December’s destructive windstorm played havoc with many islanders’ Christmas holidays and will cost untold thousands in property damage, but most residents were able to return to life as usual.
That was not the case for esteemed local artist Michael Robb, who had been in serious health decline for the past year. In some ways Robb became a casualty of the storm, after a move from his home to Lady Minto Hospital in order to access oxygen proved too much for him. He died with his wife Donna Johnstone by his side on Dec. 23.
The loss of the self-taught, highly inventive sculptor and painter is a considerable one for the arts community. The timing is particularly sad because Robb was getting ready for a January show at Fault Line Projects, which would feature his own latest works as well as a series of photos based on his studio space taken by Michael Wall.
That show, Eidolon, is still going ahead as planned and will open this Friday, Jan. 11 with a reception from 5 to 8 p.m.
In ancient Greek literature, eidolon meant the spirit image of a person, either living or dead. The term can also mean an idealized image or thing. But the uncanny name is not something that was added to the show after Robb’s death; he and Wall had agreed on it after several other suggestions.
While Robb was often dismissive of his own talent and wouldn’t care to be idealized, he did have a feisty energy, one that it’s easy to believe will carry on. He grew up in Kansas on a Shell oil lease and learned to experiment with art through working at a paint and wallpaper store. Later on he earned a master’s degree in European history, while remaining keenly interested in modern politics. He moved to Canada because of the situation with the Vietnam War, although he was not personally at an age when conscription would be a risk.
Robb’s self-taught and self-invented practices included glass-blowing, sculpting, painting and computer art. He is perhaps best known for his welded sculptures that combine imagined and historically informed elements to become 100 per cent original, often surreal figures. Bird or animals could be outfitted with ancient Egyptian, Roman or Middle Eastern motifs. Although he had to give up sculpting over the past year, the upcoming show will include a good sample of Robb’s three-dimensional works.
Robb suffered a massive heart attack earlier in the fall, but he was still working and managed to do five new paintings before he died.
“That’s what he lived for, was to work,” Johnstone said. “He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t walk, he was in a lot of pain — but it was a very happy time for him. He had drawings galore and he was thinking about what to do after this show . . . Art was his reason.”
Michael Wall’s professional career as a graphic artist meant working with precise lines and images, so in his artistic practice he tends to look for chaos, transformation and more random elements. He and Robb got to know each other around five years ago and became mutual supporters, sometimes exchanging work.
Wall had to work on Robb for some time, however, before he was permitted to capture the older artist’s studio life.
“I knew that Michael’s workshop was a complete mess so I was really itching to get in there and take some photographs,” Wall said. “I finally got into the workshop around a year ago, but I realized the photos were missing a certain element — which was Michael.”
It took another campaign to convince Robb to be in the photos. The process started with Wall hanging around in the background while Robb worked, but it evolved into them having conversations about art, philosophy and work.
“The result is quite abstract,” Johnstone said of the photos, which take in aspects like Robb’s flame-decorated welding helmet and sparks flying, as well as assemblages of art stacked up in the studio space. “It works out to be a perfect companion show for Fault Line Projects. It’s really looking at process and the Michaels’ work.”
Robb was 83 when he died. He did not wish to have an obituary or a memorial event, so the show is one way that people can pay their respects to the co-founder of the Alliance of Salt Spring Artists and the monthly Art Night critiques, now running for some 16 years.
“I think it’s going to be a very interesting show. I think the combination of the two will be interesting — to get a better idea of Michael, his work and how he is,” Wall said.
Eidolon runs at Fault Line Projects to Feb. 9.