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  • Rob Will

Insights Into Living Art- Part Two

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

“Interesting things happen when the creative impulse is cultivated with curiosity, freedom and intensity”

– Saul bass 

Some Prince is on the radio and I stopped what I was doing so I could close my eyes and better experience his artistry… I love Prince and I've heard this song a countless number of times but there are always new things to learn from engaging in these types of little mindfulness practices.

I was just reminded of a time when I was working on a large 30 x 40 in color field type of painting. I was in the middle of working on it, rocking out along a clearly defined path of conceptual themes and set Color Theory. A long set of music by Prince came on… Oh yeah!... I love Prince and the DJ was playing some of his most captivating songs. 

He cut in and said that he was going to play two straight hours of Prince, which made me howl in delight at this extremely rare opportunity. I was just about to stop painting for the night right when this Prince came on – but there was no way that I could stop painting while this music was on. I kept on painting while vibing out to Prince… Breathing in the power of his eclectic artistry…

Feeling the eurythmic creative energy of his music dance through me. Rising, rising and increasing in intensity – and I suddenly felt a type of vibratory tension, a dissonance, a strange sense of directional change in the flow of creative energy. It felt like the creative energy coursing through me directly inspired by Prince’s artistry demanded to be channelled and released. How could I be immersed in two straight hours of the sense-enlivening experience of pure Prince musical brilliance while also working on art and allow this art to not directly honor Prince's work and influence through some form of visual manifestation?

I had been working on this piece for like a month and a half and it was almost finished. I was really only doing touch up work. This feeling kept on increasing and it wasn't any type of negative thing, just rather strange and something I hadn't experienced before. Well, alright... I kept on painting, singing along with Prince, body-rocking along with the rhythm… “Ah-ha! Yes! Some purple for Prince!”, I triumphantly declared as I remembered a bottle of purple paint that I made a while back and had yet to use and knew exactly what I had to do with it: I integrated purple into the color theory/ color symbolism of the painting.

Music influences my creative process in all kinds of ways. I really must apologize for not giving you clearer and more direct responses to your very interesting and thought provoking questions and inquiries. No one has ever asked me these types of questions – which is really quite inspiring and motivational – and art is just such as shamanic experience with me, and, well, this is the only way that I can respond: by just vibing with you and sharing my thoughts as I contemplate and think through all that you asked..

On influences, inspirations and describing my work:

Art for me is a very expansive, multi-dimensional and ever-evolving process of constant exploration. When people ask me to describe my art, I never even really know where to begin. Something that Jean-Michel Basquiat said in a 1985 interview with Becky Johnston and Tamra Davis always comes to mind:

BJ: So when people ask you, do you ever comply with the request to describe your work?

JMB: I never know how to really describe it except maybe – I don't know, I don't know how to describe my work, ‘cause it's not always the same thing.

BJ: Do you ever feel that important to you, though, not to be able to describe it? That if you did. you would neify or objectify the work? And you’d feel like you were stuck with a definition you didn't want?

JMB: It's like asking somebody, asking Miles [Davis], “How does your horn sound?” I don't think he could really tell you why he plays this at this point in the music. You know you're just, you're just sort of on automatic… most of the time.

I definitely understand what Basquiat is expressing here, but delving deeper into examining the question of inspiration and influence reminded me that I have always loved all forms of art. This was apparent even as a small child, but I did not grow up in an environment that was in any way conducive to nurturing artistic creativity. I did a little drawing off and on while growing up. After coming to prison I spent a bit of time dabbling with art here and there – only periodically doing basic small format pen and colored pencil work — for the first 10 years that I was there.

Delving deeply into the study and practice of Yoga is what really expanded my mind in a way that filled me with a wildly kinetic creative energy that demanded release. This eurythmic Dionysian artistic energy started to dance a sacred dance within me – rising and rising to a point of bursting forth from my fingertips and guiding my hands into acts of shaping and creating new forms of visual art and artistic experience.

This is when I started painting and creating my first painting entitled Anima Pachamama.

Earlier today, I came across a writing that I did back then entitled My First Taste of Yoga… I hadn't read this piece in like nine years and it was interesting to do so. In it I described the first deeply impactful “eye-opening and consciousness expanding” yoga experience that I had around four years before. Actually, hold on, let me grab that writing. Alright. It seems a bit ridiculous to cite something I previously wrote, but I will scribe out the most relevant lines for you because doing so may help better answer some of your questions. I explained how that initial experience:

[ L]ed me to delve into many areas of study and travel down many roads. I kept on meditating, eventually obtained books on Yoga and embraced Yoga as an overall philosophy of life. About two years ago I became knowledgeable enough to help others learn asanas (yoga poses) and basic meditation techniques. Around a year ago I began delving much more deeply into the philosophy of yoga with a particular emphasis on its relation to modern psychology. This has greatly enhanced my ability to help others learn yoga…

I recently obtained official Yoga Instructor Certification, which has reminded me that I am and always be an eager student with an unquenchable desire to learn. It seems that a week doesn't go by without me making a new discovery, a discovery that reinforces the idea that life is all a process of continuous growth, and I will always be a sceptic and great lover of Logic, and I will always be an enthusiastic empiricist, albeit one who recognizes  that life contains infinite potential.

I had forgotten about this, but at the end of this writing (from 2010), I included a list of 27 books that I had read, which I found to be helpful in my Yoga studies. I mentioned that texts on many other subjects had helped me greatly, but I confined the list to (mostly) works on Yoga and western psychology. I included several works on Symbolism, Conditioned Reflexes by I.P Pavlov, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, by B.F Skinner, and three books by CG Jung: Man and His Symbols, Psychology of The Unconscious, and The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga.

I read all of the books on the list before I ever did my first painting.

In the 10 years that I had spent in a cell on Texas Death Row before I started painting, I had also insatiably devoured all manner of books and literature, that transversed an eclectic and very wide ranging range of subject matter and fields of study. Yoga was the catalyst that propelled me into creating conceptual visual art, based on themes and ideas that I was already familiar with (or in the midst of working with). This was a very shamanic process though –  as it still is – and extremely difficult to try to properly describe. Like Basquiat said: Miles Davis on the horn, sort of on automatic, just rocking with a constant flow of ever-evolving creative energy…

A talent for technical drawing and good draftsmanship are not something that I naturally possess. I had to learn these things through diligent study and practice. I do, however, have the innate ability to understand the science of color and utilize this well. I was letting my paintbrush dance across canvas and create eurythmic fields of color, and utilizing the psychology of color, long before a friend of mine who taught Art at the university level ever sent me books on Color Theory.

The work that I do – starting with my first painting – deals with a wide range of multifaceted and interconnected psychosociopolitical themes, concepts, ideas and experiences. I was painting for quite a while before I started reading academic art books. A friend and colleague who had a fancy Art Degree from a fancy Art School started sending me fancy Art Books. I just rock with art. Art is just what I do. I have never had any type of desire to be in tune with what one might call the “Art World”. Reading such books can be interesting, informative, thought provoking though. I have learned a lot from this type of study.

When I first started reading these types of works I kept thinking that I had unwittingly ventured into the universe of Modern Art Theory by walking backwards along a self constructed path – one paved with stones sourced from areas unconnected to the ancestral lands of the Art World, and resting on a foundational lineage distinct from that of the field of academic art, but with some shared evolutionary influences.

One will encounter a lot of this type of thing within such writing: Professors of art interprets themes present within the work of this art world figure, through examining the work of that art world figure who influenced him, who belong to this art movement, connected to that art world publication, which this art school produced, under the direction of that renowned art professor, who originally discussed the aesthetic, critical and contextual dynamics of similar themes in an essay published in 1932. Although, this interpretation is disputed by that [other] renowned art professor who suggests that etc., etc., Ha!

I kept discovering that I was already working with similar themes described in these books, but I had completely bypassed any art world influences. With the first painting that I did, Anima Pachamama, I painted the central figure in a primitive manner, wanting to express my personal modern interpretation of ancient archetypal  goddess  figures, while retaining a sense of raw primal energy! This was long before I read writings discussing the primitivism of early Abstract Expressionism and the “intellectual primitivism” of the earlier European avant-garde; way before I came across monographs on Wilfredo Lam and Pablo Picasso that discussed them doing similar things along with pictures of them in their studios standing next to primitive religious sculptures. Learning about these things helped expand and clarify my artistic vision. 


Early on I strived to include aspects from all of the arts into my work in a unifying manner, working with an idea similar to the Gesar and Kunzwerk, which I later discovered when studying the work of Kurt Schwitters (and others). In the first few months of painting I did a triptych entitled Cyclical Mind Trip. The individual titles of the pieces give some insight into the conceptualism behind the paintings, but I also integrated specific elements of compositional aesthetics and perceptual experience into the triptych. In a book on neuropsychology I read about studies that showed how humans automatically shift their eyes to the top left corner of a set space they are observing.

They begin examining it starting from that point, then down and to the right, Humans also naturally visually follow patterns of motion along their advancing path. I wanted to work with these ideas in a way that caused the viewer's eye to set the paintings into motion, creating an active link and interactive experience between the viewer and the work of art – so I captured bold brushstrokes of motion in paint, dancing from the bottom left up to the top right of the canvas. I also utilized some specific aspects of color theory to enhance this visual experience. I later discovered that similar ideas were present in the work of Joseph Albers and artists associated with the OP Art movement.

I felt an affinity with Joseph Beuys in studying his work and ideas on Happenings, Actions, Environments and Social Sculpture. For many years, to a large degree, my life revolved around criminal justice reform and prisoner rights and education endeavours. This definitely influences and inspired my initial explorations into the realm of artistic creation and continues to inform and help shape all that I do with art.

Early on I started utilizing collage in my paintings for a number of reasons: integrating sheets (or pieces) of colored paper from letters sent to me into paintings, allowed me to achieve certain visual effects and attainable by other means. This is also a way of making the work a collaborative endeavour with friends and colleagues on the outside. It's also a statement of appreciation for them. Reusing and “recycling” these things can also be considered an act in support of environmentalism. There are other other reasons as well.

After discussing this with a friend and colleague on the outside, they sent me a book on the history of collage in art that discussed Rauschenberg, Motherwell, Dada artists, and others who utilized collage in their work. I discovered that I was working with concepts and ideas similar to other artists. Learning about a more expansive and wide ranging conceptual use of collage in art helped inform and shape my work moving forward.

Book of the Damned is one of my first paintings. I have previously written more about the meaning behind this piece, but it is essentially my own modern version of a Tibetan thangka, a sacred scroll, an illuminated work of religious art. On the bottom left corner I included parts of a “kite” that another guy here sent me. Kite is a prison slang term for a letter sent between prisoners. The logistics involved in such exchanges can be quite intricate and require a lengthy chain of clandestine interactions.

One of the reasons I included this collage element in the piece is to recontextualize  this process of exchange and broaden the scope of understanding of what a prison kite is and can be. This was a process of alchemical transmutation: taking a commonplace trivial item of everyday prison life and transforming it into sacred script and mystic proclamation within a work of illuminated religious art. I am always doing this type of thing with art.

On your question regarding “automatic writing”: It is really quite difficult to try and explain the ritual and shamanic nature of my artistic process and describe the wide range of various states of being involved with this. On visual art, at times I will suddenly feel compelled to add writing in a very spontaneous and rather unconscious manner.

How to describe this? It can be like… I'm directing the symphony of artistic creation, guiding the rhythm along. A nice smooth and flowing Latin Jazz composition. Ah, yes, add some more drums, deeper bass rhythm. Now let these strings dance along with those congos, flirting around with them… yes, just like that –Then suddenly a brass section that I didn't even know was there will erupt with an unexpected and wildly captivating interjection.

This arises from the painting itself and now it is directing the symphony. I’m swept along into an interlude and directed by the work to tag it up with writing that it demands be immediately given life. The brass section rhythm emanating from the piece guides me along

as I write and all of the compositional elements start to flow and merge together into a perfectly balanced symphony of artistic creation and completion.

This is the type of process that occurred with the triptych that I did which features a drawing of a Buddha head sculpture on each painting. I can't remember the titles but one has an elephant at the top with “Ganesha” tagged up above it. Another has a cobra at the bottom with “Naga” written above it. The last hasaswan, lotus and sacred Om symbol at the top with “Om Mani” written above it and “Padme Hum" written below.

Dream visions and experiences I have during yoga and meditation sessions will guide me to include writing in some works. This is a different process though, one that seems more linear. I will also spend weeks or even months engaging in in-depth study before I will include writing on a painting or drawing.

On actual writings: I do not consider writing that I do to be any type of art and do not think it is noteworthy in any way. I do not think I write in any type of stream of consciousness, (psychological) free association or poetic manner that could be considered automatic writing. I do not personally like the act of writing, but I absolutely love the art of writing. In my work I have made references to – and done portraits of – many writers who've helped shape my outlook on life and heavily influenced the life that I live and the work that I do.

You asked about Damien Echols and he's definitely on this list. There are indeed many similarities and synchronicities between Damien I. On that note, I think I will sign off with some lines that I particularly liked from his book Life After Death:

“I want to make the world a more magickal place. To give magick a form that people will appreciate and that changes their lives. To create art that will make people want to forever reject the mundane  and mediocre world they've been surrounded by. Whether my tools are the Tarot, group energy work, or photography, I want to share with people all the wonder and beauty I discovered while trapped in a cell for nearly 20 years.”

In the Spirit of Art As A Vehicle for Positive and Transformational Social Change:

Rob Will

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