By Nancy LaMar – Rodgers
Photos by A. Vincent Scarano

Robert Crawford meets us at the door of his studio which is tucked away off a country road in Bethlehem Ct. He is both gracious and excited as we make our way up the stairway that leads to a long hallway adorned with Crawford’s paintings. I stop to gaze at a few as Crawford continues walking. When he turns around I am in front of a piece that evokes the Italian countryside with a beautiful Countess standing against her balcony, wine glass in hand. Having just returned from Italy myself, it was amazing how quickly all the sounds, sights and smells came back in an instant, just gazing at Robert’s work. His illustrations capture the quiet moments in life and induce a calmness brought about by these often ordinary, yet precious times.

Inside his studio and on his drawing table are photographs of various forms of water. There is the spray of the summer sprinkler in the community park and the puddles that the children splash in. Crawford is capturing the many elements of water and this is how he paints. There are no details or layers left out.

Currently Crawford has just finished a book of illustrations based on the poetry of Carl Sandburg, He is particularly excited about this project because it is different than the many children’s books he has done before.

“This book that is coming out now, I am extremely proud of it because the poems just fit my style perfectly, “ Crawford explains.

He goes on to explain how the poems lend themselves to this Americana ideal, this iconic notion of America’s heartland and all that is the world of the workingman and families. He points out that the emotional rollercoaster of moody and pure innocent joy allowed him as an artist to really delve into the illustrations with such a freedom of expression. He didn’t feel bound by a literal translation but rather was able to explore some of the more abstract emotions and depict them in a fashion that would not only appeal to children but perhaps have them able to process the poems on a deeper level.

Robert discusses the difficulty in the project. “I got the job about a year ago and it took me a good part of a year to really look at how I was going to approach this and it was extremely difficult because I would spend so much time on each poem figuring out exactly how I wanted to go about it.”

For Crawford, making decisions about how to illustrate words has always been a part of his life’s work as he has done several children’s books. However, when asked to illustrate the words of one of America’s most revered poets, Crawford was undeniably reverent to Sandburg’s work and wanted to do justice to not only an American icon but more importantly a poet who understood the simple life as well as the plight of the working man. “I worked very closely with the publisher to look at what poems would lend themselves to illustration,” he explained.

As we peer through the illustrations on Crawford’s computer, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia for a bygone era of Americana youth, innocence, potential and the hope that is found in Sandburg’s poetry.

Robert ‘s own American story started in New Jersey where he was captivated by art at an early age. Luckily his schooling offered ways that he could pursue his gift and be supported. While there are no other visual artists in his family, Robert explains that he was part of a community that supported the artworld “I was lucky in that I had a few friends who were also into the arts and I was fortunate in that I was encouraged by not only my parents, and friends, but by my art teachers to continue to hone my work. As a matter of fact one of my art teachers was Warren Kimble, who is now one of the most celebrated and famous folk artists in the world.”

For Crawford these early pursuits were part of a much bigger and headier time. He was taking lessons at The Arts Students League and as he reminisces I can hear the excitement of his memories, “I was about 15 years old and when everybody else was going to football games and I was spending my Saturdays taking classes. It was amazing because you could smell the history there and all the artists who had come before. It was a pretty amazing time.”

Robert knew he wanted to draw but had no understanding of the fact that it could indeed become a viable living.“I had this neighbor who was a medical illustrator and I started working for him over a summer and I realized that drawing and illustration could actually be a way to make a living.” Robert eventually graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and was armed with enough work, experience and motivation to land himself a position with a studio in NYC that was doing some really impressive, high-end work.

“I was pretty psyched because this studio was doing album covers and ads for magazines like Fortune as well as the New York Times, so it was pretty crazy for a kid just out of college.”The high life times would continue as Robert worked at ad agencies that were part of the larger New York art world lifestyle of the early eighties. He jokes about the parties at Studio 54 and the introduction to well-known artists who he respected and admired. For a 24-year-old young man, he was living the life.

During his time at the agency, Robert was putting together a portfolio that was garnering him freelance jobs. He started getting very busy with his side work and soon had to make the decision. He would eventually become his own boss and his work and name were finally out there for the public. He racked up covers of some of the most prestigious magazines, including Rolling Stone, Newsweek, New York News and World Report, Fortune, Playboy, New York Magazine and several others. Robert was now in a place where he was making a living with his art and on his own terms.

These days, in addition to the several children’s books he has illustrated, Robert has decided to try his hand at both the writing and the painting of a children’s book. On his drawing board are several sketches of a snowplow as well as photographs of some of New England’s more unrelenting of accumulations. I ask Robert for the theme behind the story.

“Well, it’s the story of this snowplow that just plows through the most difficult storms. It’s a story of strength, endurance and perseverance.”

Although Robert has never written his own book before, he is delving into the characteristics of the snowplow in that it is something he has wanted to do and it is a theme that is close to his life right now.

“It’s a daunting task and I think I am going to let the pictures lead the way. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and so right now in my life is the time to do it.”

For more information about Robert Crawford and his work, check out his website.