For three days — October 16, 17, and 18 — the Park Expo Center, 800 Briar Creek Rd., in Charlotte, N.C., will play host to one of the largest and most eclectic art, design and fashion shows of the year. More than 100 artists and crafters will show and sell their work, including sculptural and functional art in glass, wood, porcelain, metal and mixed media. Fashion and jewelry will also be on display.
Robert Farrell will show his metalwork, which has been acquired by a number of museums around the country, including the Mint Museum here in Charlotte, and, most recently, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Farrell describes himself as a lover of old things — antiques, toys, houses — as well as nature. Both influences are evident in his work, which has a sense of quiet stillness about it, while at the same time remaining powerful and affecting.
“I hope that people see the beauty in the ordinary structures and objects that surround us, objects that are disappearing and objects that instantly evoke a particular time in the history of our world,” Farrell says. “The objects that I’m creating seem to have the same effects on my clients as they do on me: they make me smile, they make me sad, they make me remember, all at the same time.”
Farrell was born in the town of Fort Atkinson, Wisc., in 1960, and lived in a house that his great-grandfather built. He also partly grew up in Venice, Fla., and now splits his time between the two small towns, in the same two houses he grew up in. They are the only houses he has ever lived in, in fact.
His adolescence, by his own account, was not an easy one. But the discomfort he experienced socially may have been the very thing that spurred his creative development.
“When I was a kid, I was fat,” Farrell says. “And I was gay, even before I knew what it meant. Kids can be pretty brutal, and even though I loved school, loved learning and loved my teachers, junior high and high school were, at best, difficult. I gravitated toward the things I was good at, namely art and English. Art, in particular, earned me positive attention that I welcomed. I never made a conscious decision to pursue art in general or metal specifically.”
In spite of the newfound positive attention, troubles remained.
“In junior high, I discovered alcohol and pot — it was the ‘70s — and ended up dropping out of high school my junior year, not because I didn’t like school, but because I couldn’t cope with the harassment,” Farrell recounts. “I went to an alternative high school, then on to junior college for a couple of very blurry years, and then moved back up to Wisconsin to go to college.
“I took general liberal arts courses and focused on English while taking a variety of art classes for fun. I seemed to be best at creating three dimensional objects and concentrated on functional ceramics. After several semesters, my ceramics professor told me that this time I was going to make non-functional, hand-built objects and I freaked out and dropped the class. I had taken a couple of metals classes and switched my focus there, primarily making jewelry.”
He quickly found success.
“While still in college, I entered a state-wide college-level exhibition and won first place for a large sterling silver and amber neckpiece,” Farrell says. “The juror was Ruth DeYoung Kohler, of the Kohler Company. I also entered my first retail, juried show, The Milwaukee Lakefront Festival of the Arts, and received one of 10 awards. Metals, it seemed, was the way for me to go.”
Eventually the tables began to turn again, and Farrell found himself slipping into a state of despair once more.
“When I hit 50, I had just come out of an exhausting relationship, had lost focus, was bored with my own work — in short, I was at a low point and felt empty,” he remembers. “I had always loved old things. I lived a life surrounded by antiques, loved the study of ancient civilizations and their buildings and ceremonial artifacts and loved structures of all kinds.”
It was an interest informed by both his early surroundings and later travels.
“Having grown up in the Midwest, and spending years driving around the country going to shows, rural structures, particularly those in varying states of decay, had always floated around in my subconscious,” he says. “I had always wanted to make a silo, or a water tower, or a barn. I took an enameling class at a local art center in Venice that was taught by a 92-year-old woman named Marion Worthington. The first class changed the direction of my career, I discovered color.”
As it turns out, he was in the exact right place at the exact right time.
“I was at just the right level of misery — I was alone, broke, disappointed with life, hadn’t had a drink in 20 years but had found no serenity and I thought, ‘What the hell, I’m going to make a silo.’ And I did, and I sold it. So I made a water tower, and I sold it.
“For the first time in almost three decades, I was making work that I was emotionally connected to and, in turn, discovered that other people were emotionally connected to the imagery I was using as well.”
Farrell says he has never felt more inspired than he does right now.
“I’m making the best work of my career at this point,” he says. “Each piece seems to be more satisfying than the one before. I have more ideas than time, and am very grateful.” : :