by Michael Owen Jones
Of Polish and Ukrainian descent on the side of his mother, who married a Scottish immigrant, Gary Robertson was born in November, 1939. He worked as a shipping clerk for a department store in Winnipeg, Manitoba for many years, then briefly as a postman in the suburbs. Despairing of city life entirely, he bought a farm 60 miles east on the Whitemouth River near Elma where he attempts to live a monastic life. "Out here I'm isolated from churches, the mainstream of people, artists," he says with regret. However, "I worked in the city for 17 years; I don't miss it, period."
It took him 20 years to complete his home, constructing it from two cabins in the area that he disassembled, numbering each piece. He built a wooden dome on one, an observation tower on the other, and a bell tower between the two. He obtained windows, siding, and stained glass from old churches, halls, and other buildings. He covered the roof in sheet metal, much of it salvaged. He left the logs exposed inside the house but covered them with vertical boards outside. The second story contains bedroom, display area, and loft. Downstairs are the kitchen, dining room, living room, and solarium (but no indoor plumbing). Also on the first floor is a 16' x 16' chapel furnished with two dozen icons that he painted.
Gary's style in painting, architecture, and interior design is visually dense and highly textured, every surface covered with designs and images. His house features antique furniture and equipment as well as meticulously arranged, eye- catching displays of medicine bottles, tobacco cans, beverage bottles, dishes, and tea boxes. He has adorned walls with his own paintings and textile pieces. A triptych fills one corner of the dining room; it depicts the Black Madonna as well as the Prophet Elijah, St. John Padrom, and St. George (Gary's favorites). Near it hangs an embroidered piece, begun by Gary in his youth and finished only recently, that he worked on when emotionally troubled. Above it is an icon of St. Mamas, the hermit saint. "Twenty years ago when I came here that's what the farmers nicknamed me: 'Oh, that's that old hermit lives down by the river.'" Potted plants sit on tables, and vines climb the walls. He chiseled Polish and Ukrainian designs on wood beams. Above windows, hanging from the ceiling, nailed to the walls, and resting in many nooks and crannies are old tools, equipment, and utensils. Gary says he feels comfortable with old objects and salvaged building materials, for they have a spirit, a history, a meaning. It's like an old church whose walls are permeated with prayers and the petitions of the people, he says, which contrasts with the sterility of a modern one.
Gary's mother and her brother rejected the ethnic language, customs, and Orthodox religion of their parents. Gary lived with his grandparents most of his childhood and youth, learning a bit of their household dialect as well as several Ukrainian traditions from his grandfather, such as religious rituals, Easter Egg dyeing, and the making of such garments as the vest or huppl and the riding coat or zupan (which Gary wears on church holidays). He painted his first icon when he was 15, a gift for his grandmother based on a printed household icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
He remarked several times that he is self-taught as a builder and icon painter. Many of his icons derive from images in calendars, newspaper clippings, and books as well as visits to churches in Manitoba. They represent different countries, cultures, eras, and styles. Some are his own combination of elements. He paints mostly in oil (often on masonite), but sometimes uses acrylic or house paint. "I don't have access to a lot of paint,' he said. He is vague about canons and procedures. "With no schooling I guess I just paint by my own method."
Talking about his way of doing things, such as the red floor in one room, fushia in another, and a mixture of Native American and Oriental rugs throughout, he said, "I'm a little outlandish in my colors." But it all seems to work, colors and textures complementing each other. As we talked about the design of his house, Gary said, "Balance is important, I guess. Like what a window will look like on the inside, it's got to look good outside: at night, with lights on. Everything has got to have a sense of balance."
When I noted that the house has a tactile quality, Gary replied, "This is not just a house or a home, this is my own exterior from inside, my soul's exteriorizing with the building. Other people, I go in their houses, they have these new chipboard walls, I can't stand them, I'm totally uncomfortable in it. I could live in a 10 x 20 log shack. The fact that it's wood, it's logs, it's natural. Touching. So I guess when I'm sitting in the room everything is touching me, because in a sense everything in it is from within. Like some people, say, gee, like I've got so much clutter on the walls, but I can't stand bare walls. When I look at something, I might have the TV on but God knows where my mind is. So I need all these interesting things to look at.
Why construct the house, build the chapel, paint icons? "A hard question to answer," replied Gary. After a pause he said, "I feel directed to have done this. That's the only way to describe it. There's no other motivation behind it. It's just something I had to do."
His art consists not so much of the icons he painted but the lifestyle and environment he has created--the house he built and the way he furnishes it including chapel, altar in the dining room, plants, and assemblages of found and salvaged objects. "I collect and preserve the antiquities of the neighborhood regardless of ethnicity." Everywhere you see rich colors and textures, religious statuary, and antiques treated as sculptural forms. The logs of walls and ceilings are exposed, their earth tones a warm background for the reds, blues, and gold that dominate his icons. The green, carefully tended plants throughout the house add accent. A storage area in one corner above the wood stove and the old electric stove in the kitchen holds crockery pots, a huge copper tub, and tea kettles all of which rest on a beam into which he incised Polish designs in 1985. "I had no schooling" in artistic endeavors, he says. "Just came out naturally. My old aunt says, 'You live the way people used to live.'"
Gary Robertson has created a sanctuary. It is a refuge from the noise, pollution, and sources of stress and tension of city life of which he despairs. "Man wasn't meant to live that way. . . . I hated it. I couldn't, I wanted to get back to the land." Looking out the window on a quiet, restful scene he said, "You need quiet to develop spiritually." Gary's home protects the body and nurtures the soul but also symbolizes an identity--a sense of self--that he has created. His life is his art.
(For more information see Michael Owen Jones, "The Aesthetics of Everyday
Life, or What Do Ukrainian Icons and Orange County Bathrooms Have in
Common?" In Self-Taught Art in America, ed. Charles Russell, forthcoming.)