By Jenny Neyman
There can be monotony in any job — especially one worked for over 20 years, as Robert Range has done, shuttling cargo back and forth to the oil platforms on transport vessels in Cook Inlet — but there’s still limitless opportunity for variety every time Range glances out a porthole. He could catch a glimpse of a whale, a flock of seabirds winging overhead or another ship on the horizon. Sometimes it’s flat calm seas under clear blue skies, other times it’s a jumble of inhospitable ice shards or a weather front on the horizon threatening to change the view completely.
“If it’s rough you know you’re going to look out and see a storm — waves and wind and rain. Or if it’s cold in the winter you’re going to look out and see a blizzard, possibly, and the inlet frozen over with ice. You just never know,” he said.
Lately when he’s looked into a round frame, he’s been seeing even more unexpected sights — an Australian cassowary bird, a tiger, a snake, a moose or musk ox, rendered in meticulous detail yet juxtaposed in fantastical settings, the likes of which would never occur in nature. The frame is still the familiar round porthole shape, but what’s seen within it springs from Range’s well of creativity, rather than the waves of Cook Inlet. Through October, other viewers can peek through Range’s portholes, as well, as his “Coming Around” art show is on display at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.
For as long as he can remember, Range has often had a pencil in his hand — doodling, mostly, as he calls it, rather than doing anything so formal as intentional artistic drawing with the goal of creating something to put on display. But that changed a few years ago, as he realized that time was both on his side and working against him.
Spending monthlong stints on a ship gives him plenty of time to draw. And he’s harbored intentions of getting back into art, under the ever-popular “someday” time frame. But the squishy someday approach was increasingly banging up against the concrete reality of advancing years.
“I’m 60 years old and I’ve been fiddling around with it all my life. I’ve always had a pencil in my hand,” Range said. “But the real, serious approach to getting a show together was just within the last five years. I told myself, ‘You’re getting old. You’re an old man, here. You’ve got to start drawing and getting something accomplished with this or you’re never going to draw again. It’s an old cliché, but as they say, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.’”
But what to draw? He didn’t start out with a plan to produce a series of animal renderings. But whenever he was flipping through magazines, browsing the Internet or pouring over National Geographics, those were the images he was most drawn to, so those were what he started to draw: A regal tiger, an interesting fish, the texture of bird feathers or reptile skin.
Often what really grabbed him were creatures’ eyes, sparking a longtime fascination that started as he was growing up in California, chasing lizards in the high Sierras.
“I was always amazed as a kid that these lizards seemed to be looking back at me and looking me in the eye. Why does a cat look you in the eye? Why does a dog look you in the eye? That eye-to-eye contact has just always been sort of fascinating to me,” Range said. “I’ve really had to take my time and be careful to get it right, with the light reflecting off the eye. When you really get the eye contact, it’s an amazing thing.”
Once he picked a creature to draw, its surroundings extrapolated around it — sometimes other creatures, or geologic or celestial features. The juxtaposition of the elements creates visual interest beyond just the rendering skill. Each picture is balanced in design, with the eye easily led around the frame through elements that are integrated through both white space and pencil strokes. But there’s a tension, too, when considering the actual elements of the drawings — a snake head jutting up among planetary orbs, black bears cavorting under the gaze of a tiger’s eye — with the animals looking back at the viewer as the viewer looks at them. It gives the pieces a surrealist flavor, yet from very naturalistic renderings.
“I tried to throw a little surrealist twist in, a little fantasy type of feel. There are a few drawings there that when I got far enough into them I said, ‘Well, I’m going to throw a wrench in the works here,’” Range said.
Range wanted to give each piece the feel of catching a glimpse of something, an effect enhanced by the startle of locking eyes with a wild creature, and the composition of the frame — all round, as in looking out a porthole.
“I wanted to see what it felt like to draw in a circle. It’s almost like you just snapped a camera lens. And you don’t have them in full view yet. In a lot of those drawings things are just popping in from the side or at an angle, you don’t see the whole thing. It’s kind of like the idea of looking out the porthole, you never know what you’re going to see,” he said.
An element of surprise, something to pique the curiosity — that’s what appeals to Range in art, and that’s what he wanted to achieve in his pieces.
“I think really good art is interesting enough to keep a person there for a minute trying to figure out either what you’ve done or what they think about it. I think decent art, anyway, sort of asks questions and answers questions all at the same time,” he said.
Some of those questions can be quite complex — modern art challenging viewers to decide whether they think something is art, for instance. Or whether the viewer would be willing to go through such an elaborate, exacting process to create something that might, at first glance, look “easy” — such as a singe-color painted canvass, or plywood sheets nailed into a massive square.
The questions to which Range sought answers in compiling his “Coming Around” exhibition were more foundational ones.
“Can I draw? Do I really know what I’m doing using a pencil and relating an image with that medium? On those ones that I like, I think I’m answering that question right off the bat with a, ‘Yeah,’” Range said. “And, secondly, is it an interesting image? Is there enough there to hold somebody looking at it? Is there enough there to see, or is there not enough there to see? Is everything always the same? Of course, it looks the same in the sense that I drew them all, but is there enough variation in the subject matter for that to be interesting?”
These are not questions pondered lightly, as it’s taken Range over 30 years to get back to art and attempt to answer them. Throughout school he took whatever art classes were available, and got his bachelor’s degree in art, specializing in drawing. Straight out of college he got a job as the exhibition assistant at the Portland Center of the Visual Arts. Throughout his four years there, from 1976 to 1980, he had an up-close and personal exposure to all manner of noted artists — Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, David Hockney, “The list just goes on forever,” Range said. “No matter what was going on there I had my hands in it. Starting with the truck delivering the crates to when the truck came and picked the crates up and everything in between.”
But at the end of four years he felt burned out on art, and wasn’t creating any of his own. He moved to Reno and got a job that only further distanced him from the enjoyment of art, working for a silk-screening company that printed the glass that went into slot machines.
“It was interesting to learn the process, but under the gun to meet quotas and your work had to be so precise. I tell you what, you print a six-color run on a piece of glass — you’ve done one, you’ve done another, you’ve dried it in between, then you mix up your third color. By the time you get to your fourth or fifth color, one little hair lands in that ink and that piece of glass is gone, it’s done. So that was frustrating for me. I couldn’t hang in there and keep up with that sort of approach to it,” he said.
In 1990 he moved to Kenai, where his wife at the time was from. He found his current job shuttling cargo back and forth to the platforms in the inlet and has been doing that over 20 years now.
But increasingly over those years, with time to kill during lulls in activity on the ships, he’s found himself returning to his older artistic roots — the challenge of creating elaborate imagery through the simplicity of graphite on paper.
“It’s one of the only areas of my life where I don’t have a boss. With the drawing I just do whatever I want, whenever I want to do it and it’s almost however I want to do it, too.
“What’s cool about drawing or artwork is the fun and the freedom of it. When I get into it it’s kind of like taking a little trip without having to go anywhere, because it’s all in your mind’s eye or in your head. It’s just relaxing, it’s enjoyable, it’s like somebody who likes to go fishing — they can’t wait to get that lure on there and get a line in the water and get hooked up. It’s just a really good feeling and I love doing it.”
Once he amassed 50 completed drawings, he took them to the Kenai Fine Arts Center to see if there was interest in displaying them as a show. There was, and he was scheduled for October in Gallery Too. He’d been aware of the center, and the area’s arts community in general, but this was his first direct contact. He found the experience engaging.
“Hanging a show again, meeting the people involved with the center, the excitement of looking at your own work hanging on a wall. Getting a reaction from it, talking to people with questions about the show — that whole experience was just fun. So, yeah, I want to do more shows,” he said.
In particular, he’d like to branch more into color in the future, and explore more of an abstract and free-form approach, though keep the porthole design. But in general, he just wants to keep drawing. Now that those skills are in use, he doesn’t appear to be at risk of losing them anytime soon.
“I finish a drawing, I tuck it away and I can’t wait to get going on another one,” he said.