A common thread weaves its way through the life and work of Robert Duncan illuminating and inspiring his life’s path.
What is this thread and driving force that ties his work together? A bright yet simple curiosity. Curiosity about interactions between people and places and time. Curiosity about wildlife and the earth they roam. Curiosity about relationships between individuals and other living things. This curiosity has driven a lifetime’s work that has shifted and evolved over time according to the current passions of Robert.
One passion of Robert’s is travel. He loves the Heber valley, but also enjoys going with his wife, Linda, to different places to get inspiration and references for new artwork. Robert explains, “The world’s so beautiful everywhere.” Some of his favorite destinations include Maine, Vermont, and England. In his travels, he is known to stop random strangers and to spark up conversation. He loves seeing people in their native lands. “I’m terrible at just stopping and introducing ourselves to people and saying I’m an artist and that kind of opens the doors a little,” he shares. He has met a lot of people this way, many of which have become good friends and models for his work.
Once he saw a girl walking down the aisle of an outdoors store who had a look best described as part hippie, part cowgirl. He loved her uniqueness and introduced himself. Before he knew it, he and his wife were at her ranch enjoying conversation with her and her dad. They also ended up modeling for his artwork. Robert says, “Those kinds of things have happened to me all the time just by being curious about someone.”
Another time, he saw a fascinating man with a distinctive look walking down the road in Vermont. He asked some other people in town about him. He was told that this man was a grumpy hermit. Robert could not resist getting a picture of him. He rolled down his window and quickly snapped a photo … without permission. From this photo, Robert painted a picture that ended up being one of his all-time favorites, titled “The Face of New England.” The man had a bale of hay on his back, a pitch fork, and socks for gloves. Robert went back a year later and gifted the gentleman with a print of the painting. He responded that the painting did not do him any favors. Robert sat and visited with him for a few hours. After the visit, Robert asked for another chance to paint him. The man agreed and so a year later Robert returned once again with a new painting. He loved it! Robert says, “Those are the kinds of ways I love getting inspired. It’s looking for excuses to meet people and hear their stories.”
For Robert, life is an art form. When it comes to meeting people and hearing their stories, he can’t help himself. He shares, “I’m so passionate about art that I can’t control myself that way. […] I love people and country life and […] people that live life with character.” He likes the saying ‘Life is art and art is life.’ He says, “Life’s an art form to me and so I love people who kind of are a piece of art in the way they live their life.”
Art has called to Robert all his life. He remembers drawing constantly from the age of four and receiving his first set of oil paints from his grandmother when he was 11 years old. Robert knew early on in life he was meant to be an artist. He shared, “I just never had anything else I even considered really.” So paint, he did. He painted his way through elementary and high school and ended up at the University of Utah for a couple of years studying art. He decided to quit attending college to pursue his art career.
Robert remembers, “When I quit at the university, I didn’t tell my family I had quit for two or three months.” He wanted to prove he was going to make it. He says, “I worked hard on a little group of paintings and had my first show at a gallery / dry cleaners up in Wyoming and sold a big painting for a little money and that was the start of my professional career and it just kept going from there.”
Curiosity + Courage
One of the most formative things that happened early on in Robert’s career took place after he wrote a letter to John Clymer; a famous artist known for his illustrations on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post as well as his paintings illustrating the history of the American West. Again, curiosity was on Robert’s side. He couldn’t have known how a letter to one of his favorite artists and role model would change his life and open doors. Robert was amazed when he opened an invitation in response asking him to come visit with Clymer in his studio in Jackson Hole. Robert went and the beginning of a great friendship was born. Clymer became a mentor for Robert. Robert says of Clymer, “We became friends and he would have me come up and he’d critique my paintings and we would talk until two in the morning and he’d tell me all these stories about the great artists I admired that he knew when he was young.”
“Life’s an art form to me … I love people who kind of are a piece of art in the way they live their life.”
Clymer also instigated a huge break for Robert when he introduced Robert’s work to the Cowboy Artists of America, a highly respected Western Art organization. This introduction led to Robert being voted in at age 29 as the youngest member. “That kind of kicked me to a different level as far as my career,” he shares. Robert enjoyed Western art, but after five years realized he didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into just one category. Robert says, “I didn’t want to be known for just Western art. […] I just wanted to do all kinds of stuff. I didn’t want to be just known as a cowboy artist.”
Robert made a bold move and resigned from the prestigious group. He worried about how this may affect his relationship with Clymer. He says, “My friend John Clymer who had introduced me into the group was just awesome and encouraged me even though I left that group he got me into. He cheered me on and was great.” Robert recalls with fond emotion his last sweet moment with Clymer, “When he was dying [from cancer] and had to go home to Washington for his last few months, we took him to the airplane. He wrapped his arms around me and told me how proud he was of me. […] It’s those rare kinds of people that don’t have a set idea of what you should be and just cheer you on no matter what.”
Robert naturally started his career painting Western art because of the time he spent on his grandmother’s ranch in Wyoming. After marrying Linda and starting their family in Midway, he began painting his family members. He says, “I figured that the best art is art that someone painted because they were passionate about it. You always do your best when you’re doing something you’re passionate about.”
Robert’s art shifted to country life. “Seeing the farms starting to disappear made me pretty passionate about wanting to feature that lifestyle in my work because I felt it was really something of value,” he shares. Robert hoped people would make the connection to keep open spaces and to recognize the value they have. “I feel like space has a real way of bringing peace and releasing tension.”
Beauty was also an important element Robert wanted portrayed in his work. “I’ve always felt like beauty has a super important value in life” Robert says. Gardens, pets, livestock, and wildlife — Robert feels they all add value to life, making for a richer human experience. Most recently, Robert has done more wildlife paintings. He recognizes a need to save places where wildlife can still thrive and be around us.
Robert’s artistic process is imaginative and involved. Rather than drawing from one reference photo, he pulls from many. He says, “I’ll have a hundred photos I’m using for most paintings I do.” He sketches several rough thumbnail sketches to help pull his ideas together. When it comes to what ends up on the canvas, Robert says, “Mine is mostly something I have in my head and then I’ll pull things from everywhere to put it together and have to make up parts of it.” In this way, he creates the scene exactly as he imagines.
Robert was involved in a road biking accident a year ago. Now, more than ever, he realizes he cannot live without making art. With initial nerve damage, broken bones and ribs, Robert has fought hard to paint through the whole recovery process. Even when he finds himself in a slump, he says there is no end to inspiration.
A couple of Robert’s favorite ways to get inspired are to travel or go for a bike ride. He shares, “One of the best things for me is to just go out somewhere and I almost always come back inspired.” He advises, “Get out and experience life and open space and refresh your mind.” Robert is also (not shockingly) inspired by art. He has acquired quite the library in his studio and sometimes needs a break from his own art to get energized by looking at great art from other artists.
“Get out and experience life and open space and refresh your mind.”
Robert doesn’t feel art is a competition. Rather art is about passion. Robert’s advice to artists, but applicable to all: “One of the most important things any artist can do is find something they’re passionate to express or to bring into the world.” He feels that passion leads to more important, effective, emotionally connecting work. When it comes to art there’s room for everyone.
Robert says, “Art isn’t a competition; it’s a beautiful way of everyone sharing what they love and find beautiful.”
Robert has been painting professionally for fifty years now. His life is art and art is his life. His curiosity has served him well. Robert expresses it best, “Art to me is looking at everything with curiosity and treating life as a beautiful thing and wanting to take care of it and make it something special.”