"Didn't your momma ever tell you not to slam the door when she's baking a cake?" - Dr. Bob
Whether or not you know Dr. Bob by name, you're surely familiar with his artwork. You can see his iconic "Be Nice or Leave" signs all over town, as well as his many vivid paintings with bottlecaps adorning the frames. You may have enjoyed a concert by your favorite band at the House of Blues, in the midst of décor custom-painted by Dr. Bob. Or, your kids might have played in the scale model of Mr. Okra's famous truck, designed and built by Dr. Bob, which is now the most popular exhibit at the Louisiana Children's Museum.
He makes paintings of flying alligators, of scenes from the delta, of juke joints. He's crafted a life-sized skeleton out of bottlecaps (named Mr. Onion Head) and has carved an alligator-shaped stringed musical instrument out of wood, which he likes to call a "ga-tar." And everything that Dr. Bob creates is colorful, quirky, and fun—much like the artist himself.
Dr. Bob is quite a character. A self-described hippy weirdo and proud member of the Old Farts' Club, he's the type who makes margaritas with Gatorade and peels out in a Rolls Royce on Bourbon Street. He once hit someone with a paddle for "messin' with his gumbo" and used to do laps around his backyard on his motorcycle. While blaring country music. Recently, he bought 50 pounds of marbles that he slingshots off his front balcony (aimed only at inanimate objects, it should be noted). He's gone through 20 pounds of marbles so far.
Dr. Bob has had a life as intense and vibrant as his artwork—and appropriately so, because everything that he has lived serves as inspiration for his pieces.
"I've had a great life; I've got to tell you. I load that shit up in my mind, and I paint it," he says.
Wearing a t-shirt printed with a picture of Mona Lisa wearing a facemask, and accompanied by his dog George, Dr. Bob welcomed Where Y'at at his "gallery/studio/junk shop" to discuss his life as an artist and how he and his fellow creatives are dealing with the pandemic.
Dr. Bob—who is so-named because he helped deliver his son via Lamaze—found his love of found art when he was only 12 years old. He took part in a competition against his fellow classmates to see who could score the most IGA food labels off of boxes and canned goods. The kid who brought back the biggest stack would win a trip to Six Flags Over Texas. Dr. Bob quickly realized that he could fast-track his label gathering by rifling through the trash, where he found a plentiful supply and ultimately earned the coveted prize. "I won a trip by dumpster diving!" he says. "And I got into this making art out of stuff."
And so began a lifelong career of collecting junk, and debris, and odds and ends—a harvesting process that he likes to call "going junkin'—and turning it into his masterpieces. Almost all Dr. Bob's materials are repurposed. He paints on the back sides of old signs rather than using canvases. He spray-paints over lace, using it as a stencil for his paintings' backgrounds. He pulls the embellishments off of worn-out furniture to use as trim on his pieces, and he can make a three-dimensional turtle out of old aluminum salad dishes.
And what about those emblematic Dr. Bob bottlecaps? He's got baskets and bins full of them—probably at least 100,000 caps, he estimates—that he's accumulated over the years. In the beginning, he would pay the gutter punks to deliver boxloads of bottlecaps to him, in exchange for a ticket worth a free breakfast at Shoney's. But now, friends and art connoisseurs bring him theirs to contribute to the cause, and, of course, Dr. Bob has also drunk his fair share of bottled beverages to get caps for his collection—though, he's not pulling caps off of beer bottles these days. Dr. Bob quit drinking 15 years ago.
He nails the caps down to his frames, incorporates them into his pieces, or makes entire sculptures out of them. And, what's more, Dr. Bob points out that the designs and graphics on the caps are really an artistic element of their own.
Dr. Bob never had any formal training in art; he learned just by watching. "You have to learn stuff, or you hurt yourself," he says. "They didn't have none of that DIY crap on no computer—YouTube and stuff. That BS didn't exist back then. We found out the hard way most of the time."
His grandpa owned a gas station when Dr. Bob was growing up in Kansas, and he learned painting by watching the workers there pinstriping and detailing cars. "I had no idea I'd end up holding a paintbrush in my hands someday," he says.
"This whole damn city's been satire since the day they put a foot on the ground here."
He also lived next-door to a framing shop as a kid and learned the picture-framing business there—knowledge which still serves him today, since he frames all his paintings himself.
Once Dr. Bob moved to New Orleans, he continued his informal training by immersing himself in the local art scene. "We would go and get a couple of muffulettas and go to Jackson Square after mass and look at all the art," he says. "I was very inspired by that."
Then, he latched on to New Orleans artist Rain Webb and would hang out for hours just watching him paint. He saw him paint a mural on the wall of the Apple Barrel bar. He watched him painting the old Coffee Pot Restaurant. And Dr. Bob would bribe Webb with lunch, just to have the right to be near such artistic genius.
"I was the guy who would go get the avocado or the artichoke Rain wanted while he was lying on his back in the Coffee Pot, painting the ceiling on the second floor," he says. "I'd run down to the French Market and run back, tickled to death to be there."
Rain Webb and his paintings were a major influence on Dr. Bob's art, his esthetic, and his choice to become an artist at all. "I'd watch him do that and think, oh, man, I wish I could do art," Dr. Bob says. "And now, here I am. You've got to watch what you wish for! I've been damn lucky, man."
Although Dr. Bob is able to count his blessings, it can nonetheless be hard to stay positive these days. And the art world, like many other industries, has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Dr. Bob explains that a lot of artists are "in a hard way," suffering from both financial woes and a lack of inspiration.
"I got nothing right now," he says. "It's been two months, and I haven't made a nickel. I've got big overhead; I have utility bills." While desperately trying to hold onto his beloved studio and shop, he admits that money is really tight now. He fears that he may be forced to let the space go in order to cut back on expenses.
As for the way that the coronavirus is killing creativity among artists, Dr. Bob says, "I just don't have it. Most of my friends just can't get rolling. One of them told me, 'It ain't in me.' So, stuff is kind of on hold."
However, like everything else that Dr. Bob has experienced thus far in his life, COVID-19 will surely end up in his art as well. For instance, he says that he's done some sketches of people leaning over to peer into their mailboxes to see if their stimulus checks have arrived. If nothing else, the pandemic provides a wealth of subject matter for artists.
Toulouse-Lautrec painted ladies with tuberculosis, Dr. Bob reminds us. Edward Munch painted a self-portrait after surviving the Spanish flu. And Keith Haring did AIDS-related art.
"Artists were always painting pictures of hell and the end of the world and all that sort of stuff, during these outbreaks." Dr. Bob says. "One artist said he wished that he'd gotten tuberculosis, because it probably would have made him a better artist. You have to suffer to do good art."
If that's the case, then 2020 might prove to be a great year for art yet.
Through it all, Dr. Bob always manages to keep his sense of humor. The sign right outside his studio reads: "Welcome. Free Corona with purchase." Another one says, "Stimulus paintings, only $1,200." Beside it, there's the sign that warns: "Buy now, before the artist dies."
"Life's satire," he says. "This whole damn city's been satire since the day they put a foot on the ground here."
And what would he most likely tell the coronavirus that continues to plague us all?
"Be nice or leave."