In his day job, Richard Sober dwells among the bookstacks at Homewood's Milton S. Eisenhower Library, where he helps maintain its physical collection. Asked to describe himself, however, he says he's a painter/poet--in no particular order.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Sober is a transparent child of the 1960s with a coffee house sensibility and a beatnik's cadence. He's quick with a "cool" and sports a full, gray-tipped beard, not unlike Bob Ross of PBS's Joy of Painting fame, sans the Afro. While Sober acquiesces to the Ross comparison, he quickly points out that he's not about "happy little trees" in wet-on-wet oil paintings.
A prolific artist, Sober says he paints to keep in touch with the world. His works are populated with all manner of subjects: seascapes, landscapes, people and places, real or imagined. In one painting, a red lighthouse-looking structure with a tiny black door sits upon a stark plane of green, ominous clouds hanging in the distance. Sober calls the work a "sanctuary," although a purposefully uninviting one.
Sober's paintings, which can be categorized as smallish, have appeared in dozens of galleries and venues including the Baltimore Museum of Art and Spain's Casa de la Cultura. In the recent "Best Of" edition of Baltimore magazine, Sober got the nod for Best One-Man Show at a Neighborhood Gallery for his April 2002 show at the Sassafras Gallery in Waverly.
According to the magazine, Sober's work "managed to simultaneously evoke Hopper's introspective sense of narrative, Klee's bold primitivism and Dufy's energetic palette. Poetic text, written by the artist, framed some of the finest pieces to provide yet another layer of intimacy and meaning."
Sober, a published poet who received his degree in American studies from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has just started a new position in the Monographs unit of MSEL's Acquisitions Department. He previously worked on the library's B-Level as a supervisor of support services.
As one who likes to separate his work and artistic lives, Sober recently invited The Gazette to sit down in his home studio to discuss his paintings and inspiration.
Q. When did you first pick up a paintbrush?
A. When I was a little kid, but I thought I'd be a painter when I was around 15.
Q. What got you started painting?
A. I always doodled in my notebooks. I always just drew. That was my connection to life from a young age. I took art classes when I was 15. I recall walking down the street thinking, This is who I am, this is what I want to do.
Q. Were you that kid in class who drew caricatures of the teacher?
A. No. I never did that. My doodles were total fantasy.
Q. Like Tolkien sort of fantasy?
A. No. They were just abstract images that had figures in them.
Q. Describe your first paintings.
A. They were really tacky paintings of sunsets over the sea. They were very pleasant, idealistic scenes. I also did some imaginary Martian landscapes. I'd pull them out [to show you], but I don't know where they are. Really.
Q. I always wondered what happened to an artist's first crop of paintings.
A. Hopefully, they get lost.
Q. Anyone in your family an artist?
A. My dad was a pretty good draftsman, but he didn't do it as a profession. He was a printer, so he had some artistic talent. My mother sang. She was a great singer.
Q. What was your first big break?
A. I didn't know I had one.
Q. Well then, when did your sell your first painting?
A. In 1979. I sold it for $50. I don't sell them for that much more than that now, and it's been 23 years. I guess I'm a real fool.
Q. Inflation hasn't really caught up with Richard Sober, huh?
A. It has, but I don't believe in selling things for a lot of money. I don't think that only rich people should own paintings. That is one reason why I do small paintings, to keep the costs down.
Q. So, how much for a Sober original these days?
A. Oh, I would say between $300 to $500, on average.
Q. What media do you use for your paintings, and has that changed at all?
A. It has. I used to paint colored ink on paper for a long time, then water color and gouache on paper. Now I paint on hardboard.
A. You can get it at a hardware store like Home Depot and just cut it up. It's easy. It's tempered on one side, and I prime and stain it. [Picks up a 8" x 10" piece.] You can see it's a very smooth surface. I always like painting on different things.
Q. Do you paint places you visit?
A. Yes. All the time, whether I'm up at Cape Cod, or down around Assateague.
Q. From when you started to now, what is the most profound change in your paintings?
A. I think I've developed a more narrative quality. Before I was just painting each individual painting, with nothing else in mind. But what is evolving is a sort of visual diary. Not just about my own life, but my relationships to life, what is going on in my mind and in the world. I've also started to include my poems in my paintings.
Q. What comes first, the painting or the poem?
A. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes they happen at the same time. As I was making that painting [points to a road scene hanging on the wall], the words were linked to that particular spot, so I just started writing.
Q. You sure have to write to fit.
A. Yeah, you kind of figure it out beforehand. Same with all the other picture poems. If you have more to say, you're going have to say it somewhere else. It is an imposed frame.
Q. How did 'Baltimore' magazine find out about the show?
A. I think their art editor paid a visit to the show as he later called me up and said he liked it. That was basically it, and then later someone told me this write-up was in Baltimore magazine. It sure came as a surprise to me.
Q. Tell me about the show. How long was it up?
A. It was up for three weeks, and there were 87 paintings in the show.
Q. What were you showing, and why?
A. It started out with paintings of the structures outside [my] house, then went into some dream images and then into seascapes and triptychs. Hung above the triptychs were a series of paintings that I called sanctuaries. There's one right there [points], a sort of structure in the field. Then the show weaved back into picture poems--political commentaries, I suppose--and then went upstairs into some more dreamscapes. The show really had a circularity to it. It really belonged in a large elliptical room.
Q. What were your expectations of the show?
A. I didn't have any. I'm always happy if anybody shows up. A lot of people came, and I got a lot of compliments. People were drawn to different things; it was a mixed bag. During the course of one evening, a couple of hundred people showed up, which was great. You make paintings so people can look at them. I'm always grateful. I've had shows that were disasters.
Q. What sort of disasters?
A. I had a show once in Cambridge, Mass., where the gallery owner just botched everything up. Nothing went right. But then I went to take my show down, and in the last 20 minutes, if you can believe this, I sold seven paintings literally as I was taking them off the wall. It was very strange.
Q. Are you a creature of habit when it comes to painting, or a when-the-mood-strikes sort?
A. Actually, kind of both. If you don't show up in your studio for a while, then you kind of lose it. I don't paint just to paint, but there are times when I'm intensely involved and can go for three or four months where I'm painting like all the time. Following these periods I'll usually take a few weeks off to recharge. I am a creature of habit, but I'm not a machine. Sometimes I have nothing to paint, and I don't fight it. The inspiration always comes back.
Q. Where does your art go from here? Are you pushing yourself in a different direction?
A. I don't know where I'm going, to tell you the truth. I think I'll probably be painting more of these picture poems. I really like combining these two passions of mine. Before, I always kept them at bay.
Q. Any positive fallout from the 'Baltimore' magazine mention yet?
A. People run into me on the street and say how nice it is. As for any monetary gain, nothing yet, but I'll keep you posted.
Richard Sober's next show opens this week on Maryland's Eastern Shore, at Alice's Cafe in Easton. For any painting inquiries, Sober can be reached at his home studio.