“I wish to light a fire in the thoughts of men” – from Robert Wood’s journals and turned into an opera by his friend, gallery owner, John Kluth.by Jack Wallingford
Tracing the invisible tracks of the artist Robert Wood begins to resemble tracking a man across the desert. His tracks begin to dissipate in the burning scrutiny of the public, the drying winds of time, and the clash between the artist’s prickly nature and the his depth of soul.
Here is what we know:
• The artist, Robert E. Wood was born in Struther’s Ohio, just outside of Youngstown on July 20, 1943 and he died in Kent, Ohio Feb. 5, 2012.
• In 1971 Wood entered Kent State University and pursued an art degree. He received a BA in art from Kent State and then an MA in Oil Painting, prior to the designation of MFA. His post-graduate work was always about art. He drew, painted and created art daily.
• During the 80’s he acquired the name F-You Bob from citizens of Kent for his observed rants and obscenity filled comments as he walked the streets of the city.
• Wood created art from the time he arrived in Kent in the 70-71 school year until his death in 2012
• Estimates of Wood’s artistic production run into the thousands as he created work given to others as repayment for loans and money owed.
•The shear volume of his work may exceed its value, but works constructed about computers in the early years of the PC and works created in peak years may yet prove to be valuable collector’s items.
According to close friends and gallery owners, John Kluth and Nick DelBene, Wood had been observed by medical and psychological doctors and found mentally disease free, but had been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder.
Additional friends, such as former Kent State Art Director and art professor Jack Carlton, also his college roommates, attribute this disorder for much of Wood’s behavior during the remaining years of his life, his obsessive love for art, his obsessive creation of art and his anger and occasional outbursts of profanity.
At least one friend maintains Wood’s personality may have been intentionally cultivated after his acquiring the nickname, F-You Bob, a case of growing into the persona.
Almost all his close friends insist drugs, alcohol and anything but this physical malformity were his only demons. He was a pure artist, devoting his life to art and thought.
After Wood’s death in 2012, the value of his person came to light in artistic circles in the city, mostly in counter culture groups, alternative press publications such as The Patch, and among his many friends in the city of Kent where he spent the majority of his days.
“Robert would come to me with his medical problems, and his anger issues,” his friend, Kluth, gallery owner, painter and local businessman, said. “I could only refer him to a doctor. When Robert was angry, it was not about his inability to understand humanity, it was anger at hypocrisy or his anger at the prejudice that was shown towards him by people for his physical disability.”
This physical disability, Kluth insisted, was the obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder found as the root of Wood’s problems.
In the quiet, college community of Kent that Wood viewed from what he referred to as his “tourist perspective, he was called “F-You Bob, more for the rare times when he raised his middle finger in a salute to passing motorists and less for the times when he exhibited his work or showed his artistic knowledge.
While Wood patrolled the streets of Kent on foot, (he had no driver’s license) he was shouted at by passing motorists.
People who knew Wood intimately insist Robert Wood did not use drugs and rarely drank, so shouts about “get back on your meds” or “stop doing dope” were erroneous and cruel.
Kluth said “a dental problem may have irritated his spectrum disorder, but he was an opinionated man, not afraid of expressing himself in public.”
Close friend and gallery owner Louis DelBene was blunt.
“Bob drove people crazy,” DelBene said.
Wood was a scholar and he attended, sometimes without the benefit of registration, numerous classes on art, philosophy, and art criticism on campus. “He lived the purist life of an artist/philosopher that anyone could,” DelBene said.
Michael Loderstedt, Director of Printmaking at Kent State, said, “Bob attended openings here regularly and argued with artists and professors, all from a solid position of intelligence and dedication to art. His eternal flame for art, art making, talking about art and single mindedness made me think how important Kent State is.
Loderstedt said Wood graduated from here and he lived for art.
“He was not above showing up for a free dinner or two at a gallery opening though,” Loderstedt said. “The joke was to graze the food and the chip dip before Bob’s beard grazed through it.”
Wood’s unruly hair and beard were part of his artistic persona that also seemed to separate him from folks after the ’70s.
Wood’s intensive study of philosophy, film and, of course, art, was collaborated by several sources.
Friends shared reading lists and books. By the end of the ’80s, he was intent on finding the creative force in computers and their future with humanity.
“I wish to probe the soul of the computer,” Kluth wrote for Robert’s character in Kluth’s opera. The opera is a 37 page typed opera that Kluth has written for Wood’s character using a classical Greek muse and layout. Music is pending. The opera seems to coincide with Wood’s pursuit of computer generated art in the ’80s.
Wood launched his art with an eye to the huge impact personal computers would have on the lives of almost everyone from the ’80s on. He began computer-generated art, computer corrupted art, computer encrypted art in the ’80s before most people had computers in their homes. He continued the work into the ’90s, using cutting edge campus printing machines and new computers to find a new expression.
His computer art paralleled the growth of computers in the country. But Wood continued to produce a vast and eclectic array of drawing, painting and watercolors that leaves as many questions about his legacy as his persona. There are figurative works of Greek and Roman mythologies that pay little attention to the actual story line.
One entitled, “What’s her Name and Hercules,” pokes fun at the Hercules myth and turns a normal woman into a goddess. There are figurative works that appear to be sketch books that Wood crammed with art from the times when he pursued his BA and MA in Oil Painting, prior to the designation MFA.
There are at least two known notebooks, looking like raw drawings for classes, encompassing other students, nightlife scenes from Kent, and glances at persons as they came into the artist’s ken. Most of these works were done with pencils and magic markers.
“Bob was terribly eclectic, “ Loderstedt said. “It is hard to get a handle on what is a unique Robert Wood style. He had a degree from Kent in painting, but he created art of all kinds. He was one of the most well read artists I have ever met. He could blow away art critics with the intensity of his questions and the depth of understanding of their work. As for his own work, he was in need of a manager or an assistant that could control the flow of his output.”
“Robert was a serious artist, “ Kluth said. “He was a dedicated artist with an intensity and creative message” that may have been “regional but was universal in his amazement with people…what they said and the way that they behaved.”
Kluth remains a central figure in the Robert E. Wood story.
Kluth’s first gallery was in the same building as Wood’s apartment for more than nine years.
Their friendship and their work together, Kluth is a painter as well, and their mutual attendance or application at galleries and shows, influences Kluth’s views of everything that is Robert Wood.
It is Kluth who holds the artist’s computer prints in a shiny black artist’s travelling portfolio. It is Kluth who suggests the figure of $100, 000 to create a museum of Wood’s art, to house a scholarship fund, and to create a legacy in Robert’s name for young artists. Thousands of pieces of art circulate the Greater Kent area created by Robert Wood.
Kluth said wants a place to gather and collate the art and generate a tribute to Wood’s commitment to art. The dream burned a little less bright with the artists passing in February, 2012.
DelBene, Kluth, Wood’s brother and sister-in-law and the approximately 60 people who attended Wood’s private funeral fell into disarray as there was no will and no way of sharing the artist’s meager belongings. Or his prolific art.
DelBene said he received his records of classical artists and some paintings he already owned.
He guestimates almost 300 showed up for the public funeral and many of those people did not know each other but knew Wood. DelBene said many of those folks owned paintings by Wood, or shared rides with the artist, or visited area churches or area art openings with him.
The disparate nature of the attendees, all with the mutual link of Robert Woods, did nothing to cement the hope of friends that a museum or scholarship program might arise from Wood’s ashes.
Elia Freidman, from The Patch, a counterculture magazine, said she tried to get Wood hooked up in an artist’s cooperative just before he died.
Wood remained interested but not committed.
Underneath the money and the power of the “new city” of Kent being constructed to unify the university with downtown, perhaps amid the circuitry of the new satellite Wi-Fi, Robert Wood wages war yet.
His friends want a way to construct a permanent legacy to his commitment and devotion to the arts. It would be a place for the people who he loved, despite their differences.
To see some of Wood’s art, click here.