long view is helpful. There will be times where art making takes a back seat for a little while, but that is not forever. Birds gotta sing. They gotta make nests. It is in their nature. Sometimes it is good to trust yourself and sometimes hibernation is ok.  I think sometimes it is helpful to put artificial deadlines for yourself, such as scheduling an art show. 

What’s been the biggest challenge?

I think my biggest challenge is my depression. Second would be my self-doubt, but really depression is the big one.

How did you overcome it?

I do not know if I have overcome it, or will. I am trying. It can be embarrassing, but I think sometimes it is good to present it in a straightforward way because a lot of people struggle with depression too.

"But it is great to create something with your hands, where there is kind of a humility to it."

You get to redo something you’ve done. What would that be and why?

I wouldn’t have wasted so much time downplaying myself and pretending to be dumber than I am. I would also have trusted my intuition more, and not tried to please people that I didn’t approve of anyway. I would have quit a lot more jobs a lot sooner and I would have broken up with a lot more loudmouths faster. I think I wouldn’t pretend to care about things that I don’t really care about.

Someone is getting into art. What would you say to them if they came to you for advice?

I would first congratulate them for being so heroic.  It takes a lot to risk to create something new and push it into the world - it is an act of vulnerability to create culture instead of just consume it. 

So stupid impulsive cruddy things. Trust your intuition, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. You are creating something for you to figure out after the fact.

I would tell them to take pride in the act of making art-  that because  they are afforded an opportunity to create it, it shouldn’t be taken lightly – they should make art because they can, they either have the time,  the money and emotional bravery to create it, and a lot of people don’t.  So they have an obligation to make it for those who don’t or can’t.

I would also encourage people to not hide their art and show it as much as possible. It becomes richer the more it interacts with people. It shouldn’t be this stale cloistered object. There should be an interaction between you and a public, and while it might be scary at first – it is really what it is about. Put aside whether people like it or not, just see them as an extra set of eyes trying to help you discover the meaning of what you just made.

"I would also encourage people to not hide their art and show it as much as possible."

Why Des Moines?

There is no logical reason why I am in Des Moines. I don’t really have a job that I am proud of. My family all lives in New Orleans. There seem to be a lot of reasons to not live in Des Moines.

I think the reason I am here is the friends I have. They are amazing. My heart hurts at how generous and kind they are. I feel that is true about both the art and music scene here too. The community is super supportive and constructive.

What’s one new thing that has caught your eye?

Just now in my studio, someone put a rose in a beer bottle next to a piece of coral. It caught my eye and brightened my day. Also earlier today, a rabbit stood in my street and stared my car down. That was also eye-catching.

You can grant Des Moines one wish. What’s that wish?

I wish weirdness onto it. Actually, there is plenty of weirdness already bubbling in Des Moines. I wish for it to flourish, and take over. I wish all the different art communities would merge together more.

For someone new to DSM where do you suggest they go?

I would probably take them to the Glendale Cemetery Labyrinth, and then eat a breakfast at Waveland Café. I would show them a lot of my art of Ingersoll. Probably take them to see a band at either one of the bazillion house shows, or even vaudeville mews. I would see the art center. 

What are you most proud of and why?

I have very hard time answering this question. I guess I am proud that I am alive.
I am proud that I won an Iowa Artist Fellowship a few years back, and am embarrassed by that. I am proud that so many of my friends are succeeding, and that so many of my ex-students are making work. 

"I wish all the different art communities would merge together more."

It’s been six months, what do you hope to have accomplished? 

I am not going to lie, I don’t have big plans besides the practical business of surviving and quitting my current job as soon as possible. I do have these art related plans that I hope to have accomplished in the next 6 months: 1. I am working on a few scripts for comics that are pretty dark and I hope to have one of those drawn and printed by then. 2. My band is working on recording some songs, and I hope that is finished in a few months, 3. I  have started a series of paintings where I am trying to capture my inner superego – it is called “ be funny on no one will like you” I hope to have a few more of those created. 4. I am planning on revisiting a set of drawings and prints I used to make Multiple Sclerosis called “Stutter” 

One thing that matters most to you is what?

I would like to think being awake and compassionate. I think snuggling is fun too.

Photo Credit: Karla Conrad

Derek Jensen