by Marlene Berlin
When Robin Rose met me at the door to his home, he seemed to me like a kind of St. Nicholas, albeit one with a neatly cropped beard, a southern twang, and a blue plaid flannel shirt and jeans in place of Santa’s signature red suit. And like that magical character, Rose seemed to sense my approach. He opened the door before I had a chance to knock or ring the bell.
“The doorbell doesn’t work,” he explained.
Rose is an artist who enjoys collecting the works of others. Right in the entryway, I was stopped in my tracks by a photograph from a series called “Looking at Looking” by Max Hirshfeld, a renowned photographer who also resides in Forest Hills.
After Rose offered me tea, coffee or water to drink, he picked up a guitar, strummed for bit and told me he doesn’t have enough time to play (he used to be in a band). Then he made a more formal introduction.
“I am a frustrated curator, archeologist, and collector,” he said.
That, of course, is on top of being an artist whose works can pull in $20,000 to $40,000, and are shown at the Hemphill Fine Arts at 1515 14th Street in Northwest DC, and at the Howard Scott Gallery in New York. Two of his latest works adorn the offices of doctors Sherber and Rad in downtown DC.
Now, let me honest. I do not know much about art, but I fell for Rose’s work – three pieces above a buffet in an area off the living room. These panels demonstrate his signature art form – “encaustic” or hot wax painting. He studied with the master of this art form, Karl Zerbe, in the 1960s. He uses beeswax, damar varnish, and carnauba wax mixed with pigments.
I was first drawn by the color and then by the subtle difference in textures, simple yet complex. But I could not give them the time I wanted for I was pulled into the vortex of Robin.
Like a whirlwind, he whisked me around and showed me the objects he’s collected over the years – so many beautiful things that another visit (or maybe many) would not exhaust the opportunities to explore. The visual treasures this Santa Claus showed me included a handmade shooter marble from the 1890s, a nearly three-inch in diameter tricolor swirl. There were 1955 princess tear drop glasses by Holmegaard of Denmark with a tear shape perfectly centered in the middle of the stem. He showed me a mosaic by Eve Ackerman and a small painting by Mary Meyer, a supposed girlfriend of John F. Kennedy who was murdered in Rock Creek Park. Rose showed me the book, Mary’s Mosaic, the investigative journalist Peter Janney wrote about the murder.
Even the furnishings in Rose’s home are works of art. He is an avid collector of mid-century modern pieces, such as this rocking chair of cherry and ebony by Sam Maloof. Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton, as well as Ray Charles, each owned one.
Rose is also a perfectionist when it comes to displaying each piece. As he explained the importance of display to the integrity of the art, I got the impression I wasn’t the first to hear this lecture. Everything from the lighting of the pieces on the wall and the placement of other art objects and furniture create an effect greater than the individual pieces – a synergy of the whole. This harmonious arrangement invites you to stop and contemplate wherever your vision falls.
The whirlwind also took me through the kitchen. Rose and his wife Judy, once a modern dancer and now a dentist, are serious cooks with a serious collection of cookbooks, recently pared down by Rose. But what got my attention was a huge cast iron pan with unusual detailing. He offered to hunt for another one at estate sales, which he often frequents. Before we left the kitchen area I caught sight of yet another collection, this of rock crystals displayed on glass shelves in front of a window. What could be a better window treatment?
Rose next took me down to his basement to show me his new art medium. But again I was stopped by a most uncommon looking yet very elegant stereo console with built-in but exposed speakers. It was a JBL stereo by Arnold Wolf, who only made 1,000 from 1957 to 1963.
This appeared to be the crown piece of Robin’s collection of audio equipment – speakers, foot pedals, amplifiers, tuners all very neatly displayed and stacked.
One wall in the basement was bare but for a large piece of light brown paper sporting some black lines – a work in progress. Rose picked up a black marker that was connected by wire to a CD recorder. As he drew on the paper, sounds emanated from speakers – something like ocean waves – what he called “a real onomatopoeia.” The texture of the paper and the amount of pressure applied while drawing determined the sound being recorded and played back.
Rose calls this process “Scriptronics,” which he developed in the 1980s with the late Kevin MacDonald. Rose will unveil this new art form in September at the McLean Project for the Arts in McLean, Virginia. Rose sees Scriptronics not only as a means of expression for artists, but also as a potential therapeutic tool for the autistic and those with dementia.
“The main idea behind Scriptronics is to amplify the manual act of drawing,” Rose explained later in an email. “The subtle sound aspect of the line is now presented as an equal aesthetic phenomena. This now adds to the synesthetic experience presenting both sound and visual on an equal plateau.”
How does it work? “A magic marker is attached to a contact pickup. The pickup feeds the sounds from the tip of the marker to a digital CD recorder. The sound is recorded in a multi-track mode and after the recording is made, it can then be played back as a complete piece. All tracks at once, just like making a record. The output from the marker can be fed through a series of sound effects pedals to effect the sound, adding delay, flange, chorus etc. These effects pedals give the recorded sound color.”
As our visit came to an end, and he was leading me to the door, Rose gently tapped my arm and said, “I need to show you something.”
He picked up what looked like flat reddish rock with sharp edges. He explained that this was a turtle back scraper, an ancient tool made sometime between 8,000 and 10,000 B.C. and found in this area by William Henry Holmes, an archaeologist. Holmes had come to DC to work for the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology in 1889 and developed archaeological sites in DC and Maryland in the 1890s. One of those sites was in Soapstone Valley. Rose’s parting offer was to show me this site, an offer I could not refuse.
Robin Rose has donated a home tour and Scriptronics demonstration to Forest Hills Connection’s silent auction at Acacia Bistro Monday, March 30th. Will we see you there?