Sitting on a work table in Dr. Bob’s open studio and sweating in the summer heat with minimal relief from the handful of fans blowing around us, I’m struck by the down-to-earth vibrancy of this place.
Located in the heart of the Bywater, a sign in the shop serves as a reminder that “The Bywater is the Ninth Ward,” an easy fact to forget as gentrification overtakes the area. And that’s what Dr. Bob is—a reminder of the past, a dying breed of New Orleanian who remembers when his neighborhood had few businesses and too many shootings.
Some 23 years since the 1995 Jazz Fest in which he carved a totem pole and began “taking art seriously,” Dr. Bob continues to find ways to keep himself and his fans engaged.
Recent projects include a series of painted folding chairs that pay tribute to New Orleans culture and history, such as one titled “It Ain’t Dere No More,” dedicated to past businesses. He’s also been restoring clocks, such as a 1947 clock he stumbled across in Bay St. Louis; he restored the original motor, added neon, and inscribed it with his classic command. “Neon’s the trick; it attracts people. I never would have drank my first beer if it wasn’t for a neon beer sign in a tavern window,” said Dr. Bob.
Often, Dr. Bob is referred to as a folk artist, but he describes himself as a junk artist. He said, “Everything in here is recycled; everything in here I picked up out of the garbage,” such as wheelbarrows leftover from rebuilding houses after Katrina, a 150-year-old piece of tin taken from the ceiling of a blues club in Memphis, or Dr. Nut signs left over after the factory closed. “That’s why my art’s so good. Cause I’m painting on the real deal.”
Dr. Bob’s approach to art is as accessible as his materials. “You don’t have to sit there and be fussy; take what you got and make art out of anything.”
“The theme [of my art] would be New Orleans, of course, my city. To be honest with you, I just tried my best not to play into fleur-de-lis-ing, f***ing cafe au lait-ing, beignet-ing, all that bulls***. I stuck to alligators.”
This statement gets at what I believe people find appealing about Dr. Bob’s art: its authenticity, its lack of overthinking, and its willingness to just be what it is—such as the simple message to “Be nice or leave,” which Dr. Bob picked up “in a juke joint in St. Joe, Louisiana, [called] Working Man’s Paradise that had all kinds of rules on the wall, hanging from the ceiling. That was pretty much a cardinal rule throughout the South in juke houses and roadhouses and honkey tonk bars.”
According to Dr. Bob, the magic of his art is closely tied to the materials he chooses to work with and on. “My stuff's got juice; it’s electrified. My juice got a story behind it, like the bottle cap gator—I didn’t go to Michael’s and buy a f***ing canvas and paint that. [It's] the real s***.”
He’s especially inspired by the book Confederacy of Dunces, which is set in New Orleans and focuses on Ignatius J. Reilly, a highly eccentric and opinionated character who abhors modern culture. (Can you sense a brotherhood between Dr. Bob and such a character?) His pieces constructed on Dr. Nut signs pay homage to the drink heavily consumed by the protagonist throughout the novel. “When this is in the Smithsonian with my other s***, [people will say,] ‘Wow, man, this guy painted on signs.’ And not just any sign. I’m telling a story about Ignatius J. Riley.”
“If you read the story, you start feeling the vibration.” Dr. Bob revisits this influence of such vibrations on his creative process throughout our time together, including his studio as part of it.
“History was made right here on this piece of property,” he said about the space that has been his studio for over 20 years, referencing not only the presence of Jean Lafitte, but also the 1892 World Heavyweight Championship and a tunnel used to smuggle alcohol during Prohibition. “Considering the lineage of who was on this property . . . I was destined to come here.”
Although Dr. Bob stopped smoking and drinking over 10 years ago and is nearing 70, his fierce, rebellious, tell-it-like-it-is spirit seems as strong as ever. But as he reflected on working with apprentices, I got a glimpse of his softer side, one that’s easily overshadowed by his crude language and cocky attitude. “When they start working here, they’re thinking, ‘This guy’s crazier than a motherf***er. But he makes me laugh.’ And then they learn,” he explains, adding in a matter-of-fact tone, “You gotta give back.”
So if and when will he call it quits? “When I can’t afford the rent anymore,” he stated frankly and flatly. Even for a successful artist like himself, that might come sooner than later in an area like the Bywater.
When that’ll be exactly, who knows. But as far as Dr. Bob is concerned, he’ll keep doing what he’s been doing till then: “Take what you got, mix it up, and make gumbo.”