Robert Saywitz is a visual storyteller. He creates his own graphic narratives in the form of original works on canvas, paper, and mixed media; art books; and graphic novels.
He builds images infused with emotion, that communicate a magnification and intensification of our daily life experiences. Finding inspiration in his environment and the world of music, each piece is rendered in a medium that best captures the personality of the subject.
He believes that the creative process of the visual artist closely mirrors that of the musician. Both adhere to laws of rhythm, harmony, tone, and composition, while utilizing elements within a specific medium—to create original and evocative stories.
An artist and designer, his work ranges from fine art and children’s book illustration, to music, film, and theater design. Saywitz’s work has been exhibited at venues including SPRING/BREAK Art Show, New York, NY; Williamsburg Art & Historical Center, Brooklyn, NY; The Sketchbook Project, Brooklyn Art Library, Brooklyn, NY; Gitana Rosa Gallery Brooklyn, NY; Central Booking, New York, NY; MoCCA Fest [Society of Illustrators + Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art], New York, NY; Comic-Con International, San Diego, CA; and New York Comic Convention, New York, NY.
Saywitz has work from his Music Was My First Love series in the upcoming group exhibition, BLUETS: to fall under a spell, opening at GearBox Gallery in Oakland, Friday, August 4—juried by Jack Fischer of Jack Fischer Gallery, whose Minnesota Street Project and Potrero Hill galleries are devoted to the work of outsider, self-taught, intuitive artists—exhibiting work he characterizes as “from the heart and the gut.”
Music Was My First Love, 2014, Artist books, Vinyl covers Variable sizes
How did you find yourself in the arts – or how did the arts find you?
I’ve always felt that I was an artist, but my specific trajectory as a working artist never coalesced in a linear way. In fact, I think it continues to unfold today and may for some time. The first artworks I remember creating were probably in first grade, maybe earlier, when often we were told by the teacher to put our heads down in our arms, to close our eyes and rest. I would start to see patterns behind my eyelids, and would try and create them on my own, changing their shape, movement and color.
When I was younger I was always drawing, always keeping a sketchbook nearby, but I never thought that being an artist was a viable option as a career, and no one ever told me otherwise. In fact, any adult influence I had when I was younger, always pushed me towards business as a more practical path, so I ended up studying Business at the University of Colorado.
It wasn’t until I studied abroad and lived in Copenhagen that I started paying attention to my artistic leanings when I took art history classes and began to seek out art in museums with a more critical eye. While still in Business School, I continued to pursue my art on my own time, and by the time I realized that business probably wasn’t for me, it was time to graduate.
After school, I moved to San Francisco and immediately got a job at an advertising agency, thinking that commercial art was the only way that I could utilize my artistic skill set and bring in a steady paycheck. I had just about every position available within the agency, and realized that the artists and designers working there were coming out of art school and already had proficient computer skills — both of which were not skill sets I had at the time. I quit the agency and started taking on odd jobs to pay rent, continued to paint in my own time, and started taking night classes in figure-drawing and how to use a Mac — working in design programs such as Quark and Illustrator..
I’ve always been inspired by music and musicians — I think they share a similar lens in the way they see the world and translating that view into artwork— and at that point my art was focused on music-related themes and portraiture. I decided to go back to school to study art and enrolled at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
I was still struggling to find a balance between my artistic practice and how to carve out a path that would sustain me financially, and putting myself through art school in itself was yet another financial burden to layer on top of everything. While in school, I studied graphic design and illustration, but as always, continued my self-education in art history.
As soon as I finished art school, I moved to New York City and began working as a freelance designer, illustrator, and fine artist, which continued for the next 13 years, until I returned to the Bay Area in 2015 where I now have a studio in Berkeley, CA.
I’d like to think that initially studying Business and then Design was a positive experience that gave me some crucial skills, or at least the awareness of certain needs and the ability to execute on those — like a marketing presence, branding, and website design — which many artists lack to complement their creative skillset when trying to carve out a career in the arts.
In the end, I’d say it probably wasn’t so much that I found myself in the arts, or even that the arts found me, but that we’ve been having a slow and steady courtship our entire lives that has ebbed, flowed, and constantly changed shape — but has always moved forward, not unlike those first drawings I created behind my eyelids while sitting with my head down in grade school.
Who has been an influence in your career?
I have always drawn my influence and inspiration from a variety of sources, often people beyond the scope of traditional two- dimensional visual artists to those that work across many disciplines — from architecture, film, music, writing, etc.
I think I’m more interested in how people who are successful in their fields see the world, and approach their artistic practice in a way that tries not only to further their own artistic vision and career as an artist, but also as a journalist or documentarian of sorts — using a critical eye to shed light on larger societal issues and historical narratives that may not be addressed in other forms of media and education.
The artists that have influenced me most have not only used their art to reveal and inform about certain untold human narratives, but in the process of their visual storytelling, find themselves reinventing a traditional artform along the way.
With that said, the artist who has probably had the most influence on my work is William Kentridge, who utilized his background in theater, to transcend typical two-dimensional work that hangs on a gallery wall in order to tell complex narratives about the effects of Apartheid and the struggle of South Africans to remember, be held accountable, and rebuild their country and personal narratives.
He wrote original play-like storylines and brought them to life, through animating his drawings on film — creating fictional characters and stories in order to expose deeply universal truths about history, violence, memory, and the need to tranquilize the collective memory in order to move forward and get back to the routines of daily life. He also used very specific visual motifs to distill more complex themes into something wholly unique and distinctively his own. Kentridge has also inspired me as an artist who works in very traditional mediums (charcoal on paper, stop-motion film animation) in such a way as to completely reinvent the form into something that has never been seen before. He would film individual frames of his drawings as he created them so in the end, he would have a completed film, but would only have a handful of process drawings that capture the essence of the film. This process allowed him to better convey long-form narratives and complex ideas that often require a lot from the viewer.
His process of doing a deep dive into a very specific chronicle with larger complex themes, was definitely an influence with my project on the Donner Party, We Are Made to Endure. The project was shown a few times in New York, but I’ve been thinking of revisiting it to perhaps bring it to life in a new unexpected way, that may resonate even more with viewers.
An issue that I’ve often dealt with, specifically with the Donner Party project, is tackling such complex narratives that it becomes unapproachable to most viewers. In our digital age of short attention spans, headline news and tweets, artists that can distill a complex narrative charged with difficult questions, has to successfully negotiate an agreement with the viewer to give the work the time it deserves, which means the work has to be skillfully crafted, visually engaging with some level of pathos, and also skillfully presented in written and verbal form.
Selections from the series We Are Made to Endure: A Portrait of the Donner Party, 2009–2014, Mixed media on paper, Variable sizes
I tend to gravitate towards artists like Kentridge, who have a rigorous level of consideration and thought when creating a project — usually those who are multi-disciplinary artists, utilizing a variety of mediums to add to their arsenal of visual storytelling. Artists who can not only use their craft to tell unique and compelling stories, but who actually create new ways to tell those stories and end up creating an entirely new form of storytelling in the process, become innovators in the field.
A more recent discovery for me of another artist who transcends all mediums through innovative storytelling and exposing underlying human narratives is Lynn Hershman Leeson. I saw her show Civic Radar at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts earlier this year, which was an influential moment for me to see an artist functioning more as a documentary filmmaker investig
While not all my projects tackle a long-form, complex narrative, a central storyline is always present in everything I do, whether it’s a one-off piece or a series or installation. I have an ongoing series entitled Music Was My First Love, which combines traditional drawing techniques, with now antiquated and often discarded elements from the music industry (e.g., 8-track cassettes, vinyl records, audio cassette ribbon) — to reveal the untold stories of older jazz and blues musicians, embedded with the heroic and tragic texture of each of the lives they lived.
I’m honored to have one of the pieces from my Music Was My First Love series included in the upcoming group exhibition, BLUETS: to fall under a spell, opening in Oakland, California Friday, August 4. The exhibition is juried by Jack Fischer of Jack Fischer Gallery, whose Minnesota Street Project and Potrero Hill galleries are devoted to the work of outsider, self-taught, intuitive artists — exhibiting work he characterizes as “from the heart and the gut.”
Selections from the series Music Was My First Love, 2014, Mixed media, Variable sizes
BLUETS explores a theme inspired by the writer Maggie Nelson, who has written that to love the color blue was to fall “under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.” Nelson’s “Bluets” is an experiment with form — using visual notions of ‘blue’ on which to project emotions of loss, pain, and suffering.
The selected work, Blue-hot — a matchbook-as-canvas portrait portraying Art Blakey — seeks to illuminate the history of one of the key instrumental figures overlooked in music. An American Jazz drummer who worked with Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, Blakey formed a collective to incubate young talent—and led a driving, aggressive extension of bebop, with pronounced blues roots, igniting and elevating music’s form.
When you hit a creative block, how do you move forward?
When I hit a creative block, I usually have to put everything down and step away for a while. The creative blocks usually happen when I dwell too long on something that isn’t quite working, but continue to try and force a visual answer.
In addition to stepping aside, I look to other, new sources of inspiration, whether it’s architecture, literature, or music, that often will open new doors and ideas to get me unstuck from what was inhibiting my process. Sometimes it’s just a welcome distraction from the task at hand, but even distraction can function as a way to relax the mind and move into new directions that help get unstuck.
How do you define success?
I strive to be an artist’s artist. When my work resonates with other artists that I look up to and admire, then I know I’m on the right track.
Success for me is also being able to make my artwork and maintain my vision of my role as an artist, without compromise, while sustaining my family financially. As with many artists, I think this is a constant struggle — to find the balance between maintaining your practice, staying true to your artistic vision, and earning enough income to support yourself, and in my case, a young family. Being a new dad (my son is now two) also has added complexities and challenges in relation to time management. Ideally, I will continue to build financial and commercial success, but until then, I continue the age old struggle between making money and making art.
What message do you hope your work communicates?
I have always seen art as an educational tool, a way to inform people about certain concepts and histories that they otherwise may have overlooked. I have always seen myself as a visual storyteller, and I hope that my work can tell stories in a unique way that resonate with people, and ideally get them to start seeing the world in a different way.
My Suspended Beliefs series is one of my attempts to portray key human narratives while looking at the constructed, layered, and idiosyncratic nature of storytelling and memory — and their roles within family and history. Visual diaries — constructed with an antique typewriter on paper and suspended by audio cassette tape—investigate our ability to suspend the trauma of our waking lives, seeking refuge in the altered state of sleep or in a collective identity. Words, ideas, quotes, and maps find their way into landscapes and portraits as waking life interacts with the unconscious.
I work on many different types of projects, each taking on different themes through different mediums, but I hope they all communicate a level of craft that reveals a deep commitment to process in order to express the narrative thread. As a storyteller, similar to a filmmaker, I rely on the power of narrative to communicate a specific storyline that has the ability to resonate in a universal way.