The Exuberant Assemblages of Robert Hudson
By Robin Jay
It’s 3 p.m. on July 22 – not a cloud in the sky on Highway 395 in northern California. Robert Hudson and his wife Mavis Jukes are headed home from a weekend on their land in the high desert, where furnishings include a picnic table beneath a piñon pine and sky for a roof. They’re en route to their farmhouse in Cotati, a
rural town close to Sonoma State University.
Under the seat for safe transport rest treasures Robert bought earlier in the day – an old clothing iron made of heavy cast iron, and an antique tool for ‘taking the dents out of cars.’
You might presume Robert and Mavis are an average retired couple out for an afternoon of antiquing. But they are far from retired and they’re certainly not average. Mavis is a celebrated children’s book author, elementary school computer teacher and former lawyer; and Robert is a world-renowned artist, best known for his funk art assemblages, but also his paintings and ceramics. Assemblage is an art form dating back to the cubist constructions of Pablo Picasso, an artist of which Robert’s work is often compared.
“I would describe my sculpture as abstract polychrome welded-steel sculpture painted to create spatial illusions, incorporating found metal objects, shapes, and forms,” Robert clarified.
Hudson is one of the founders of the Bay Area Funk Art Movement of the 1960s. The movement’s name derives from the jazz term ‘funky,’ illustrating the eccentric, sensuous fervor of the genre’s musicians. Some say 1920s jazz funk was unrefined. But die-hard musical artists proved it was woven solidly into Americana, just as visual artists like Robert Hudson proved funk was an American art form worthy of high praise and high value.
View a few of Robert Hudson’s Pieces below:
The story behind how Robert Hudson became such a notable artist is as interesting as the man himself. It’s a story best told in his own words…
“My sculptures have been described as ‘a riot’ of color, ‘joyous,’ ‘dizzying illusions that defy the shape of welded steel,’ ” he said. “A sculpture is like 3-D painting. And the objects are a sort of paint. Every move I make is considered; every color
I choose is deliberate. None are interchangeable. Many are kinetic: When the sculptures rotate, you can watch the changing colors, shapes, spaces, and lines.
“I have used found objects in all areas of my art: works on paper, collage, assemblage constructions, ceramics, sculpture. I have an inventory of stock and scrap steel; cast iron dogs and horses, ornamental iron and colorful enameled cast iron sinks and bathtubs – which I break up with a sledgehammer.”
In the Beginning
“How and where my parents lived, what they valued, what they made, and the materials they gave me all encouraged me as an artist, so it’s important to know where we lived and why.
“My father was originally a cowboy in Wyoming, but learned carpentry from his father. He married my mother and they settled in Pioche, Nevada, where he worked as a carpenter in a silver mine. Pioche had a grocery store, a drugstore, a post office and about six bars. I looked forward to him coming home and opening his lunch pail. He always saved me half his sandwich.
“When I was 5, we packed up the ‘37 Ford and headed first to Salt Lake, where my parents bought a 24’ house trailer. My dad then got a job building grain elevators in Silverton, Oregon. We lived in a trailer park near a stream. We moved to Richland, Washington, when I was in 4th grade. My father worked on government buildings out in the desert at a place called ‘The Area,’ where they made atom bombs. We lived in a trailer park near the Columbia River. I liked sleeping outside with my dog Coalie. I had an older brother, Richard, who got me construction jobs installing kitchen cabinets while I attended the Art Institute of San Francisco.
“My parents always said I was born creative. I had tinker toys. I built things, like raceways for bottles in the snow. And I was always on a treasure hunt. That’s why I incorporate found objects, often natural objects, in my work. My family found beauty in natural objects, especially rocks. We went on excursions – sometimes fishing for trout, but mostly looking for arrowheads and agates. My mom rigged me a fishing pole with a stick, string and safety pin. I had a collection of agates in a bucket.
“At home, we all liked to draw with pencils and paper. I also had crayons. My favorite colors were the pointed ones. On birthdays, Mom gave me an art kit: pencils, papers and crayons. Christmases, the art kit included watercolors. In junior high, I bought my own art supplies with money I earned by working as a deckhand on a tugboat.
“I met my friends William Wiley and William Allan [both now renowned artists] in Richland. Wiley and I met when my cousin Jim and I made a circus, involving my dog, Coalie, who could shake hands and climb ladders. Wiley showed up with his little brother, Chuck, and bought tickets. Chuck’s ticket was discounted to a nickel.
“Bill Allan and I met on an art trip organized by the Richland High School’s art teacher, Jim McGrath – legendary among his former students. He trusted me with a key to the art room, so I could work there after hours; sometimes all night. McGrath took us to museums, like the Seattle Museum, where I first saw Morris Graves’ paintings, which influenced my work. He took students to Native American dances and root and berry festivals and salmon festivals. He had ‘Thought Fires’ by the Columbia River where we sat around a campfire and talked.
“People ask me about the serendipity of three world-class artists growing up together. It was nothing in the water – it was great public schools, very well funded by grants, great art teachers, Native American drummers and dancers, beautiful landscape, sagebrush and the Columbia River.
“I received a Scholastic scholarship for tuition at the Art Institute of San Francisco. If I hadn’t gotten a scholarship, I’d have been a tugboat pilot who made art.”
Robert earned a BFA in painting and MFAin sculpture. He has taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, the University of California at Berkeley, and was a visiting professor at the University of California, Davis, and the California College of Art.
The Artist’s Life Today
“My main studio is in a field in Cotati that includes vernal pools and a hill covered with eucalyptus trees.” His other is the outdoor sagebrush studio mentioned earlier with the picnic table and the piñon tree.
“Friends and neighbors drop off or send things they think I might use in sculptures. One gift was from Jack, a farmer: his old hay baler. It sat in my field for 30 years. I never used it, but I liked looking at it. My friend Mike gave me an antique marble statue of a bathing woman. I cast it in bronze and put it on a sculpture. Friends in New York sent me cast iron table legs from Paris. And a big box full of lemon yellow porcelain bathroom fixtures once arrived via UPS with no return address. That’s where Mavis drew the line.
“One of my most fulfilling accomplishments was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lee Krasner Foundation. I have four adult children, whom
I adore, all artists.”
Today, Robert Hudson sculptures and paintings reside in many prestigious venues – the Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Whitney Museum
of American Art, New York; and the Chicago Art Institute, to name a few.
“I’ve been making art in the same place at my own pace for 38 years,” said Robert. “I do feel lucky. I don’t have a bucket list; I just want more of the same – more time with my
family, more fly fishing, and more making art.”
Robert Hudson is represented by Samuel Lynne Galleries in Dallas, Texas. For more information please contact them at