Bob Branaman

You have to make your life a work of art.

When Julia Goodman heard Klea and I were making a trip down to Los Angeles, she told us that we absolutely had to visit her friend, Bob. Well, we took her word for it, and without knowing too much about him we headed over to his place in the neighborhood of Sunset Park in Santa Monica. I’m glad we followed Julia’s suggestion because it led to an afternoon full of Bob’s wild stories, hilarious one-liners, hard-won lessons, and heartfelt memories. Bob is a Beat Generation poet, printmaker, and painter who also dabbled in a bit of filmmaking, and though he’s now 78 years old he continues to make innovative art. Over the years he has created an extensive body of work, and he’s got a converted garage studio filled to the gills to prove it. Klea and I got along with Bob like a house on fire— maybe it’s because we both grew up in iconoclastic, bohemian families of that generation so Bob instantly felt familiar, maybe it’s because his joie de vivre is contagious and inspiring, or maybe it’s simply because he’s a ladykiller. Seriously, I’m not joking— Bob has a way with the lasses. At the heart of each of Bob’s stories, and much of his work, is always a woman. At one point in our conversation, he summed it up nicely and said, “I love the ladies. I can’t help it. It’s what turns me on.” The women that Bob has known and loved have functioned in many ways as muses; they’ve influenced, provoked, and inspired different phases of work, and that is something Bob seems to welcome. Hanging out with him was a bit like falling down a rabbit hole and landing smack dab into the heyday of the Beat Generation— he’s got so many books, zines, art pieces, letters, and photos from that time period, and for every single thing he showed us, he told a story to go along with it. Bob is not just an artist of the Beat Generation and its legendary scene, he has also become a meticulous and worthy archivist, chronicler, and timekeeper of that era, and because he has outlived many of his contemporaries, he is one of the few remaining voices of one of the largest cultural movements of the twentieth century. Yup, it was a pretty epic studio visit, one I won’t soon forget.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I tell them I am an artist, and that I sometimes help teach silkscreen classes at Santa Monica College. Through the years there have been many answers. I paint houses, I make movies, I teach meditation, etc.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
Not really, though I do still sometimes work. At 78, I am retired.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
Painting, printmaking, Etching, lithography, silkscreen, assemblage, and sculpture. I want to start working with wax and plaster on some things. My biggest problem is space.

Right now, I am doing a two-man show called “Kablooie!!!” and it’s about all the current news with images from the Internet— The Occupy movement, women’s rights, The Arab Spring. I have always done work with themes that involve oppressed people, like the Native American Indians, the artist, women, the homeless, any disenfranchised people. My paintings are more abstract and have themes like “purple mist,” “summer love,” “blue series,” etc.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I read at least an hour everyday. I used to read five or six magazines, but now I only look at The New Yorker and Art in America and some photography mags. I just finished the The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third Stieg Larsson book. I read Haruki Murakami (I’m just finishing his 1Q84), Michael Conley and mystery, crime, and spy stuff— I don’t know if it really fuels my work, but I think of it all as my work. Whether you’re walking in the park or shopping at the store, you should make it all art; it’s not just when you are painting or making some artwork. You have to make your life a work of art.

I listen to jazz, pop, classical, and the radio. I like almost all music with the exception of some country and rap.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
Lack of funds and space. I navigate the art world very poorly and I’m trying to get over my contempt for the whole process. I feel a lack of acceptance in the art world, and I’m trying to overcome my feelings of being left out. Sour grapes are not very attractive, so I’m really attempting to do away with negative feelings.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I am very grateful for the space I have. The house, my garage studio, and I have lived here together for 20 years. I do some work at school and sometimes I work out of a print studio like John Greco’s Josephine Press. I ran the weekly workshop there for nine years and worked there. John published some of my prints.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
My work shifts when I move— like in 1951 I moved from Kansas to San Francisco. In 1963 to Big Sur, in 1971 to New York City, and again my work shifted when I joined The Arica School (of meditation) in 1971, and then after my wife died. Each new girlfriend, each trip, like back to Big Sur every year or so, brings on new work.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I just finished a posterfor Michael McClure’s 80th birthday and poetry reading at Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center. I am also artist-in-residence there. I made a poster for another recent event at Beyond Baroque celebrating the works of Jack Kerouac. I’m also doing some landscape paintings (some with squares that evolved from my last series, specifically a painting called, “Violet Mist”). They are going to be called “Mother Earth” and will be part of an April show at Beyond Baroque. I have a whole sculpture series planned for spring— the materials are bee’s wax, wood, concrete, plaster and bailing wire. I would do more of this kind of work, but I don’t have anywhere to store or make it.

What are you most proud of?
My children, that I still love life and get “hi,” and that I’m happy doing my work.

What do you want your work to do?
Unite and bring spiritual light to the beholder. Sometimes I laugh making it, and I hope some get a laugh out of seeing it. I would also like it to sell and be exhibited.

What advice has influenced you?
Don’t listen to everyone. You have the right to choose whom to listen to. And that I am only going to be happy doing artwork.

How will you know when you have arrived?
When the car stops? I would also like to sell and exhibit more. I’d like to sell more to afford a bigger studio and materials for work.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I was just in MOCA’s silent auction, “FRESH,” on Grand Avenue. The show was up for a week of viewing and then on Saturday March 24th they had the auction. My work was from my “Violet Mist” series and it sold. And then I will be in the show “Kablooie!!!” with fellow artist Todd A. Smith at Beyond Baroque on April 7th, 2012.

Despite not having a website, you can find Bob on the worldwide web. Here are some links:
“Who the Hell is Robert Ronnie Branaman?”
Beats in Kansas: The Beat Generation in the Heartland

Bob has been toying with getting a web page or two up of his work, but that has not yet happened— mostly because “the right person has not come along” to help him out. At this point, he says he “just doesn’t have the tolerance for the learning curve of doing it myself.”

We think Bob should have a proper website that showcases his tremendous body of work!
Any volunteers??