Meet the Artist is a series of interviews with the Iowa Arts Council Artist Fellows.
Rob Stephens, of Des Moines, is a print maker who creates semi-autobiographical works using paint, silkscreen, comic book sequences, and monumental woodcut prints. His works employ a heavy gestural line and saturated color, often at odds with the themes and narratives depicted. From 2000–2014, he was a professor of art at Graceland University, teaching painting, printmaking, drawing and art history. He was a visiting artist at Mission Graphica in San Francisco, and has assisted in numerous print workshops across the country, including those at Frogman’s Press and Tom Huck’s Evil Prints. His salacious tell-all comic features “Good Kid Rob,” a neurotic alter-ego. His work is shown nationally and is represented by Moberg Gallery.
Where are you from?
I was born outside the city of Atlanta, Georgia and have been rambling around America most of my life. The precedent for this wandering lifestyle was set early for me, as the ceiling of the military hospital room I was scheduled to be born in collapsed a week before my birth and I had to be born in a neighboring town.
I studied painting and philosophy in Dallas, Texas and printmaking in Columbus, Ohio. I now live in Des Moines, Iowa and I really love it.
Where do you make your work ?
I have an art studio at the Fitch Building in downtown Des Moines. I feel really fortunate to be surrounded by so many energizing and creative people on a daily basis.
What is your medium of choice and why?
I create large woodcut prints, paintings and comics.
I think the reason I respond so viscerally to carving wood blocks is that the wood really does not want to be cut — it hates it and is frankly pissed off about the whole process. I am sure if it had its way it would rather be growing peacefully in a forest surrounded by bunnies and deer and so it resists mightily. I almost have to be a bully to gouge out my rough images, and the tension that this physically difficult process creates results in a raw, anxious line quality that reeks of aliveness. When I print these blocks, the craggily lines produced have a sense of honesty because you really have to mean them to carve them out. They seem like truthful bodily scrawls. I have tried to maintain this line quality in my other work.
What themes does your work deal with?
A lot of my work deals with the idea of vulnerability, confession and honesty. I associate gestural lines and saturated colors with being exposed. It is impossible to paint something toxic neon pink by accident — it is hard to hide behind taste or color theory with a color like that. To like something publicly and unironically — that is maybe the bravest and most fragile thing you can do. A lot of my work has been toying with the concept of self-disclosure. I spent about two decades of my life lying about who I am, about who I like, and the allure of being able to be honest is intensely appealing. I think it is appealing to most people and it is interesting to me that we live in a way that makes being direct and honest seem so appealing.
What are you currently working on ?
A few years ago, I created a project called “The Love Registry” where I solicited true narratives from a wide variety of people on the topic of unrequited love, and created visuals to comment on their stories. I wanted to pose the question about what it was like to live with an unspoken truth burning inside of you.
An extension of this work is a series of creative non-fiction “confessional” comics called “Good Kid Rob” that I have recently been creating in order to humiliate myself and expose my inner workings to the world. They revolve around coming out of the closet during the AIDs panic of the eighties and about coming to grips with the sudden and radical changes that have been happening in regards to gay rights. The tone of these comics is meant to evoke the hastily written love notes passed between students under the prying eyes of stern teachers.
What do you enjoy most about being an artist in Iowa ?
It is a really easy, charming place to live. Everyone is super helpful and mellow and it feels good to be a part of a community of artists.
What is one thing you would like to see change about the artistic field in Iowa?
I think that what the Iowa art scene really needs is more art to fail in weirder and more spectacular ways. I think the sense of risk and fearless play is something I would love to see more of. I would also love to see more performance art, pop up shows, guerilla art, and devised performances. I think that Iowa has a really interesting art scene, but it is not covered in the press very well, and it doesn’t have as much infrastructure in place as other states.
See more of Rob’s work at http://www.goodkidrob.com/