Canadian Visual Artists: Rob Croxford

Rob Croxford is a Toronto artist whose paintings and mixed-media works playfully combine elements of graphic design and vintage 1950’s aesthetics with thought-provoking messages.

The In Crowd by Rob CroxfordRob’s personality, like his art, projects such optimism, that the first question I ask when we meet up for coffee near his Queen East studio is about what helps him to stay so upbeat.

“I’m just grateful that I get to do this. I worked some terrible jobs over the years. I’ve got so much going for me already – I get to do what I love every single day. Even if things are not always as financially rewarding as I might like them to be, I get to do something that I’m passionate about and that’s amazing.

“It really helps when you love what you do. My paintings are really upbeat and positive, and I try to really be playful – and when you have that around you all day you can’t help but feel that way.”

But the consequences of the recent economic downturn can be disheartening for a professional artist, and focusing on the positives requires an occasional self-reminder, especially after a disappointing show:

Things 2 by Rob Croxford“I have to say to myself,  ‘It’s ok, Rob. People are really responsive to the work, and it’s really good work, and remember you love to do it. It’s not about the outcome, it’s about the process.'”

Speaking of the process, how does he choose the phrases that make up are such an integral part of many of his works?

“I sit on some of them – there’s a few that I’ve been sitting on for some time, I can’t think of how to make them.  I don’t want to be too preachy, and I don’t want to be too ‘cat of the month calendar’ either.  So I sit on a lot of them until I find the right inspiration, the right imagery.”

One Answer by Rob Croxford

One Answer quotes Neil Gaiman:
“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Rob admires many of the authors of the clever, funny and thought-provoking quotes that accompany his paintings: “They come from people who are the person I would like to be […]  I’d like to have the knowledge and experience it takes to say those smart things.”

He says it’s very exciting and rewarding when all the pieces of an artwork finally come together.

“I’m just finishing one right now. I’d started it one way and thought, ‘It’s a bit preachy, but ok, I’ll try that.’ Then I thought, ‘It’s not nearly funny enough,’ so I went back to the drawing board and made it a little bit funnier, a little bit sillier.”

Wanting to make his work more humorous, to “turn up the heat a little bit” sometimes makes Rob doubt its marketability: “Every now and again I get that voice in my head, ‘Don’t say that, Rob. No one’s going to hang that up in their house.'”

Free&Easy by Rob CroxfordBut his main concerns about turning up the humour in his work are not commercial. He worries that because his paintings are fun, they are sometimes dismissed as not being Art.

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Favourite books series: Neuromancer

In 1984, William Gibson’s Neuromancer became the defining novel of the emerging cyberpunk genre. It also gave the world one of science fiction’s most often quoted, referenced and spoofed opening sentences:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Set in a dystopian, technologically advanced, darkly urban future, Neuromancer was one of the earliest works of fiction to portray an edgy world of cyber criminals, virtual realities of globally networked data and neural computer implants. It introduced the term “cyberspace” into popular use.

Yet, like all futuristic science fiction, it was not really about the future but about its own time.

In the early 1980s, personal computers were beginning their ingress into regular people’s homes, running basic book-keeping programs and low-res games. Sharing information over a globally interconnected network of computers was still a decade away for the average user, though government and financial institutions have been sending data using packet switch networks since the 60’s.

Rapid technological change was happening just far enough on the margins of everyday lives to be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. To the techie types and to many readers of science fiction, the implications of this were mind-blowing and cool. Also cool was black leather and mirror shades.

And so the novel sets the scene for the technologically advanced seedy future underworld by comparing the sky above the Sprawl megapolis to the static noise of analogue television. The current generation of kids reading Neuromancer for the first time is most likely to interpret this to mean that the sky was a bright flat expanse of blue. The next generation may be confused by the “dead channel” reference: does that mean its content hasn’t been updated for a while? The evocative impact of “television” itself will lose all semblance to a pertinent metaphor for the latest technology invading our homes, and will instead become part of the lore of a quaint society that had no control over the timing, structure and content of its own entertainment.

It is unfairly limiting to talk about this novel (or any other novel) in terms of its opening sentence alone, though that sentence may highlight its groundbreaking prescience at the same time as rooting it in its own technological era. No matter. This mosaic is about that sentence.

The Sprawl urban landscape mosaic

It grew around the sky the color of television tuned to a dead channel. Around that sky, I wanted to give just a hint of the Sprawl – the urban metropolis stretching along most of the east coast of US from Boston to Atlanta.

I struggled with this mosaic and laid it aside for a long time after filling in the sky. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what the Sprawl should look like.

Now that I finally forced myself to finish it, I am much happier with the result than I ever thought possible. The Sprawl looks like an 80’s idea of a futuristic city. It looks like a low-res graphic on the coolest gaming console you wish you owned. As visions of the future interpreted in an archaic medium of mosaic go, it looks just right.

In progress: Sprawl

If I write an “in progress” post about something that’s not actually seen any progress for weeks, will it spur the whole thing back into action? This is a story of how I came to use a picture instead of a pencil sketch as a basis for a mosaic, and how this method is working out for me.

First sketchThe project is the next piece in my “Favorite Books” series, and I will talk more about the cyberpunk novel that inspired it in a future post to be written when the mosaic is complete. The scene I wanted to portray was a futuristic, densely populated, techno-seedy urban landscape. When I first sketched a tiny 2″ thumbnail draft of the design, it looked like this:

Then, when I attempted to enlarge this concept to actual (16″ x 10″) size, the perspective got all wonky. Perspectives being what they are, that didn’t surprise me at all, especially since the last time perspective really counted in something I drew was high school art class. I tried again, but each attempt was wonkier than the last.

So I decided to get a program that’s much better at perspective than I am to do it for me.

SketchUp streetThe first thing I tried was Google SketchUp, which is a 3D modelling program often used to design models of real-life buildings (to add to Google Earth), as well any other things that need to be rendered in 3D, like furniture or gadget prototypes. It’s an easy program to use and I figured I can quickly put a bunch of faceless buildings in a line to get the right perspective of a street. After a while, that street looked like this:

This was clearly going to take more than one street and I was tired of stacking faceless boxes next to each other.

Now this project was looking like the perfect excuse to play SimCity – one of the very few computer games that I ever bothered to play for considerable stretches of time. (That was before I had kids.)

As you play the game, you build a city, and as it sprawls – filled with a variety of buildings rendered in lovely detail – perfect perspective is just a screenshot away. Even better, SimCity Societies – the version of the game which lets you build thematic cities – has a Cyberpunk mode. That would get me not only the right perspective, but the right ambiance too. Bonus.

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