Interview with Robert Belgrad, Sculptor

Conducted by © Rocío Heredia

Please tell us something about yourself, where did you grow up and dreamed of becoming as a child?
I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on the east coast of the United States. From a very early age, I enjoyed making things, taking things apart and putting them back together. I was not always successful with these attempts at re-assembly, and this sometimes brought me into conflict with my parents if my current "project" happened to be something that belonged to them! When I became a little older, I never thought about art. I mostly just wanted to be abducted by a UFO when I got older.

When did you discover your talent and decided to become a full-time artist?
I first discovered I had a talent for sculpture in 1989. While attending a science fiction convention art show, I had the opportunity to meet 2 very talented sculptors, John Trotta and Paul Yurek. I was amazed at the little dragons and monsters they had created with polyform clay, and I spent the weekend buying them drinks at the bar and pumping them for information on technique, materials, etc. Following the art show, I bought some Super Sculpey clay, some rudimentary wooden sculpting tools and some Liquitex acrylic paints. I spent the next 6 weeks making my first 10 sculptures... and I entered them in the art show of another local science fiction convention. Nine out of ten pieces sold, and I was amazed that people were willing to pay their hard earned money for something I had made! This was an epiphany, and the next day I quit my job as a sound technician. I have never looked back.

How did you feel when you discovered that you had art talent beyond others you knew?
At that first art show, people would not believe I had been sculpting for only 6 weeks. During the course of the show, I became friendly with several of the other artists who were displaying, and during the auction they were chanting "Bid, Bid, Bid" whenever one of my pieces reached the podium. This was a heady experience for me, and I felt like I was being welcomed into a new community. It was a very warm and gratifying feeling. To this day, I am still astounded and humbled by the talent I see all around me. It is a constant struggle to see my work as anything other than just "some stuff I made".

Would you give us your personal definition of Art?
I have encountered too many artists who spend inordinate amounts of time trying to "define" art. I suspect "art" is just as much about the process as the finished product, and I usually prefer to make art instead of pondering its definition. Art is entirely too subjective to conform to any finite criteria. For me, art is about the joy of discovery and creativity.

What was your first sculpture and might you have a picture of that first work?
The first sculpture I completed was a small creature, an alien with a single eye on a stalk, crab claws for horns and an exposed rib cage. I have some photos of my first "batch" of sculptures, but they are very poor quality. I am sad to say that, for the first decade of my career, I sold

What is your formal training? How did you acquire your knowledge and skills as a sculptor?
I have no formal training, but I have had the opportunity to work with some very talented artisans over the years. I tell people I am self-taught, but I have learned a great deal from watching other people work. All the rest is practice and experimentation. The only training that I have recieved, that might be considered "formal", was a welding class I attended at a local high school. It was a night class that was part of the adult continuing education program, and it lasted for 6 weeks. I had been welding for several years at that time, but I took the course to gain a better understanding of the actual process so, if and when I created monumental sized work, it would not collapse and kill someone.

What influences your art? Are you inspired by particular places or spaces?
I think I developed my aesthetic sense long before I began sculpting. My parents took me to Europe with them when I was very young, and dragged me from one museum to another. I was exposed to the great masters and works by artists like Rodin, Van Gogh and Bosche. I still remember the impact "The Garden Of Earthly Delights" had on my 5 year old mind. My parents literally had to drag me away from that amazing painting! As a teenager, I was enamored of works by artists like Roger Dean, H.R. Giger, Rodney Matthews and others. I still can see their influence in my work, to this day. In the past, my art has come from some place deep inside me, a sense of motion or an aesthetic idea. More recently I have been striving to relate my art to the external world, in the hopes of being more "relevant". I hope to break free from the purely abstract forms that have permeated my work in the past.

Which present or past artists do you admire?
Sculpture is always first in my affections, and I have been known to walk right past a Rembrandt, only to spend an hour examining the details of a Rodin sculpture at the museum. I admire so many artists, both alive and dead, that it is difficult to name just a few... Rodin, Brancusi, Moore, Noguchi, Giacommetti, Calder, DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Max Ernst, Berninni, Allen Houser, Paul Manship, Bosche, Magritte, Ansel Adams, Steiglitz, O'keeffe, Dali, Bofill ... the list goes on and on. I do feel a strong affinity for the painter Van Gogh, perhaps more than for his paintings. A group of artists I truly admire, whom I feel are often overlooked, are visual effects artists. The artists at Industrial Light & Magic are absolutely AMAZING!

Where do you get ideas?
Heh. This is my least favorite of the questions that are frequently asked of me. At my web site, I answer this with a wise crack: "Walmart."

One of the things that I can see your artwork is the steam that you express into your sculptures. From what do you draw your intense power?
My work is largely driven by a sense of motion and balance. I enjoy static work that appears to be in motion, and this is a recurring theme for me. Several years ago I made a piece called "Leap Of Faith" which had a form that appeared to be leaping from its pedestal. I brought it to my parents house to show it off, and when I placed it on our kitchen table, my father lunged forward because he thought it was falling over. That may be the highest compliment my work has received to date.


How would you describe your sculpture?
Affordable. Available. (wink wink, nudge nudge)

Please tell us about your sculpting technique.
I approach new projects in 2 distinctly different ways. Some pieces begin with intent, and I carefully plan them out before I begin work. Despite my planning, these pieces usually end up substantially different from my original idea, as I tend to modify my ideas while I work. The other way I work is purely intuitive. I grab a block of wood or a lump of clay and just "have at it". These pieces are often more successful than the pieces with an agenda.

What qualities determine your choice of materials for intermediate forms and tools and the final result?
I hate to admit it, but my choice of materials often stems from what I have lying around my shop, or what I can afford. Designs are often altered to accomodate my budget. I have been known to "salvage" existing pieces to use parts for a new project.

What are your favorite materials?
I really enjoy wood carving, and I feel my style is best suited to materials that force me to work more slowly, with more control. I often feel a bit out of control with clays. I enjoy metal fabrication and blacksmithing. I love carving in Corian. I look forward to learning to work in glass. I don't really enjoy computer work, but I like the results, so I'm sticking with it.

How about fabrication? Do you execute the construction yourself?
My pieces are all me. With the exception of a couple of pewter and bronze castings, I have created my entire body of work with no outside help. These days I even cast and patinate my own bronzes. In the future, I may employ laser or water-jet cutting services for some of my larger steel pieces, but I will do all the other fabrication.

I fear that there may be health risks related to your work -- how do you handle that?
I try not to think about it. I take what precautions I can, and I avoid working with highly toxic materials like polyester resins or lead. I do my best not to pollute, and I "recycle" every bit of usable scrap in my shop. I have 2"x2" pieces of corian from 10 years ago!


What challenges have you found in your work?
Every day is a new challenge to improve upon my past efforts. In this economy, the greatest challenge seems to be supporting myself and selling my work without selling out. In my opinion, an artist makes work and then sells it. A "hack" makes work to sell. I prefer to remain in the former category.

While looking through your portfolio, I find you received a very interesting commission for the film "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars". Will you please tell us about that?
One day I came home to find 2 calls from Columbia Motion Pictures on my caller I.D. box. I assumed they were trying to get me to sign up for something like "3 DVDs FOR ONLY A PENNY!"... so I ignored them. The next day I got a call from the set decorator for "Ghosts of Mars". He had been referred to me by another set decorator who had seen my work at the World's Science Fiction Convention, a year before. He expressed an interest in having me design several mobiles for the film, and asked me to submit 3 drawings in a week's time. 24 hours later, after pulling an all-nighter, I faxed him 12 drawings. He showed my drawings to the director and set designer, who both liked them, and I was awarded the commission.

Would you please describe your design for "Ghosts of Mars" in both conceptual and technical terms?"
The "Ghosts of Mars" mobile concepts were largely determined by the needs of the film makers and the script. It was explained to me that each mobile must incorporate items that would be found in the corresponding area of the Martian mining colony. The "Clinic" mobile was to incorporate items that might be found in a Martian clinic, the "Supply Office" mobile was to contain items from a supply office, etc. I was told they must look "psychotic" and "dangerous", and they must fit within the specified set dimensions. These dimensions were changed a few times, and one of the mobiles was not needed at all when a scene was cut from the shooting schedule. In the end, much of the material used in constructing the mobiles was procured from flea markets, yard sales and industrial supply houses. I was even able to incorporate real human teeth in the Clinic mobile, which Mr. Carpenter really liked.

Is "Ghosts of Mars" your biggest artwork to date?
Yes. This has been my biggest project to date, both in terms of size and compensation. Thank you "Ghosts of Mars"!

Tell us what role recognition and Awards have on your career?
Awards and recognition are flattering, but they have not had any substantial impact on my work or my "perceived value" as an artist. I just make what I make, and I am gratified when other people like it. If, however, they stopped liking it tomorrow, it certainly wouldn't deter me from continuing in my chosen path.

How do fantasy and science fiction impact your artwork? I am intrigued by the various ways you approach the human figure and subjects. Would you tell us more about your creative process?
Science Fiction art is in my blood and bones. Try as I might to escape it, the influences keep popping up in my work. I grew up reading science fiction books by Heinlein, DelRay, Niven, Simak, Dick, etc. Paperback cover art by people like Darrel Sweet, Michael Whelan and many others has insinuated itself into my aesthetic sense. I am enthralled by the idea of other worlds and alien civilizations, high technology and astronomical phenomena... I just eat that stuff up. The first time I remember wanting to be an artist was after seeing Star Wars. The fact that somebody had created such amazingly detailed worlds from imagination blew me away. I probalby owe my career to George Lucas. As for my creative process: I don't bother it, it doesn't bother me.

Which is your favorite sculpture and why?
My favorite sculpture is the next one. Always. I have never created anything that I though was perfect. There is always room for improvement, and that challenge fuels my desire to create something new and better. I like a few of my pieces very much, and even wonder "How'd I do that?" from time to time... but even these can be improved upon.

What are the milestone events in your career that give you satisfaction and pride?
That first art show was a big one, and the "Ghosts of Mars" commission was another. My first bronze casting was very satisfying. I enjoyed the feeling of "permanence" that metal gave my work. My father leaping forward to "save" a sculpture that was in no danger. There have been times when I am working that I feel I have reached a new plateau. Something clicks in my head and I suddenly understand something fundamental that I had not previously understood. This is probably the single most satisfying event in any artist's career.

What role does the public play in your creative endeavor? What do you expect people can learn and feel when they see your artworks?
As art is so subjective, I hope each person will see and feel something different. I don't expect them to see what I see, and I wonder about the sanity of those who do! I'm not sure what role the public plays in my creative process. I would like to believe they play no part at all, but that is probably not entirely true. If it were, I would probably be content to look at my work in my living room, and never show in galleries or online.

What is your ultimate goal as a sculptor?
I didn't know I was supposed to have an ultimate goal. How about "World Domination"? Jokes aside, I believe there is no "end point". The journey is more important than the destination.


What aspiration as an artist is most important to you?
That changes from time to time. Right now it is financial security. I would like to earn enough from the sale of my art so I can stop stressing about bills and just make stuff all day, every day.

Are you working on a new project? Please tell us about it.
For the last year I have immersed myself in web design, photography and Flash animation. What started out as a means to promote my sculpture has become an area of study that interests me a great deal. My current web site was created as an exercise... I built it as I was learning the programs. I learned a great deal while constructing that site, so recently I have begun working on a complete re-design that will incorporate this new-found knowledge of design principals. It will be MUCH nicer than what I have now, and more cohesive. I am also in the midst of designing a web site for a friend who owns an exotic lumber company. In addition to this I have a back-log of sketches and ideas that I would like to persue in the coming months, including figurative bronzes, fabricated steel monumental pieces, and the usual assortment of unexpected oddities. I also have 5 steel and glass coffee table maquettes that I would like to see realized at full scale. In the coming months I will be purchasing Swift 3D, Flash MX, Sound Forge and either Avid or Adobe Premier... I anticipate devoting a great deal of time to learning how to use these effectively.

Do you think the Internet has contributed to the promotion of your Artwork?
In less than a year my web site has received nearly 15,000 visitors from 75 countries. While this has not yet yeilded many sales, it is encouraging.
I firmly believe the Internet is the marketplace of the future, and I am devoted to promoting my work to this relatively new, and global, audience.

Does the Internet have a positive or negative influence on Art?
Yes. Both. While the Internet provides artists with new resources, creative "fodder" and exposure to a wider audience, it also creates competition on a global scale. This can have a negative impact on how artist's will support themselves in their local communities. When all is said and done, I think the positive effects of the Internet will far out-weigh the negative.

What do you hope visitors to this exhibition at BTDesign Art Gallery will gain from viewing it?
I hope they will gain a desire to own one of my sculptures! Failing that, I hope they will gain a few moments of enjoyment while browsing through the excellent works presented by all of the talented artists at BTDesign. It's all about the art... enjoy it.

What advice would you give to young artists?
Become a lawyer, accountant or plumber. If you have disregarded this advice (and on your own head be it) here is my alternate advice for the determined:
1. Do not sit around talking about, analyzing and trying to define art. Create art.
2. Beware of art schools. If someone teaches you what cannot be done, or what is not appropriate, you are not likely to try the impossible or ill advised. Nothing original comes from following the rules and paths chosen by others. There is much of value that can be learned in an art school. But take it all with a grain of salt.
3. Whatever you are making, make 10 of them. By the tenth one, you will have gotten it just about right. Keep the best one and sell the others.
4. No matter how much your work is selling for, never refer to yourself in the third person. It's creepy.
5. Turn it upside-down. It might look better from a fresh perspective.
6. Beware of gallery scams. There are a lot of galleries out there whos primary source of income is starving artists who are desperate for a showing in an up-scale gallery. Never pay up-front.
7. If you don't promote your work, nobody will do it for you. Get over your shyness.
8. When people tell you how great your work is, it's usually bullsh**. Only you know the truth... so price your work accordingly.
9. If you think it's dry, wait a little longer.
10. You might want to think twice before following advice from a 37 year old man who works in his pajama pants and still shops at Toys-R-Us.

Finally, how do you feel you have been blessed personally as a result of embracing the life of an Artist?
It's like this, and it's the best feeling in the world:
So THAT'S why I'm here!


Visit his Website:

Robert Belgrad, Sculptor

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