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  • Rob Will

Insights into Living Art- Part One

The following writing is a letter Rob wrote to a fellow artist and writer. He is responding to questions they asked about his art as part of their doctoral thesis project. In answering these interesting and thought provoking questions – many of which he had never been asked before – Rob gives greater insight and depth of meaning to his work and process of artistic creation.


For the past hour or so, I have been working on “canvas prep”. This will take me a few days and in a little while I will spend some more time with it… I thought that I would start a snail-mail to you that I will write on and off as I am working on art. This will probably seem quite random, but this is probably good – a little “art experience” for us to share!

Yes indeed, I most certainly do find your questions intriguing and interesting. Answering such questions is quite cool and I love-love-love engaging in thought-provoking dialectical discussions. Writing about myself without any prompting just seems rather boring. What we are doing is inspiring and motivational! – A shared collaborative Art Experience!


How do you get your materials? 

Short answer: any way that I can! There were times in the past when I had access to only a small amount of funds. I had to limit the amount of food and other commissary items that I bought so I could buy art supplies. For this – and other reasons – I have indeed had to adapt my practice.

On Drunken Master Zhang and Saint Francis of Assisi:

Valentine, I really love what you wrote about this! I had never thought of the parallels between the two holy men – and their faith traditions – but this is definitely interesting.On the portrait of Pope Francis that I did I tagged up the following lines from Saint Francis of Assisi (who, as I'm sure you know, he took his “Pope's Name” from):

Our hands imbibe like roots,

so I place them on what is beautiful in this world

And I fold them in prayer,

and they draw from the heavens Light

—-Saint Francis of Assisi 

      (1182 to 1226 CE, Italy)

Yes, both men were indeed “men of the people”, and they had a reverence for the natural world. I also believe – as they did – that all people have the capacity to undergo radically transformative and expansive earning and growth. What would my Drunken Master Zhang practice be, given unlimited access to materials and places to go? 

Well, I have worked extremely hard for years now networking and forging solid connections with people out in the “freeworld” and this will allow me much access and the ability to continue my work when I get out of here. I do not know about “unlimited access” to materials and other things, but I will have a whole lot of access and the ability to travel widely. The possibilities really are endless…

One of the things I would like to do is work towards implementing integrative Mind-Body Health Art Therapy/ Cognitive Behavioral Therapy programs for “at risk youth” on the outside –  and do the same within the prison system. There are all kinds of possibilities for this and many intersecting psycho-sociopolitical dynamics that can be explored… For some reason, a few interesting ideas expressed in the book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis just came to mind and I feel compelled to share them with you:

“Contemporary art suffers from a narrow audience. Access to art education is largely (and increasingly) determined by income level and privilege; art education should be defended and made universal (this point itself involves a critique of the notion that art is a luxury).

There is no reason why the immense quantity of artistic talent that currently exists, unable to find purchase within the cramped confines of the professional ‘art world’, could not be put to work generalizing art education thereby providing itself within a future audience”.

When I first read that book – not long after it came out in 2013 – I highlighted those lines and thought, “well, I think I will do exactly as Ben Davis is suggesting, to the greatest extent that I can from the confines of this wretched little cage. And I have done just that

On “Do It Yourself Practices” and creative techniques to replace or substitute things I cannot get in prison:

You mentioned reading the piece I wrote entitled Art Process and Suffering where I described the quite elaborate and time consuming process I engage in to make paint. Not long before I started painting, another guy here – who was the first person to do this – came up with the technique of mixing colored pencil “leads” with watercolor tabs to make paint. He would remove the leads of a few colored pencils of the same color then let them soak in water overnight. Then, he would mash up the now softened leads and drop a few tabs of watercolor (of the same color) and stir this around in a cup and mix it together. He would remove the larger “clumps” and “grains" of the colored pencil and pour the rest into little open air homemade paint trays. The paint would dry and this allowed him to paint in the traditional watercolor style: adding water to the colors he wished to use and rehydrating them as he worked. 

I tried this and quickly realised this was not going to work for the type of art that I wanted to create. After some experimentation, I developed a similar but different technique: I took a large number of color pencil leads and took the time to (while dry) crush them into fine powder. I then poured the pigment powder into a bottle containing pre-liquefied watercolor tabs. (Again, a large amount). I mixed this with the process of a whole lot of heating and shaking and heating and shaking. 

At first I would leave the bottles of paint heating up in my hot pot and use the paint while hot. I discovered, though, that after a prolonged repeated process of heating and shaking, the binder in the colored pencils and watercolors would fully dissolve along with the leads and tabs. This created a type of paint that was much thicker and richer, and more like “freeworld” paint.

Ah, yes, the brushes made out of human hair! The same guy who first developed the “paint mixing technique” was also the first person here to make paint brushes out of human hair. The ones he made were very small round brushes, which were completely useless for the type of work that I wanted to do. I started making much larger human hair paint brushes, utilising different materials. He always used pen tubes and pen tips, which didn't take a lot of time to construct. I began making brushes that looked and functioned more like “freeworld” brushes and took much more time to construct.

When I first started painting I mainly used homemade human hair brushes for quite a while. I also made some from an old style shaving brush they used to sell on commissary many years back. I’m pretty sure that it was made of actual hog bristle and the brushes worked pretty good. I have utilised all kinds of “homemade techniques” -some I developed myself, some developed in collaboration and experimentation with others, and some I learned directly from other guys.

On hanging art on the walls and the amount of work that I can keep:

We cannot keep any type of art on the walls. I am the first person to ever do any type of art larger than the single illustration board (15 x 20 inch). For years I was the only person doing larger art. There has been a few occasions in the past 10 years where a couple of other guys have done a few larger two boards sized (20 x 30 inch) pieces. Last month, for the first time, another guy here did a really big piece similar in size to the nine board (60 x 40 inch) paintings that I've done. I am mentioning this so you understand why hanging on the wall –  or a clothesline – was never an issue before I started to do this. It just was never done before. 

This actually wasn't “an issue” until a particularly nasty and hateful fascist minded art despising new Sergeant started working on this building. She took it upon herself to launch a personal surveillance attack campaign against me and my art. This was a big ordeal (long story!) but at one point she lead a shakedown raid on my cell and confiscated some of my art. Her justification? She conjured up the claim that because I had a painting hanging on my wall, that this was a “major security threat”, which demanded the immediate intervention of a search and seizure operation. 

I came very close to launching my own direct action resistance campaign in response to this – which would have involved getting gassed and dealing with the SWAT team, repeatedly – but the head warden and Death Row warden got involved. They ended up giving me back my paintings with this understanding: from now on, I could only have my paintings hanging up on my wall on a clothesline while I'm in my cage, but they must be taken down whenever I leave my cell to go to a visit (or wherever). Also I couldn't tape or paste them to the wall and they had to be hung in a way that would easily allow staff to look behind them at any given time, should they choose to do so. Cool. That was years ago and I've operated under this understanding since then with no problems.

Most of my pieces are so large that I have to hang them up to work on them. I make little “hanging hooks" out of two small pieces of popsicle sticks and affix them to the backs of the paintings (illustration boards). Then I “hook them” onto my clothesline. I’ve also affixed some “hanging hooks” up high on my wall and ran a line (braided or twisted string) between them and latched paintings onto this. This only works with pieces that are two boards, or most much lighter four board pieces that aren't too heavy with paint. 

The way I construct my “canvases" allows me to fold them down to around the two board (20 x 30 inch) size. They are really flat so this doesn't take up much space. I also try to get my pieces picked up as soon as possible so the amount of work that I have in my cage at any given time has never been an issue.

On natural light:

I never have any natural light in my cage. The three inch windows in these cells are tinted and only allow a small, very thin beam of filtered sunlight to sneak in on rare occasions (and for a very small amount of time).


Who are the artists who inspire you? Fine arts, artists, music artists or others?

What a question, Valentine!?! I do not even know where to begin in answering this! And I'm sure that my response would be different every time I am asked such a question… I suppose that many of my inspirations are readily apparent and can be easily discerned from viewing my work... Just now I reread the lines that you cited from some of the little writings that I've done regarding art: 

 “With art, I really just rock out and dance to the eurythmic free-form music of creative energy that is flowing through me… It is a dance filled with rhythm,  music and flow. I move with the flow of color, the eurythmic sense-enlivening flow of music and I just create”.

First, know that the vast majority of the time when I do writings, I simply sit down and scribe them out in one sitting, then send them right out quickly and move on to other things. I regularly surprise myself when I happen to read older writings and this dynamic also occurs when I read the titles and examine some of my older paintings. The sense of surprise arises when I “re-remember” certain elements of the initial act of artistic creation that I hadn't thought about since then…

…Ha! So I just started laughing because right as I finished the above paragraph I suddenly snatched up two of my “art folders” which contain a bunch of printed images of my paintings, and a bunch of other things. Then I grabbed one of my Jung books and read some passages that I highlighted. Then, I grabbed five pages of notes/thoughts that I wrote after receiving your first letter. Just as I was about to look for a specific list of music that I made some years back, I stopped, suddenly realising that I had quite unconsciously started to do these things because I felt rather stuck in trying to answer your question. I laughed, realizing that telling you about this probably gives you more insight into my artistic inspiration and creative process than any other response that I could come up with after

lengthier reflection and a more methodical analysis…

We are engaged in a collaborative art experience right now, right at this moment, and the best way to genuinely respond to your questions regarding inspirations… is to just vibe with you as I am rocking out to this heavy metal show on the radio and doing canvas prep work off and on, and other things…

On Music and Artistic Inspiration:

I've always had a deep and lifelong love affair with music. From the very beginning, from the moment that I first stepped into the devotional path of ever-evolving artistic creation, music has heavily influenced all that I do. There are so very many levels to this… Hm, how about we engage in a little artistic experiment that just came to mind? Consider this an act of facilitating international, cultural exchange and understanding and a nod to Rauschenberg's ROCI project. Think of it as a Joseph Beuys-esque Art Action, or Art Happening or Social Sculpture…

…See this as a piece of collaborative surrealist performance art. View this from the perspective of shamanic artistic exchange: as a way of sharing a part of my healing story, as therapeutic ritual, or as a process of sacred transmission of these pieces of wisdom and healing music for the sake of promoting the physical, mental and spiritual welfare of you and I, as fellow artists and the wider artistic community, and society as a whole. Think of this as an act of “Art for Art's sake" or as a purely sensualist and decadent aesthetic indulgence; or as an act of radical political art and a criminal justice reform endeavour, or, or… whatever. Ha! I do think that this may allow you to feel me more regarding music and my process of artistic creation (and what I have previously written about this). 

Good strings music has the power to completely captivate me and bring me to tears as I am swept away into deep and overwhelming heightened states of emotion. Here's a list of some strings music that has this effect on me:

Violin Concerto by Ernst Bloc

Violin Concerto in F-Sharp Minor by Joseph White 

Violin Concerto in A-Minor, Opus 28 by Karl Goldmark 

Strings Sonata in E-Minor, Opus 91 # 5, Max Rega. 

Fantasy for Violin and Harp, Camille Saint Sans 

Violin Concerto by John Sebelius 

Violin Sonata # 12, Archangelo Corelli 

I would like you to listen to these pieces of music… and just experience them to see if you can feel me… there is no way that I can draw or paint while listening to these pieces but doing so can bring me much artistic inspiration. It is rare that I encounter – and I'm able to listen to – such works and strings music alone can render me completely overwhelmed, helpless and in tears.

Other music can inform and influence my work in different ways. I will talk with you more about this later, but for now I think that I will list some musical artists and pieces of music that I particularly like and find inspiring. This is quite random and I'm sure that such a list would be different every time. Well, here you go:

Jazz: All kinds of Latin Jazz, most especially Eddie Palmieri. Jr Gonzalez, Mongo Santa Maria, Raquel Sepeda, Tito Puente. 

All of the Jazz legends: Miles, Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus. Max Roach, Cannonball Adderley. Fela Kuti is one of my absolute favourite musicians of all time. Newer artists like Kamasi Washington and Esperanza Spalding. I love Jazz.

Blues: Jimmy Smith, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Etta James, Billie Holiday, and so many others! 

Classic Rock: Santana, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Phish, Quicksilver Medicine Show, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin. Deep Purple.

Heavy metal: Otep, In This Moment, Pantera, Megadeth, Exodus, Slayer, Ozzy and Black Sabbath, Black Label Society. 

Rap/Hip-Hop: Tupac, Lil Wayne, UGK, OutKast, K-Rino, Nicki Minaj, Street Military.

Hindu traditional, Bhangra and Punjabi music: I love this!

Good EDM and House-Fusion music can be very motivational and inspiring…

And I'll sign off for now with some interesting lines from an essay Art Culture and Pediatric Mental and Behavioural Health: An Interdisciplinary Public Health Approach by Michael L. Penn and Philip Kojo Clarke (included in The Oxford Handbook of Medical Ethnomusicology): 

The cultivation of arts that befit the dignity of the human race and that promote the best interests of humankind must be a goal of the century that is just beginning. Many artists and writers have recognised this urgent need, and many have turned their skills and talents towards its realization. Writing on a new birth of the classical spirit in his groundbreaking work, ‘The Culture of Hope’, Frederick Turner describes the first rays of a new light that began to appear over an erstwhile dark horizon. The new light is not really new, it is the same light that has illuminated the path forward since the dawn of human history. But it is a light that casts its beam over a humanity that is rapidly maturing over an uncharted terrain of possibilities that we as people are just discovering. Technology has rendered the new world that stretches out before us, one that embraces the entire planet and thus it carries the harvest of the spiritual heritage of the entire human race.”

From the confines of this wretched little cage, I do what I can to promote and cultivate a practice of living art – one that is directly in harmony with the vision expressed in the above paragraph. 

With Peace, Strength, Hope and The Ever-Expanding Light of Collaborative and Creative Artistic Synergy:

Rob Will

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