PRIOR to meeting Bob Hickman I had met some amazing artists. In each instance I had tried to do a bit of research beforehand. I checked out Bob’s Facebook page and came across this, by Jasmine Kay Uy. I loved it because it was a representation of the sense of all the artists I had interviewed to this point. But in speaking with Bob, I exclaimed, “You’re the first artist I’ve met who can support themselves through their art”.
Bob is a great believer in taking art to the people. No stuffy galleries with rarefied airs where many feel unwelcome. Instead people should be able to view art in public places or galleries where they are encouraged to enjoy art. (I do need to put a plug in for ArtSpace Wonthaggi here because he thinks ours is a very welcoming gallery.) And so he puts his sculptures in what others might think are surprising places such as at wineries. At Lucinda Estate, for example, a dozen people last year bought sculptures after sipping their wine whilst enjoying the scenery.
He is frustrated by the barrenness of his closest large town, Leongatha. As he says, if you want a spanner after 12.30pm on a Saturday – forget about it. But then he is used to large vibrant cities. He studied for his diploma of fine arts in London before gaining his honours degree in the English Midlands. He believes artists and artisans invigorate cities. He points to Fitzroy, which was quite dead in the `70s until the artists moved in and created a wonderful, eclectic environment.
“Every job I have done is now redundant,” Bob says. Emigrating (for the second time) to Australia in the late `80s on a Thursday, he read The Age on a Saturday and had a job as a screen printer by the next Wednesday. He worked for a “pre-press” trade agency to create images for big brands such as Mars, BMW and Fosters. He worked on the rebrand of Fosters Lager when it was seeking to enter the international market. The design change was minimal, given the old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, the agency made a fortune, the beer sold well – and Bob was thrilled to say “I did that”. His biggest, and as yet unachieved, challenge was to print on ice. “It doesn’t work – don’t try it.”
Around the same time he started taking photos of the images on a huge camera on what were essentially railway tracks. You would take the film and “hope to god you got it straight” when you put it into an offset printer. This was a million dollar machine imported from Israel, an E-print, which revolutionised the printing industry and rendered other systems obsolete.
He met his late wife at this time in South Melbourne. (Sadly she has now passed away from breast cancer.) They worked for the same company. When the company went belly up, they both lost their jobs and their superannuation. They decided to move to the country and in 2001 bought their home in Koonwarra. His wife worked as a typesetter at the Leongatha Star Newspaper and Bob started teaching at the local community house and Community College Gippsland. The students were kids who had lost their way and didn’t fit into the traditional streams so Bob taught them that art could give them a purpose. To do so, he needed to understand street art to give him credibility. It’s a theme he now incorporates in his paintings – and people love it enough to purchase. I am surprised by this, but he points out that it’s his Melbourne clients who buy this sort of art, not locals.
What the locals do love are his paintings of old cars and even ice cream vans that take you back to days of innocence. His paintings sometimes include a Vespa. Bob has a love-hate relationship with his Vespa which he likens to sitting on a toilet seat as you have nothing to grip between your knees. Which is a bit tricky when the gears seize as they did one day on the South Gippy Highway when Bob had it in a state of slow motion negotiating the scrub on the side of the road to avoid the cars coming the opposite way. Bob’s love of vehicles with classic lines came from his father who was always tinkering with them and even raced in the Formula V on Phillip Island. His dad was a practical man who told Bob, “Go and get a trade”. If his father had known he was studying fine art he would have suggested he wasn’t a “real man”. Bob used to pretend he was studying the trade of graphic arts, which he was ... sort of.
When you meet Bob he is a ball of energy. He doesn’t stop. He clearly never wants to stop creating or learning. He reaches into a drawer and pulls out some wood blocks. You can feel his love of the process of making engravings from these pieces of wood. He lovingly describes the type of wood and the grain to use that makes the best engravings. Remember it’s a reverse image, he warns. He has only made that mistake once, called himself an idiot, and added the back to front image to his wood heater.
Bob always had fun creating things at home but it wasn’t until he went to middle school that he created his first painting. He was back in England again and was fascinated with castles, having spent his early childhood in Australia. He picked up a palette knife and was immersed in creating turrets on his castle when his art teacher walked up behind him. Bob announced, “When I grow up I’m going to be an artist” – he was 13. The teacher looked at Bob, then at the painting, and then back to Bob again. Her expression suggested she didn’t think much of his painting, or Bob’s prophecy. But the one thing she didn’t do was to discourage him.
And that is Bob’s philosophy in teaching his students. He wants them to retain their innocence and not to grow up. He has had many “left brainers” as students. He says these people have been in business or corporate life and think that because they are fantastic in business all they have to do is apply themselves for the couple of hours’ lesson per week and they will be able to turn out masterpieces. “They think because they can tinkle bit on the piano they can play a concerto.” As Bob says, “They don’t call them the Old Masters for nothing.”
Bob will put his hand to anything and was even commissioned as one of four artists to create a gate for the Bass Coast Shire for its Creative Gippsland ‘Gatescape’. He was thrilled to create the gate – and even more so when he was paid $1500 by a keen art buyer who wanted the gate for his veggie patch.
Bob’s most recent venture is in association with 34 other artists to work on a project by Anne Rousanne Hoyne. Anne gave each of the artists a canvas measuring three feet square and four natural ochres. The colours were not to be mixed, but other than that the artists could create whatever they wish. The finished products are hanging at the Fish Creek Hotel until the end of June.
You can also see Bob’s work at the Winter Solstice Exhibition at ArtSpace Wonthaggi, which opened on Thursday and will be launched at 2pm on Sunday. Bob was a joint winner, with Heather Towns, of last year’s exhibition.