Pairing pictures and words

Jul 21

Artist Robert Bean took the scenic route to end up in art school.

Photo by Shannon Sturgis
Click to Enlarge

— See the show

Robert Bean: Safety in No.

Exhibit at Historic Arkansas Museum until Sept. 6

300 E. Third St., Little Rock

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday. 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

(501) 324-9351

Bean's site:

Sometimes you have to travel a long way to get where you're going, even if you end up back where you started. For Arkansas artist Robert Bean, whose vibrant, narrative works make up the new "Safety in No." exhibit at Historic Arkansas Museum, that journey included an eight-year break from college and time spent as a fry cook.

"I didn't know what I wanted out of school, and when you don't know what you want, you really do feel like you're just drifting through a series of classes," said Bean, 35, who grew up in North Little Rock and graduated high school there.

But his academic vertigo was never due to a lack of vision. From an early age, 10 or so, he knew he wanted to make art. Like many 10-year-old boys, that desire grew out of a love for comic books, and Bean said for many years he wanted to be an illustrator.

"When I started doing my own comics, that's when I realized I really could go somewhere with this," he said.

But like many 18-year-old boys, the first year of college proved, in turns, eye-opening, problematic, and ultimately life changing. For Bean it was spent in Knoxville, Tenn., and by the end he had "a stellar 0.96 GPA" and a growing sense of disquiet.

"When I left college, I didn't need to be there. I guess it sounds bad to say this, but I really just needed to flip burgers for a while," he said.

He spent time at Hendrix College and also moved to Fayetteville, though without attending school there. After eight years out of school, he ended up back in Little Rock, at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and earned a degree in art, with an emphasis in drawing and painting. It was the best thing that could have happened to him, he said, because "when I went back, I knew what I needed."

An education spanning 12 years opened up his appreciation of fine art and the way it can be bridged with commercial art, from figures like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to Diego Rivera. That took him off the illustrator's path. After a period of very abstract, design-oriented work that he realized "wasn't going anywhere," he came back to a more representative style. A professor's challenge to take color out of his work made him think more about composition, and led him to work from photos.

And that, he said, "took me back to when I was 16, just drawing what I see in front of me."

The result is work that is "hard edged" and "hard lined," pieces that "look illustrated, like it should be printed on a magazine cover." And they are pieces that tell stories - just like his beloved comics.

"On a comic book page, you have a series of small images that relate to each other. Even if there were no words on the page, you can still see the story," he said.

And so much of his work is like that, though not in pulp format. Complete works may involve a collection of individual canvases, or one painting using multiple images. Though at one time a big fan of leaving things "Untitled," Bean said now he makes the title an important part of the work, an "opening line" for a narrative continued by the piece.

What happens if you don't get it? Well, says Bean, art is subjective. He'd rather get a "huh?" than someone who glances at the title, glances at the piece and moves on five seconds later, because to him that means the work isn't engaging. And he wants his art to be that, because that's the kind of art he likes.

"I've never been someone who was overwhelmed with still-life or landscapes :. What interests me in art is how it relates to people and how art explores the themes we all deal with," he said.

And that can be seen in the "Safety in No.s" show, filled with character-driven pieces that speak to emotional connections between people. However, unlike most of his work, the pieces weren't developed as a response to an image, but instead as an image to suit an idea. The title of the show came first, then the titles of works and a few thoughts on what each meant - sometimes a single line, other times a paragraph or two. Then he found images to suit.

Not that Bean wasn't busy in the meantime. With the show set up last summer, he had his final semester in school to finish in the fall. Then came planning for a wedding on April 18 - a date picked so and his new wife, a CPA, could celebrate their anniversary after tax season.

So it's been a hectic year, but Bean said he's glad for it, and glad for the 10 years he's been resettled in Little Rock when friends were inviting him to come join art communities in places like New York and San Francisco.

"I moved here when things were really starting to get exciting in Little Rock ... and I could be a part of something that's growing and building," he said. "Now, I feel like I'm part of the local art scene and contributing to it. By being here, I'm helping contribute to the cultural awareness we have around here."

Third Degree

Name one piece of fine art that everyone should see in person at least once before they die.

"I'd have to say the Mona Lisa - but not for the reason most people think. I saw it as a teenager, and it really hit me how this incredibly well-known image is this little painting set back in a recessed alcove to protect it from light. Seeing the real thing brought me back down to earth about art and how something so important can be fairly tame, normal and almost insignificant when you finally see it."

What one song or musical artist will never fail to put you in a good mood?

"Anything from the band Belly. Not sure if it's the music itself, or the memories and associations I have with the music, but it always picks me up."

If you knew your next meal was going to be your last, what would you have?

"Cheese fries with bacon and ranch. And a big fat pizza. Or two. I'm allergic to dairy, but at that point, it wouldn't really matter anymore would it?"

What color would you say best describes your personality?

"Purple. It's a hot color and a cool color blended together. It levels out."

If you could have any super power, what would it be?

"Time travel. Think of all the amazing places and people you could see if you had the ability to jump around history. There are so many events I would love to be able to see and witness, so many stories to experience first hand."


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