Robert Sawyer '14 deepened his love for art while attending Wheaton College, which he describes as truly “For Christ and His Kingdom.” While majoring in Studio Art/Graphic Arts: Printmaking, new opportunities arose for Robby to strengthen his craft and develop a more intimate artistic voice using the themes of passage, time, and space.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO STUDY AT WHEATON COLLEGE?
I knew Wheaton had just appointed a new president (Ryken) who had an interest in articulating the arts as important in culture, faith, and academics. I also knew that Wheaton had just refurbished their art building into one that had the capacity, personnel, and equipment to support creative thinking. It also has a dynamite group of faculty members across disciplines that continue to ask the hard questions of the faith and continuously seek out new and better ways to articulate the pervasiveness of Christ. Beyond that, Wheaton has a wonderful community of students, staff, faculty, and alumni that continue to invest in each other. The institution has a tremendous vision for the needs of the world through many of their local and global experiential programs.
HOW HAS YOUR WHEATON COLLEGE EDUCATION CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR SUCCESS? WOULD YOU GIVE YOUR PAST STUDENT SELF ANY ADVICE?
Wheaton has given me the foundation and practical tools to critically examine my own heart, my vocation, and my profession. I would tell myself to “Be humble. You’re not that great.”
WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES DURING AND AFTER COLLEGE?
The most challenging thing during college was learning the ability to multitask with the same level of focus for a diverse range of disciplines. Post-college, by far, has been learning to set aside time to work on my own artistic practice.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE SINCE GRADUATING AND WHAT DOES A REGULAR DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
I married my best friend, Keri Shannon Sawyer in June of 2017! Hands down, it’s the proudest accomplishment of my life.
Professionally speaking, I have worked in the design industry since graduating. I worked as a graphic designer for three years and then later moved into athletic apparel design and trend forecasting for a cycling company in Denver. Currently, I am in my final year of my M.F.A. in Print media at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Things are pretty busy while I’m in Graduate School. The days are long and never the same. I attend class, meet regularly with academic advisors regarding the nature and direction of my current work, work in the studio, supervise the woodshop/metal shop/digital fabrication studio, and then go home and enjoy the rest of the day with my wife and friends.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU ABOUT YOUR FIELD?
I absolutely love printmaking. It is a field of art that I find so versatile in relationship to other disciplines. The nature of repetition is at the heart of printmaking. Through doing something over and over again, I begin to understand something better. I find it very helpful in my own walk with the Lord as meditations and devotions are also repetition-based.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK METHOD?
I read a book this summer called The Relevance of the Beautiful by Hans-Georg Gadamer, and he largely put words to the methodology of my making. Gadamer describes how beauty can be seen most clearly in play. Play, as I understood it, was a non-objective reverberation between understanding and the imagination. I try to work very similarly. I try to give myself room for games and play but then pull myself out of that to understand what I did or where I am going with my imagination.
WHAT ARTISTS INSPIRE YOU?
The works of Do Ho Suh are absolutely incredible. I am serious, this guy is the real deal. His ability to think and then execute his ideas on a grand scale really emphasizes his interest in the notion of home, transition, displacement, and human interaction with architecture. In my mind, this is unparalleled. Rachel Whiteread, El Lissitzky, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, Leonard Baskin, and Josef Albers additionally make the list.
WHAT IS YOUR MOST IMPORTANT TOOL AS AN ARTIST?
My feet. If I couldn’t walk about, I wouldn’t know the difference between “inside” and “outside.”
TELL US ABOUT YOUR PIECE “MT. PRINCETON | STRETCH.”
In my artistic practice, I am very interested in the subject matter of passage between spaces and the architecture of atmosphere. Namely, how does something attract attention so much so that we find ourselves subconsciously gravitating towards its very existence? Mountains are one of those entities which have always possessed a magnitude that continuously draws me to them.
When walking, as part of a meditation that brings me closer to Christ, I try to place my mind in a state of conscious aimlessness in order to increase my sensitivity to the currents emanating from the subtle changes happening around me. Where I have found my mind most free to play has been in the mountains of Colorado two hours from my childhood home. On a 2D surface, I tried to represent where the eye can wander across the page in a space that I have drifted about on foot.
WHAT IS THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THIS PIECE AND A SPECIFIC PLACE?
For me, the piece bears the nostalgia of home but it also depicts the terrain of a Colorado 14er (14,000+ ft.) mountain and always reminds me to stretch myself outside of my comfort zones. This piece reverberates between comfort and discomfort so much that the two are bonded together, communicating emotions of rest and unrest at the same time.
WHAT IS INTAGLIO?
Intaglio (of European heritage) is a word representing a process of printmaking in which the artist engraves lines into copper or zinc plate using a sharp tool. After the cut lines are engraved, the plate is dipped into an acid bath. This deepens the cut lines in order to hold ink inside of them, later making the etched lines darker on the paper. This process was originally used in the late 1430s by goldsmiths and metalworkers to decorate armor.
WHAT WAS YOUR PROCESS IN CREATING THIS PIECE?
The inking process was extremely laborious because the details were so delicate that any variety of factors (too much/too little ink or too much pressure from the press) could have affected the final print. With printmaking, you constantly have to hit that sweet spot in order to attain a uniform series of prints. The process itself certainly helped me name the print.
WHAT TOOLS AND MATERIALS DID YOU USE ON THIS PIECE?
In order to produce spontaneous marks, which I often use in my practice, I used gunpowder to ignite and dent the copper plates. I also liked the use of gunpowder as a material for its complex history of violence, sport, and game and intrinsic connections to the scarring of land.
HOW DID YOU KNOW WHEN IT WAS FINISHED?
It’s always difficult for me to understand when a piece is finished. I sometimes allow for the process of creation to let me know when to back off. Often I know to stop when the ink gets too dark or the subtleties in the work begin to disappear.
HOW DOES THIS WORK RELATE TO THE THEME OF PASSAGE?
I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot recently. On a conceptual level, it is so strange how we have culturally learned to define and value certain spaces over others. We’ve also decided who and what has the self-proclaimed authority to define what is wilderness and what is civilization, where borders ought to be, the difference between what is inside and what is outside, and the distance of one thing to the next. Taken even further, we then assign these specific places as “safe” or not and then orient ourselves based on that assessment.
It is also interesting how we have placed value on certain places as worthy (or not) of passing through or over in order to get to our destination. We then start to see passage as an obstacle between us and our destination. It is sad how obviously obsessed our culture is in attaining success or accomplishing goals. So much so that often if goals are not present we get uncomfortable and frustrated, making it difficult to function as we ought to in the liminal space.
I have used the words of the philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, articulated in Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, as inspiration for my critique of goal-oriented living as fundamentally dissociation from the body of Christ, ourselves, and our environment. It follows: “to be lost is to be fully present and to be fully present is to be capable of uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost, but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender.”
Personally, in contemplation of the term "passage," I have really come to understand that I also fall victim to comfort and don’t really value the passage if it doesn’t have a destination, reward, or end goal. Because of this, I really try to counter this cultural methodology by intentionally viewing the passage (geographically, psychologically, spiritually, emotionally) as holistically separate from the destination. In doing so, I hope to emulate many of the wanderings of Jesus and the prophets as a method for communion with God and expression through art.
HOW DOES YOUR ARTWORK INSPIRE PASSAGE?
I often use maps as an entry point to my artistic practice, as they are most identifiably an image representing passage of space like with “Mt. Princeton | Stretch.” I like to work in sequence so that people who are not comfortable discussing the intricacies of conceptual art have a starting point and a platform for which they can start to (and are welcome to) engage in the artistic conversation of passage and mapping. Through sequence, I try to substitute the map for other imagery, allowing other images to emerge as integral for understanding passage. In doing so, I hope to articulate that even using simple material like barbed wire can articulate mapping in the same way, if not better, than the image of an actual map can.