Sharp Lines: The Line Art of Bob Stillman

donna fischer | the artist next door | nov. 2015

Bob Stillman's family and friends were surprised when he suddenly produced artwork six years ago. The bold colors and crisp, clear lines of his abstract creations had them speculating about a midlife crisis. Stillman himself thought it might be a passing fling, but he hasn't lost interest in the work, nor reached any obvious boundaries in his art. With skillful composition, Stillman's abstract art tends to convey energy through contrast between curves and straight lines. It's hard not to get drawn into his designs. He is self-taught, highly productive and thoroughly enjoying his creative outlet.

When a visit to the Milwaukee Museum of Art's abstract art collection sparked his imagination, Stillman first tried experimenting with acrylic paints. Though he didn't find he could work with the medium, he didn't give up. “I ended up with Sharpie markers," says Stillman. “With Sharpie markers you get a lot of bright colors and it was easier for me to work with those. I can do nice, crisp lines. I'm not a real organized person otherwise, but my art looks real organized because everything is sharp and crisp, so it's kind of a contrast from me. I didn't realize that until it was pointed out to me. Then, people started liking the art so I started doing more."

Stillman flew helicopters for the Army in his younger days, and sees strong correlations between his artistic activity and the thrill of flying complex machines. “There is a similarity when someone looks at your art and you get that affirmation and that sense of adrenaline, just like you do from a sporting activity, or for me it was flying helicopters. I never thought I was going to be able to fly helicopters. I thought it was going to be more complex than it ended up being. Learning how to fly is very hard to do, but once you get it, it's very easy. You have to cross that hump to get it. It was the same with art for me. Once I got it, then it became easier for me to do art."

At the same time, drawing with Sharpies is also relaxing for Stillman. “I usually do my art when I'm watching TV at night. I sit in my chair with my box of Sharpies next to me and my pad of paper and I'm drawing while I watch TV. So I really don't think too much about what I'm doing. I don't know what it's going to be when I start; I don't have any preconceived idea about what it's going to be. I just start drawing some lines. I add more lines, and then I might add some color, and I might add some black for definition and then I just keep going and then when I feel I'm done I sign my name."

Without subjecting himself to a set of rules, he feels free to explore line and color in a completely spontaneous way. “I've talked to people who do watercolors and watercolors have a whole set of rules around it," Stillman explains. “If I was operating under a set of rules I probably wouldn't be able to make any art. So not knowing what I'm supposed to know makes it a lot easier for me."

Stillman is retired and along with his family and volunteer activities, including serving on the board of the ARTgarage and helping out at the VA clinic, he says his art is an important element in his life. “It's given me something to do. I feel a sense of urgency in doing my art, for some reason."

Artists often like to title their works in an effort to help define its character for viewers, but Stillman sees little value in titles for his works. “With abstract art you have to come up with some weird way to describe it in order to title it. I thought if I title it, then somebody looking at the art is going to try to figure out why I titled it that. With my art you could title it just about anything. So I wanted people to look at my art without any preconceived ideas about what I thought it was going to be. I want them to find what it means to them, rather than what I think it should be."

Some of his pieces get a coating that helps with preservation, but Stillman says the most important thing is to keep the piece out of direct sunlight. Beyond that, the longevity of his works isn't a big worry for him. “I don't know that I'm making art to hold up for centuries. I think art is like clothing; it changes with your mood, where you live, your age, everything. I don't think somebody would particularly buy one of my pieces and have it hanging up in their house for the rest of their lives, to be handed down through the generations. I'm not real worried about that."

Stillman's works can be seen in restaurants in Green Bay like Kaleidoscope Eatery & Spirits and off and on at The ARTgarage. He says he's not really set up for art shows just yet, but isn't ruling that out either. Learn more about this artist at RobertStillmanart.com.


Donna Fischer is an avid fan of music, film and art. When she's not writing on these subjects you'll find her gardening or snowshoeing around Green Bay.

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