“Love is a many splendored thing, until it’s not… in which case it just plain sucks. Whether we fall out of love, experience unrequited love, or lose the love of our life, heartbreak is a pretty universal feeling for most people. I personally love a little heartache, but I do believe that there’s something to be said for what a little heart-wrenching despair can do for the creative mind. I’m not alone in this sentiment. Whether reeling from the discovery of an unfaithful husband, like Frida Kahlo, or capturing the death of a beloved wife on canvas, like Claude Monet, many artists have experienced their greatest artworks after love has been lost.”
This quote made me reflect on an interview I did with artist Robert Scholten (aka Robobop) in front of a live audience at Chapel Off Chapel back in 2014. Scholten had his artwork projected on a large screen and spoke eloquently about his relationship between his art and his marriage breakdown. It was certainly a memorable interview. The packed audience were entranced, moved by Scholten’s tender and creative voice. Audiences talked about the interview for weeks later.
I first met Scholten fleetingly at “Collective Momentum” exhibition at the Carlisle Street ArtSpace in St. Kilda. The first thing that I noticed was this huge smile, white teeth like something out of a toothpaste ad and this shock of black spiky hair. He was surrounded by a crowd of women all vying for his attention, which I am sure thrilled him. Some where along the way we became good friends working on a few projects together – some successful and some not successful.
I was most curious about this prolific artist’s life and career, so I asked:
What did you do before you became an artist?
I’m not sure there was ever a “before,” but here goes. Growing up, I was always known as the shy kid in the corner who’s good at drawing. My job was to fill the other boys school organisers with drawings of sexy women to get them through maths class. After high school, I did a year of biotechnology but was deeply unhappy – and totally obsessed with making art and devouring every art book in the library! With the encouragement of my worldly interior design student and girlfriend at the time, I left to study art and become a real artist. After declaring my ambition to the world, arguing with my family and friends, I was rejected from every art school. It really sucked. So I found myself studying Information Systems instead, which led to technology being a big part of my practice. After that, I decided to go and live in Japan. I was lucky enough to paint theatre backdrops and murals there. Japan really opened my eyes to art, in the sense that I felt art can be everywhere, not just in galleries. I returned to Melbourne, studied graphic design and worked in that field for a while. After a tough period where my marriage broke up and I lost my job, I found myself doing art full time ever since. However, I always felt I was an artist, it’s more like, so it’s hard to say “before”, as I always created art, rented studios.
How did you become an artist?
I like to joke that I’ve tried everything I could to not be an artist. In the end, I just gave up and accepted my fate. There’s an element of truth there. One of the earliest times where I really felt connection as an artist, it was on Hirado, a small Japanese island near Nagasaki. All I had was a sketchbook, markers, ink and cheap book of Van Gogh drawings. For weeks I wandered around the island drawing.
Why do you do the work that you do?
I don’t know how to answer this question. There is no real why, just do. It feels right and it feels good so I do it. I suspect if you’d ask a child the same question, they’d have the same answer. Maybe I remained a child in that sense. If anything, my goal is to be as authentic as possible – this also means knowing and accepting yourself, which is a lifelong journey.
Which people or what inspires you to work in the arts? Your work seems to span all kinds of mediums – film, painting, installation, can you tell us about these different mediums and why you chose to do this?
Art is something I just really love doing. Even the boring parts. From this passion comes a desire to create, improve and learn. So I look a lot. Inspiration is hard to pinpoint as it comes from so many different sources, changing on a regular basis. I love art history, from all across the world and across time. I like organic surfaces with a feeling of time ravaging it. I like nature. I guess the short answer is anything could be inspiring at any given time. Growing up, I didn’t come from an artistic family so a lot of my art exposure came from pop culture and self study in libraries. I met some artists growing up, which provided inspiration and guidance. My friend asked me the other day why I do many different mediums and I joked that I’m a hustler! In the sense that to make money and survive as an artist, I do many different types of jobs. But the flip side of that is that I enjoy the challenge of working in different media. It’s just fun. It keeps you fresh, as I think it’s dangerous to be too comfortable – you risk repetition. Also, today’s world makes it easier for artists to cross between different mediums as there are less barriers – better tech, cheaper equipment and accessible knowledge.
You have suffered a number of personal setbacks. Do you think these are explored subconsciously in your work?
I feel like all our experiences shape us, and as an artist these will definitely come through. Uninvited or not and especially subconsciously. Our individuality will always come through including sadness and despair. But overall I’ve been quite lucky. My setbacks are relatively minor to other people I know and I’ve been able to turn them around into positives. If anything, they’ve made me stronger and gave me greater persistence!
What do you think have been some of the negatives and positives in your work do you think?
My philosophy has always been to keep working. I can look back and connect the dots later. The best thing I can do in my work is to be as honest as possible, which is quite hard to do! Positives and negatives are momentary perceptions, subject to change. Especially from my brain. Some of the things in my work that I hated before, I love now for the reason that I hated them!
What’s been your favourite achievements up to this point?
I don’t really have massive achievements but I’ve been fortunate to work with different communities of people and have a positive impact on them. I’m grateful to do art everyday and I always try to improve. I just take it day by day, though it’s nice to look back at various projects.
What are you currently working on?
I have a few different projects on at the moment – Murals (one involves a peacock, one involved Poseidon, and another involves a girl drinking coffee, Spice Girls magazine illustration, Children’s book illustration, painting and decorating a Dr Seuss city with a primary school, paintings for an upcoming exhibition, corporate art workshop, Illustrations for a printer company, planning some etching prints for an upcoming residency in Chiang Mai and short animation and some short film docos.
If you couldn’t do this anymore, what career path do you think you would have followed Robert?
I don’t know the exact career but I feel like I would like to do something that has a positive effect with people and culture, like helping with poorer communities for needs like education. Or in a completely different direction, maybe a detective, because I like solving puzzles and thinking about peoples’ personal stories and motivations. I would also rather work for myself.
Tell us a funny story or joke that involves your work or life.
One time I had a coffee meeting with a guy I once did a job for. He wanted to discuss a new project. I went to the cafe and sat down with him. He seemed a bit grumpy that day, so I tried to make small talk. He didn’t talk much, so I ordered a coffee and played a bit with his dog and waited for him to finish his breakfast. After 40, 45 minutes, it got awkward – it was supposed to be a work meeting, after all. So I decided to push the subject of the work, and he gave me a blank look. Didn’t know what I was talking about. That’s when I realised. I was supposed to be in the cafe two doors down! I quickly apologised, paid for my coffee and exited with a red face.
Check out Scholten (Robobop)’s amazingly diverse work at: www.robertscholtenartist.com