The Emotions Issue: Robert W. Richards (Part One)

Most gay erotic artists rely on the cum shot or throbbing members to propel their message. Not New York-based artist Robert W. Richards. He employs more than sex in his artistic schemes. Each panel’s saturated in as much emotion as lust: passion, longing and nostalgia pepper his works, giving them far more depth than a doodle of a dick. These distinctions make him the perfect addition to The Emotions Issue.

Now, for full disclosure, we’ve known Richards for a few years now. We’d never really sat down to talk to him – to really give his brain a good pick. So, we sent editor Andrew Belonsky on a little mission to see what makes Richards tick. And there’s loads. He’s got so much information to share, in fact, that we’ve had to split the interview in two. Lucky you.

After the jump, see what Richards had to say about his first love, how he spent his first night away from home and the true value of marriage.

Andrew Belonsky: We were just talking about progress – let’s talk about your career a little. You are very lucky in that you have never had to do anything you didn’t want to do to make your money.

Robert Richards: That’s very true. I mean, I’ve had to do artwork that I didn’t want to do – commercial stuff, beauty industry stuff and really boring things like instructions on how to fasten your pony tail onto the back of your head and stuff like that, but it certainly beats – I mean, I’m still at my desk and I’m still doing what I do. Even if it isn’t the ideal, it’s still an experience that adds up to whatever it is that I am now.

AB: Do you still have to do those little things you don’t want to do?

RR: Sure, sure. We always have to do those little things we don’t want to do.

AB: You’re right. Let’s talk about growing up in Maine. What was that like?

RR: Oh, desolate!

AB: What is your town called?

RR: Sanford – it’s a little town, a factory town –

AB: Textiles, right?
RR: At one time, when I was very young, [but] the textiles left and went south. The town became known as the “little town that refused to die”, but I was convinced it had. It was dead. I got out of high school very young, just a little over 14 and there was nothing for me to do. At this point my father and mother, who had always worked in factories, now owned a little mom and pop hardware store and I was frightened, terribly frightened of getting out of school, because what was I going to do, work in a hardware store, dishing out pounds of nails. So, in my many trips to the library, one day I discovered The New York Times and I started looking at it and I became fascinated with this – seeing all the movie ads and all the things that I longed to do and see.

One day I was looking at the magazine and they had all these ads for various art schools. I just started writing to them and sending them little drawings on yellow legal pad. I would draw, like, a dog or a boy – “fashiony” kinds of things, or what I thought were fashion. I did all of this without telling my parents and pretty soon I started receiving mail from these different places saying, “Send us more information”. I would run to the mailbox every day so [my parents] wouldn’t see this…

AB: Were you afraid of your parents knowing about this?

RR: Yeah.

AB: Why?

RR: Well, we were living in dire circumstances and my mother was a very, very smart woman and she had – I now see – many disappointments. She didn’t want us – I have two sisters – to dream. She wanted just for us to accept who we were, what we were, where we were – any deviation from this would lead to violence. She would lose control, so I didn’t want to tell them this dream. I mean, “art school” – it [is] a little pretentious. I don’t even think they knew the word pretentious… off the mark. It was off the scale of possibility. This was just ridiculous.

One day I received a very nice letter from Boston University of Fine Arts telling me that they were giving me a scholarship. By this time I had three or four scholarships – it’s insane. I guess they were desperate for students. I never told [the schools] how old I was, but I still had to have my parents sign certain papers. I told them and they were upset at first, but then they realized that this was great – that they had to do this, although I was so young and it was a non-campus school, so I would just be living in Boston.

AB: How was that?

RR: I was so thrilled!

AB: What was the first thing you did?
RR: The first thing I did was – as my parents drove me on the Sunday that I moved from Maine, my meager possessions, like four shirts and two pairs of trousers, the school had given me these addresses [of boarding houses] and I had accepted an offer from two old women who rented rooms to boys, so I was going to be living there and it was right behind symphony hall and I love music. Music was always – music was really my entrance into the world of art, more than visual things – it was always what drove me. So, as we were driving through, we drove past symphony hall and there was a big poster saying that night was Jazz at the Philharmonic. I had twenty-five dollars that I had received as a going away gift that I stashed away. I couldn’t wait for my parents to leave so that I could run to the hall and buy a ticket way upstairs somewhere. And that was my first night on the own. I went to this concert – you know, people I didn’t even know. I knew Ella Fitzgerald and that was it, but I was really excited – oh, this is sort of an interesting side bar: at intermission, I was sort of wandering around, dazzled, and this handsome guy, probably around thirty, very tweedy, very Boston – you know, in the tweed jacket with the leather patches on the elbow – came up to me and asked me if I was alone and I said, “Yeah” and he said, “Well, would you like to go for a drink after the show?” And I said, “Well, I can’t go for a drink, I’m just fifteen”. And he said, “Oh, well, what would you like to do?” And I said, “Could you take me to a nightclub where they would let me in without drinking.” So he took me to a nightclub.

AB: Was it gay or straight?

RR: It was straight – in the black section. It was a black nightclub and I was like, “Wow! I’m in the big time now”. Then he walked me home and we sat on the stoop and it was just very awkward. I was very, very naïve and he never made any kind of move on me, or anything. I saw him a couple more times – he took me to the movies and I could see that there was something on his mind, but I didn’t know how to open that door and it sort of slipped away. So, that was my introduction to big city life. I was perfectly happy. Delighted!

AB: Do you remember the first time you fell in love?

RR: I think the first time I fell in love, I didn’t know that I was in love. It was in high school: a boy who was a couple years older than me. All through high school, he was really the most important thing in my life. It wasn’t overtly sexual, but I was really living for him. If something good happened, it was better for me once I told him and I think vice versa. He was in the same circumstances as me and he got out of high school before I did, so he had no alternative: he joined the service.

AB: What happened to him?

RR: We’re still in touch. We didn’t speak for many, many years, and quite recently he saw something about me somewhere and he got in touch with me and it just so happens that he’s living in the same town as one of my sisters and I was going to visit my sister, so we had a reunion, which was kind of bitter sweet, to say the least…. He’s a lost soul. He was in the service and then floated around, lived in and out of cities, but always went back [to Maine].

AB: How do you not let yourself get bogged down by those people in your life that you see not doing either the things that you’re doing or the things that you think they should be doing? It takes a certain amount of emotional detachment, at least in my opinion…

RR: Well, I think that’s what it is – I manage to erase it. Not if they’re in my life now.

AB: Are you in a relationship now?

RR: No.

AB: Living single…

RR: I’m basically a lone wolf. I’m alone really myself when I’m alone. The rest is one big performance.

AB: I think that is probably true for everybody.

RR: When I’m really honest and simple and centered is when I’m drawing what I choose. Those are my happy moments. I’ve had relationships, both long and short, both disastrous and tragic and funny. Doesn’t everybody?

When I first came to New York, I had a long relationship with a really wonderful man. He really was extremely helpful to me. He was a Vice-President at Revlon and he was just a really nice person. I was twenty-one or twenty-two and he was about fifteen years older, so it started out with him guiding me and as the years went along, it completely flip-flopped and I became the parent.

I realized that there were many weaknesses and many things that he couldn’t motivate himself to do. And he traveled a lot and it gave me too much time on my own to think. I didn’t stop liking him; I just didn’t want to be with him. I just couldn’t give him what he needed and vice versa and he became very ill and I lived with him through that – a very long illness, heart surgery and all that kind of thing and [we] were just growing further and further apart. We should have called it a day, but we didn’t. And then it began get ugly – no, not ugly, that sounds like beatings, or something. It became unpleasant. We both wanted to be somewhere else. I finally had to go to California to end it.
Several years went by and the telephone rang and it was a mutual friend. He said, “Have you spoken to Anthony?” I said “No”, and he said, “Well, you should”. And I said, “Why?” And he just said, “You should”. And I knew what it was. So I stared at the phone for four hours, knowing that when I picked up the phone, I [would be] back in it. And I called and I was back in it, but it turned out to be a really beautiful thing, because he had really helped me and now I was able to help him. Again, it’s bitter sweet. For two years, I cooked for him every night. If I was going out, I would rent a movie to take care of him in the evening and I would settle him either in his apartment or in mine. Maybe that’s what marriage is about, ultimately –

AB: Taking care of one another?

RR: Yeah.

(Tune in Monday for Part Two of our sit down with Robert W. Richards. Yes, we know it’s hard to wait, but hopefully you can bide your time by poking around his website.)