“A Play On Words” Robert Deyber’s Art of Language
by Nancy LaMar Rodgers / Photos by A. Vincent Scarano
I meet Robert at his studio located in an old brick factory, whose large windows face the quiet main drag that slips through this sleepy town. His space is covered with pieces in various stages of creation. Deyber greets us with a gregarious smile, a host’s warm manner. We take a seat near the window, and I feel immediately comfortable around this man’s intellectual curiosity and massive talent.
Robert was born in Greenwich at a time when it was more sweeping farms and rural landscapes. His father, a WWII war hero, and mother, a model and talented portrait artist, bought a home in the quiet countryside. Their house was designed by the famous Austrian architect, Richard Nuetra; and Robert recalls with appreciation, this neighborhood. “I was around the block from Rockefellers, Vanderbilts. I could go into someone’s home and see an original Monet, a Rembrandt, as well as many of the up and coming artists of the time. It was just amazing.” Deyber leans back in fond remembrance.
His venture into exploring his own voice came from watching his mother work. He spent hours watching, learning, and absorbing.“She did a great deal of these beautiful oil paintings of successful people in Manhattan, huge corporations and their Chairmen of the Boards and such. I would just watch her, and I guess I started absorbing what she was doing.” Robert goes on to talk about his first professional studio. “I was about 13, and I set up a studio in a walk-in closet. I had my canvas and my paints, and I would just paint.” Robert laughs as he remembers the innocence of his original enterprise, “I couldn’t understand why I had a headache that entire summer, with all that oil and turpentine in a closet.”
Robert’s family were staunch Catholics; and although he would have preferred Greenwich’s public school system where art courses were abundant, he and his siblings would attend private Catholic schools. Ironically, his early work was a response to the dogma learned and the guilt and shame he felt growing up as a gay man in a religion not accepting of his life choice.
“I was painting mixed Catholic iconography, these giant chalices with nails and thorns; and I actually sculpted this gold chalice. I was venting all this rage; it was just maddening what I was creating.” Robert points out that the irony of some of this earlier work happened when he was living in Boston. “I would be painting up in the apartment which looked out on the street with these huge canvases of very Catholic symbols. You could see me painting from the street; people would ring the buzzer and literally come up and buy the painting right there. It was crazy because I wasn’t painting at that time to sell, I was just getting out all of this guilt.”
While Deyber was creating, he needed to work. It was the travel and tour business that would provide him the means to pay the bills, a Boston tour company that sent him to Italy for a year. “I was living in Italy, and I was just surrounded by this incredible art. I was exposed to all this renaissance art, and I just fell deeper and deeper in love.”
Deyber would go from the tour business to the airline business where his gift of gab and his infectious humor made him a commodity for a sales business that valued people skills. “It’s crazy because I got jobs although I didn’t have a college degree, and I was up against these MBAs. One of the executives who hired me told me that my sales numbers were so good because I was just able to talk to people. I just kept going up the ladder. I probably could have been a vice president if I didn’t just decide one day that my art was more important.”
The turning point in Deyber’s business pursuits came during the aftermath of 9/11. The airline that he worked for lost billions when all airlines were grounded for three days. He could keep his job, but he would have to move to Atlanta. “I asked my partner, and he said yes.” Together they opened a gallery in Roswell, Georgia where they spent seven years with Robert painting in his free time and his partner helping to promote his work.
“At the time I had friends who would tell me that they liked my religious stuff, but that it just wasn’t “fun”. I remember hearing this and thinking, yeah they’re right; it’s all just too heavy.”
It would be another boring meeting at his day job that would be the “ah ha” moment for Deyber. “It was the late ‘90s. I was in this meeting, and all those catch phrases were being used. The one I heard the most and couldn’t stand was, ‘think outside the box’, and someone was saying it aaagggaaaiiinn.” He elongates the word to illustrate his frustration. “So while everyone was taking notes, I started sketching. I sketched this open box with a man standing in the middle of it with a light bulb over his head.”
Deyber thought back on what people had told him about making his work more accessible and thought about the phrase that he had just illustrated.“I started thinking about whether anyone had ever visually represented some of these well-known phrases, so I went on Google to research, and nobody was doing it.”
Deyber’s work at this point was only online, and somehow Tom Petty found him. Robert remembers the day that the rocker called him, though he wasn’t convinced it was “that” Petty. “My partner called to tell me that Tom Petty was on the phone, and I remember laughing and thinking, ‘yeah right’.”
Much to Deyber’s surprise it was the raspy throated singer. Petty let Deyber know that he had discovered his artwork and was hoping he would consider doing an upcoming album cover. Deyber’s interpretation of Petty’s ideas culminated in the cover of Petty’s 2006, Highway Companion album. This was a pretty heady time for Deyber as it reinforced the belief that he could create work that brought him joy as well as an audience that could appreciate his humor as well as his talent.
“It was weird because almost at that same time, I brought my work to the New York Art Expo and David Rogath found me.”
This “find” for Deyber would be the move that changed his life. With an exclusive contract with the Martin Lawrence galleries, Deyber was in a place that would allow him to finally indulge himself completely in his art. “It was unbelievable to me because it just took off. People were responding to my work, and I was just overcome with gratitude.”
These days there is a host of A-listers who have Deyber’s work as part of their collection, and he is still overwhelmed and grateful for the life his work has allowed him to live. Looking out the window onto the quiet afternoon, I ask Robert what it feels like to be living his dream. “I think I am still in awe of it all, like, is this all really happening?”
I smile as Robert looks over at one of his unfinished pieces. I have no doubt this gentle, talented man will continue to turn a phrase and give the world images from language that make us ponder, consider, and chuckle all at the same time.
For Gallery Inquiries: Elise Sargeant at The Martin Lawrence Gallery Greenwich
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Robert Deyber Fine Art Studio Address: The Switch Factory Building 931 Bantam Road, 2nd Floor Bantam, CT 06759