Garland Robinette on Life as a Professional Artist

Garland Robinette is a person who has been blessed with natural talent and good fortune throughout his career. Most New Orleanians are well acquainted with Garland from all of his years of broadcasting for WWL. However, Garland is equally deserving of recognition for his beautiful paintings. Garland and his lovely wife, Nancy Rhett, sat down for an interview to discuss his new life as a full-time painter.

NCM: Have ever been to art school?

Garland:  I have never really had lessons. Many years ago I had one lesson by Auseklis Ozols at the Academy of Fine Arts on Magazine Street. I learned how to put paint on a palette and how to clean it. I was doing a lot of TV then and I just didn’t have time.

I just paint with the music really loud. Nancy is going to have to put new sheet rock in this room when I am gone because I make a mess. I paint more with my feelings.

Pete Fountain

Nancy: He also had a lesson or two when he was a young man at John McCrady’s school in the French Quarter. I think that is important to note because he was still drawing.

Garland: I only stayed there a couple of days. I thought it was more fun to sneak out and get drunk. The French Quarter was way too interesting for a country boy.

I have educated myself by reading a lot and studying other artists like Terrance Osborne. I look at his anatomy and creativity and get ideas. I also study John Singer Sargent closely. My education comes from studying other artists.

NCM: Did your parents encourage your art?

Garland: No, I grew up in a small Cajun town. And in those days, if you painted and played piano, you were considered gay. I drew and played piano. I also had asthma and couldn’t play sports. My parents were blue collar people and didn’t encourage the arts. Art didn’t mean anything to them.

I was in my late 30s before I painted my first color portrait, which was Pope John Paul. When I got the commission, I ran to Ozols and said, “How do I do this? I don’t know anything about color.”

And he said, “The best thing you can do is use pastels. It’s chalk. It’s not watercolor, oil, or acrylic. It’s more forgiving.”

So I sat with him and did some sketches based on photographs. The portrait ended up being shown all over the state. After that people started coming to me for portraits. Even though I was a TV news anchor and not a portrait artist.

The way I became a news anchor was also sort of by accident. I started out as a janitor at a news station. I had no training as a news anchor. I lied my way into the news department in 1970. They fired the guy that was their primary anchor because he got drunk on Christmas Day and couldn’t work. In a panic, they grabbed me and put me on as (what was supposed to be) a temporary solution. Luckily the ratings held and they left me on. I was so freaking nervous because I had no idea what I was doing.

I would cope with this situation by sketching. (That was something I learned to do when I was a little kid to cope with stressful situations.) I would sketch in the margins of the news scripts and then throw them in the trash can when the news cast was over.

There was a young guy named Chuck Myers who was the floor director and a student at Loyola who came to me months later and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I have been pulling these out of the trash can. Would you let me Xerox them? If you let me Xerox them, I think I can pay for my school books. I will give you half of what I make.”

Tribe of Hope

And I said, “If you can sell that crap, I will let you keep all of the money!”

Several months later I got a call from the head Jesuit from Loyola. Loyola  owned the TV Station at that time. I thought I was in trouble.

He said, “I see your sketches all over campus. You know the ones that you do in the margins of your scripts. I can recognize that all of the people you are drawing: the three cameramen and the prompt operator. I would like to ask you to do a portrait.”

And I told him, “You know I have never really thought much about it, but I like to draw human faces. Who do you want me to draw?”

And he said, “Pope John Paul.”

From that moment on I was a professional portrait artist. I have painted: Pete Fountain, Gail Benson, the Rabbi of Touro Synegogue, Ruth Fertel, and many others.

Rabbi Emeritus David Goldstein, Touro Synogogue

NCM: How many portraits do you paint a year on average?

Garland: Last year I did five, which is a lot in one year. But I also retired from broadcasting last year. So now I have more time. But sometimes I wonder if we can handle all of the demand.

Gail Benson

The idea of retiring is kind of foreign though. Painting is actually my 6th career. I have been a full-time janitor, full-time anchor, full-time Vice President of a Corporation, full-time owner of a company, full-time radio talk show host, and now I am a full-time artist. So my retirement keeps skipping along. But I love painting too much to stop.

Ruth Fertel

NCM: Does this feel like work?

Garland: God no! My biggest problem is not to overwork. Nancy helps me and prevents me from working too hard. That is why she is my muse. She helps me with colors and observation, but most importantly she keeps me from overworking. Otherwise, I almost turn into a robot. I can’t stop painting.

Stephanie Osborne

NCM: Do you have a limit to the hours that you are able to concentrate intensely? For me personally, I have noticed that I start making silly mistakes after focusing intensely for about three hours. I experience mental exhaustion.

Garland: Five hours for me. And then I have overdone it. Nancy knows that she needs to interrupt me at that point. I need to clear my head. Otherwise I get too technical with my work and it loses emotion. But I paint almost every day.

Nancy Rhett

NCM: I noticed that you were using pastels a lot, but I also see oil paint. Do you create mixed-media pieces?

Garland: I usually do a pastel sketch prior to a full oil painting. Especially if it is going to be a more complicated piece. Because it helps the client know that this is where everyone is going to be placed. The pastel is usually on a piece of wrapping paper.

Garland holding a portrait of Charley Robinette

NCM: When you were growing up, was there anyone else in your family that was artistic at all.

Garland: I was adopted. No encouragement and no original art in our home. We were poor, but we didn’t know it. We lived in the swamp with ten or twelve other families. Everybody had the same paycheck, the same two pairs of clothes, and the same pick up truck. We didn’t realize that we were poor. We had enough for food, gas, and a tiny bit extra for fun stuff.

Oceans of Love

NCM: Was there any person in your entire life that was an artistic mentor? Anyone who has been able to guide you in any way?

Nancy: You know I am Garland’s fourth wife. But I think that everyone Garland has been married to has encouraged him. You really had good wives.

Garland: Yes, I agree! I had great wives. They just had a bad husband! But Nancy is the first one that has really been effective at critiquing my work. And I am thankful for that. She is an artist and interior decorator. She knows if I am on the right track with a painting.

If I ask Nancy for an opinion on a painting and there is a 30 second lag, I know something is wrong. I have even quit arguing with her because I know that she is right.

Nancy: Since I am an artist myself, I know that there are situations where we need to support one another.

Spiral Child

NCM: How long have you been married?

Nancy: We have been married twenty five years. And he has always painted during that time. It’s been a very important part of our life.

NCM: Do you have your own studio?

Nancy: I did, but I don’t in this house. When we moved here we downsized and Garland retired from broadcasting, I made a conscious decision to partner with him by managing and supporting his work. I am not resentful of the fact that I am not making stuff anymore. I love running the studio together.

NCM: What genres would you say that you are currently working in? Because I see you going in a different direction.

Owl Doll

Garland: It’s kind of strange because I went through some very bad health problems. During that period, I couldn’t really paint portraits. I was making quick sketches and doodles on paper when I was so sick. Out of those sketches, I started making these little Juju dolls.

Juju dolls are of West African origin, they protect the home, and are meant to create happiness. I decided that I wanted to pursue this idea in my paintings. I decided to combine this type of spiritual Juju folk art with my fine art.

Nancy started marketing them. And we discovered that something that made me happy, was also something that other people would want to start buying. For example, this Juju doll with the cat was made for a woman in Australia. People from all over the United States have bought them. We are making and shipping prints. We have shown the Juju dolls in the French Quarter.

Each Juju doll has a theme. Here is one that has a streetcar. I have also done one with a Tabasco bottle. It has kind of taken off.

Tabasco Doll

Nancy: The Jujus are little healers. They have helped heal him. I think people are picking up on that message when they look at them.

NCM: Whose work inspires you the most? Do you have any artistic heroes?

Garland: John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth are big ones. There is a guy here in New Orleans I admire named Henry Caselli. Henry is an extraordinary artist. Early on he would critique my work.

I think John Singer Sargent is my favorite one. NOMA has one of his portraits and it is breathtaking. I think he was able to paint with emotion better than anyone else. If you can technically paint with emotion it comes through.

NCM: What made you choose oils over other mediums? Because oils are tough to master for people that have been to art school. I imagine that they are especially challenging for a self-taught artist.

Elizabeth, Daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Dominick Russo

Garland: John Singer Sargent layered and layered his oils so that his paintings became luminous and reflected colors in a way that you can’t get with other mediums. Oil paints you can work and blend over and over. You can also scratch it and cut into it. I love it. It is my favorite medium. But I work with other mediums. I just have a special affection for oil.

NCM: How do you differentiate your art from everyone else? What makes yours stand out?

Garland: I don’t really think about that. I just paint and put it out there. If people want it, I figure that it must be okay.

The Juju Dolls accidentally became popular. They were really something that just came out of my subconscious. When I was recovering, I still needed to paint fine art, but I liked the happiness of the folk art dolls themselves and I wanted to combine them into my fine art paintings.

Boef Gras Doll

Nancy: He is painting these by commission now, which is nice. And we are selling the Juju originals for around $850. They are gallery wrapped and ready to hang.

Garland: I have been painting these Jujus on clayboard, which is a great thing to paint on. It’s almost ceramic. You can paint on it and pull it off easier. So if you don’t like something, you can sand it off. It is the most amazing stuff. Oils paint beautifully on clayboard.

Golden Days on the Farm

NCM: How do you handle negative criticism about your art? Has anyone ever said anything that really hurt you?

Garland: I know this sounds like bullshit, but I actually like negative criticism. I learned to deal with criticism when I was a news anchor. I learned that criticism gave me an opportunity to improve my work.

When someone says something bad about my art, I look at my work and try to see their point. For example, when Nancy tells me something doesn’t work, I know she isn’t being negative. I know that she is being honest and wants to help me improve. There have been situations where I wouldn’t have shown the world my best work if it hadn’t been for Nancy. So for me, criticism is medicine. It doesn’t bother me if someone just doesn’t like my work. I have been very lucky. The majority of my clients have been very happy.

Second Line Juju

NCM: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure?

Nancy: Garland’s prices have grown incrementally. His portrait prices are really in line with other portrait artists of his caliber nationally.

Garland: There have been times where I had such a large waiting list that I needed to raise prices. Otherwise the waiting list kept growing and there was no way I would ever finish all of the work.

Nancy: Yes, it is really a supply and demand situation for the portraiture. It’s a little bit easier to price a portrait than it is to price other art. Because there are standards in place for portraiture where you can compare artists.

We are currently charging $25,000 for a full-length oil. Sometimes it takes him months to paint one that size. We understand that not everyone can afford that price, so we offer a range of options all of the way down to $1800 for a pencil sketch of a head.

Garland: The Jujus started around $200 and now they are up to $850. If demand keeps increasing we will have to raise those prices some more.
When I started painting, I was cheap. About a year after the Pope John Paul portrait, I realized I wasn’t charging enough.

Cat and Mouse Doll

NCM: How many Juju dolls have you painted so far? And how long have you been painting them?

Garland: I have only painted about twenty so far and I started painting them about six months ago.

NCM: If you had to pick one favorite of everything that you have done, could you do it?

Garland: A portrait of my daughter Charley. I did portraits of my daughter every year of her life until she was 18. Until she said, “Stop! What are we going we going to do with all of this stuff?”

I have just been consumed with love for my daughter. And my favorite portrait is of her riding a toy swan at the beach. Its pastel on foam core board. I made it in five hours.

Charley Robinette Riding a Swan

NCM: Where can people see more of your work?

Nancy: Instagram and my Facebook page are where you can see the latest stuff. You can also go to www.robinettestudios.com

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