Balancing the integrity of an artist with the acumen of a businessperson, distinguishing between Pilsen and Bridgeport, and telling misguided young artists that their work is mediocre at best… no topic is off limits for the owner of 4Art Inc. Gallery. What follows is the second part of my conversation with Robin Rios in anticipation of her gallery opening on Friday, March 18, from 7-10pm. Read PART I here.
Jenny Lam: As an artist and a gallery owner, you’re able to see both ends of a spectrum. How do you strike a balance between being a businessperson and an artist?
Robin Rios: It’s hard. It’s hard not just because of the business aspect of it. It’s hard because I feel like a lot of artists just aren’t as excited as I am about what we do, creating art. Sometimes artists are way too hard on themselves. They’re not enjoying art anymore; in fact, they’re tortured by it. Art is an emotional thing, and I think when people meet me, their first instinct is that I’m a strong, hardnosed woman, but in fact I’m a real emotional person; I can cry at the drop of a pin, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. When people know me, they know that, but I’m also very aware of pretty much everything around me, and I absorb it, sometimes too much so.
When I have artists who are really humdrum and down on everything, that weighs heavily on me. I’ll take the business aspect any time over a depressed artist, and there’s really nothing you can say to them. I’ve put on the pep talk over and over and I can’t seem to convince them that their work is amazing and that it’s meant to be viewed everywhere, that they are really meant to be doing what they’re doing. It’s heartbreaking because you see many talented artists who just throw in the towel. It depresses me in some ways because I want them to be as happy as I am, and you kind of have to be like, “I can’t save the world, but I can touch those people who let me tough them.” The rest you kind of have to let go. But that would be the only I would say the only negative side.
JL: Other than that, I’d think that you’d be at an advantage because, as an artist, you can understand your gallery’s artists at a deeper level than most gallery directors.
RR: That’s definitely true. It’s more so truer in knowing what they need on the business end. It is absolutely not true when it comes to the emotional side, and a lot of them come to me for that. I should put Dr. Rios on the door [laughter] because a lot of times I am. I’m the sounding board, the advice giver, the hand holder. I definitely think I have a different insight of artist struggles than most people in the business. Does that give me any extra advantages in the business? No. Maybe it gives me a little less, to be honest, because I came in as an artist not understanding really the art world, and honestly I’m glad I don’t understand it. I understand it just enough to stay the hell away from it.
We do what we do because we’re artists and we don’t think about the financial aspects of it, although we’d all love to sell art, don’t get me wrong, but that’s not the main focus. So I find alternative ways and I think that’s what’s unique too, because I don’t come from an affluent background, because my parents obviously don’t know rich people to give me the leg up, and I hate to say it, but that’s really how the world works. It’s not just the art world. It’s sometimes all who you know, but I’m not playing those games here. I’ve already been in the corporate world, and I want to do this on my level. Am I going to be rich and famous? No. I don’t want it. I want to do something I love. On my death bed, I want to say, “You know what? I had a good life; I gave myself a good life in art, and I did my very best for those who were in my gallery.” You can’t take any of this with you. You can’t take money or fame, and at the end of the day you’d better be pretty damn proud of what you accomplished. My art helps me to tell stories I’m not able to say out loud, and I think that’s true for most artists. Thank god we have that talent, because I think we would’ve all committed suicide if we weren’t able to get it out somehow. But I think on the business aspect, because I’m an artist, now I’m able to find alternative ways to help us survive. I’m not just sitting here waiting for somebody to recognize my art. We’re getting out there and we’re helping each other, finding alternative ways to hook up with other entities to sell art or at least get our art seen. Nothing is unattainable as far as I see it; you just have to work hard to get it.
JL: Art-making initially seems like a very solo and individual endeavor, but having such a tight-knit and reliable community is interesting.
RR: Yeah, when I was in Pilsen [the individuality] was really the case. You had your handful of people that you knew in the neighborhood who you knew you could call and they would help you, but it was not as community-oriented as it is here [at the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport].
JL: You think the community is better here?
RR: It is a lot better here as a community. Certainly you get a few people here and there who don’t want you to bug them, and they don’t bug you. They want to be on their own, which is fine. That to me is a lonely path, but hey, if they’re comfortable there, let them stay there.
JL: What are the main differences you’ve found between Bridgeport and Pilsen? People have been buzzing about Pilsen’s gentrification, or saying that Bridgeport is the “next Pilsen,” whatever that means, so I’m interested in seeing what you think about that.
RR: It’s funny because there’s a lot of property here that’s worth a lot more than a block in Pilsen, so I don’t get that this is the next Pilsen at all. It is not any less expensive than Pilsen. In fact, outside of the Center, unless artists have found places like the East Bank Club, which is mainly a storage facility, and hooked up with the owner and said, “Listen, you know some of these extra spaces that you have? Do you mind renting them to the artists?” So unless you find those types of environments, then you’re opening storefronts here and there.
Here it’s more scattered than in Pilsen, but I think because of the Center, and we have four floors going on here, it’s a one-stop shop. If it’s raining or if it’s cold, nobody has to walk outside to get to the next place, and that appeals to a lot of people. And on top of that, here, the caliber of art is set pretty high. You can attest from our Pilsen days the difference. Certainly we’d gotten our fair share of disappointed customers from coming to Pilsen, not for us at the gallery, but for the surrounding spaces. Here, it’s different.
The bar had been set high by the Zhou Brothers, and now we’re following suit. They inspire us. At least, they inspire me. Every time I see them, they’re filled with hugs and kisses, and you can feel their enthusiasm and their joy of you being here and being part of the Center. The other day they introduced me to one of their collectors, and they couldn’t say enough good things about me. I never felt so special in my life. Their collector even gave me a hug,
JL: That’s amazing!
RR: It was amazing. It was the most amazing thing. I think people forget about how amazing it is to be here. When I hear people complain, it’s like, “Look at what you get. What are you giving back?” That’s always my question. You can’t keep taking; you’ve have to give back and be the bearer of your own fortune. If you don’t put your work in, you won’t get anything out. The Brothers are giving you your own platform. If you don’t take advantage of that, I think you’re kind of stupid. I always admired the Zhou Brothers. I knew them long ago when they came to my space several times over the years when I was in Pilsen, and I felt like they were famous people, and now look at where I’m at. It’s almost serendipitous. I admired them from afar; now I’m here hugging and kissing them. [Laughter.]
I used to tell you guys, when one door closes, another door’s going to open. And if you’re open to that idea, and if you know what you do is right, then it will always be yours to hold. I’m not a religious person, but I am spiritual. I believe things happen for a reason. But at the same time, if it’s worth having, then you’ve got to be willing to fight for it, because there are definitely going to be things on the road that try to stop you.
But, so far, I’m going on my eighth year [in the business]. I’ve been here at the Center for almost a year and a half. Once it’s September, I’ll have been here two years. And it’s also the end of my eight years, so after that, in October, I’ll be working on nine years.
JL: Time flies!
RR: Whereas I didn’t see it in Pilsen, I can see a party coming for my 10-year anniversary. [Laughter.] I can see it. I can plan it in my head, whereas there, I couldn’t see my day past my nose. I couldn’t see beyond that moment, because I never knew what was going on there. I never knew when things would just fall apart in that neighborhood, and everything that I worked so hard to maintain would just go back to the beginning. I couldn’t go back to the beginning. If I was going to start over, I needed to have hope.
You know the story about coming here. Michael, one of the Zhou Brothers’ son, and Nick [Depeder] invited me to come here. I was going to close the gallery altogether. Nick heard about it and called me up. I was depressed. I looked depressed. I was tired. I had made a decision that was really hard for me to make, and I didn’t know what I would do after that. They had me come here; we sat in the café, and for every excuse I made why I should close the gallery, each one of them had an excuse why I should not. They started showing me around the Center, which was not even half full at that point, and telling me all these exciting things. They wanted to see how I would be an asset here and told me that the Brothers always respected me. That really threw me off right there, that the Brothers respected me. Them, the movie stars. [Laughter.] And for somebody to want you, that’s a novel concept. Who says those things? I was literally in tears. They couldn’t have caught me at such a vulnerable time to be nice to me. During those times you didn’t want anyone talk to you, no less be nice to you. These people wouldn’t take no for an answer; they were not going to let me close my gallery and made every effort to make this possible for me and as easily and effortlessly as they could. In fact, Nick and Mike moved me; they rented the truck and everything. I didn’t have to pay for anything. That is devotion. That is dedication, and those actions speak louder than words, so you know you’re in a good place.
These people bend over backwards to help you as long as you’re helping yourself. If you’re just sitting there watching TV and saying, Hey, I need something, then nobody’s going to do a damn thing for you. When you work hard and people see that you put all your effort in, then people come to your aid without asking for a thing back, because they appreciate what you do.
That means a lot to me, especially in this business, because the art world is really political, and I do my best to stay out of it, and let those guys make their money however they want to, and I’ll do what I can here to help the artists best way I can, and hopefully steer them down a proper path. I’m not opposed to any of those hoity toity galleries pulling any of my artists. They can make some money? Go for it. But at least I know I gave them the proper tools to keep them stable, because a big head lasts for 15 minutes and then it’s over. If you start out right, then you can take all of those highs and lows with dignity, and you can maintain your respect as an artist, period.
Some people go for it, and some people don’t. But I don’t worry about those that don’t because those that do tend to have a better time being an artist here. Some artists who just don’t get it move on. For some it’s a financial problem, so then they come back when they can afford to, and that’s fine, but for those who are serious about what they’re doing, everything that you do is an investment. In fact, you can’t submit work without paying something, and it’s not a bad thing. What people don’t understand is these galleries have to pay for lights, gas, phone, paper, for all this advertising…
RR: They have to pay for rent. The economy isn’t allowing galleries to sell art the way they used to. Not even the rich galleries are selling the art the way they used to. Auction houses aren’t making as much money on these million dollar pieces as they used to. You have to be able to wax and wane; you’ve got to bend and fold. Everything isn’t a straight line. There’s ups and downs and sideways and it twists you up in a knot, and you’ve got to be prepared for all of that. If your mind is right and you gather that information and you keep it in the back of your head, then you’re able to deal with it. Am I OK with 15 minutes of fame? Yeah. Am I OK when it’s not? Yep. I’m the same person, both times.
When I started doing my digital stuff, this was in a time when digital art wasn’t even considered art. In fact, I had a few interviews with people who wanted me to explain how digital art is art. There was this notion that this is not art, but neither was photography back in the day when it first came out. And what I said to them was, “Listen, my art, whether digital or not, comes from the same place as I would hope a painter painting.” My photography is my paint; I just happen to use what I shoot rather than use paint on a canvas. Photoshop doesn’t offer me anything more than a blank canvas to create my work. And that’s when things started to change. I started getting more and more recognition because they hadn’t seen it before; this was new to people. “Wow, I can’t believe you did that with photography.”
In college, my teachers had filled my head with the fact that if it’s not yours, it’s not yours. That’s why we weren’t allowed to use stock photography, and if you did use stock photography, you had to put in there that this was not your image. When people use those stock images, they didn’t get attention or acclaim like the people who went out and shot their own work. That kind of thing you remember. So you find a way to make sure that you are producing work that is 100% yours.
When I started doing this stuff, I never even thought it was going to become a series, no less popular. Never in a million years did it even dawn on me. Take that first piece I made with the X-ray with the barbed wire called What’s in Death. A friend of mine had a gallery down the street from mine, the Charcoal Gallery, told me she wanted me to be in her show. She’d been asking me a couple times and I just didn’t feel ready. She always put on really interesting themed shows and I was amazed by her artists, like I’m nowhere near this caliber, so I didn’t have the confidence. Another artist friend of mine at that time said, “Listen, I got this X-ray and I don’t know what you can do about it, but let me give it to you and see what you can come up with this thing.” That X-ray was like art just by itself.
I tried to scan it in, but when I compared it to the actual film, I lost a lot of those interesting lines, so I put it on my backlight and just started shooting it, and I was able to capture all the detail on the X-ray, pulled it into my computer, and I just started thinking about something that was just kind of disturbing me back then, how medicine really isn’t helping people. In fact, it’s making people sicker in most cases, killing them. People who can’t afford insurance can’t get healed from things if only they’d been able to go to the doctor. So what’s in death sort of became my focus, because I felt like it’s no different from what’s in life right now. I made that piece with my own personal, not so much that stick-it-to-the-man mentality, but I was definitely pointing out a frustration I felt with society.
That frame was actually from stretcher bars this lady brought in from China, so it’s a special wood that was all twisted and not very good for stretching canvas—it’s very porous wood—but I liked the wood and asked Jerod [Schmidt] if he could make me a frame out of that. He took the straightest bits and made the frame, and then Ned Broderick, who’s an artist there in Pilsen—he’s the king of rusty things—had this great barbed wire, so I framed the frame with barbed wire, and then I found little rusty things here and there as accents.
I hung my piece in the show, and when Jerod and I go to the opening, there were people waiting for me there. They’re like, “Oh, you’re Robin; we love the piece and we’ve never seen anything like it.” Everybody I saw that night—and I’m not even exaggerating—said they couldn’t wait to see the next one. I thought to myself, “I hadn’t really thought about the next one. I wasn’t even sure about this one.” [Laughter.] At that time I still was not that confident in my skills, being surrounded by such talented artists. It was amazing. That spawned it. I thought, “I’m on to something here.” They kept saying how it disturbed them to think, how it forced them to think. The piece just pulled them in. It was disturbing. It was frightening. It was a lot of things.
Sometimes I tell some of my younger artists, “You guys go to art school, you’re told what to do, somebody along the line said you were good, and that may or may not be true—a lot of the case it’s not—but you’ve got to create art that is passionate to you, and the story of that piece can’t be the fact that you’re putting a line on a page or a canvas. That line has to lead somewhere. There’s a conversation that’s happening even in the simplest of forms.”
I told Tim [Hughes], “Your strong suit is not doing figurative work; your skills don’t lie there.” Nobody had ever told him that before. His portfolio had a lot of figurative pieces, where he tried to draw women’s faces and bodies. I said to him, “When you draw a figurative piece, you either have to be realistic or you have to be abstract. Which one are you? It looks like you’re trying to be realistic, and that makes it look like a 12th grader.” But when I saw these pieces [currently on display at 4Art] that he has, I told him, “That’s where your talent lies; this is what you need to focus on.” After I said that, a lady who contacted me about giving her a list of artists to put in a foyer of a condominium on Erie picked him out of all the artists I sent her. Now some people do like some of his figurative pieces, but they don’t know what they’re looking at. They don’t understand it. I’m coming at him at a technical level, and I’m just saying, “Listen, what I’m saying isn’t don’t do it; what I’m saying is practice more. Take another class, get it right, and be one way or another.” But it was interesting because he wasn’t offended. He took it to heart, and he really thought about it, and this is a guy who’s been with me for 6 months and who is now signed on for 6 more months, because now this is his home. He knows here that I’m not going to allow him to produce anything that isn’t equal to or better than what I saw last month, and he appreciates that.
When it all boils down to it, if your art doesn’t speak to people, something’s wrong. And I didn’t know that in the beginning either. [Laughter.] There wasn’t anybody to teach me, so I learned it all by myself, and now I’m doing the teaching. But those are words to live by.
JL: You do teach quite a bit, whether it’s for your interns or for other artists. Is that desire to help others what led you to found your own gallery?
RR: I didn’t initially go into this business to mentor. It sort of had been in me, the nurturing aspect of me. I raised myself, my sister, and my niece, so taking care of people is just in my DNA.
But I think what spawned here in this business was my frustration of the lack of support in the arts and the lack of support of people who should be more than willing to help you and that would share their success, not give you money or give you their people, but knowledge is power—to just say something about their experience in the business, to just give you some type of encouragement—and there was none of that. I think that frustrated me more than anything.
If it weren’t for people who gave me negativity, I wouldn’t be so prompted to push myself to show them, like “I don’t need your help or your info, I’m going to show you, I’m going to learn it, and I’m going be good at it.” I think that comes back to the dyslexia, pushing myself and showing people that I wasn’t stupid, even though I felt that way. In this business and in anything that I do in life, it’s about saying, “You know what? If you’re not going to help me, that’s fine, because I’m still going to go forward with it; I’m going to do my best whether I win or fail. I’m going to know that I at least tried.”
Being met with that right off the bat in this business, I was just like, “Whoa, what the hell is going on? I didn’t know everything was a freaking secret!” It wasn’t like I was asking them for their contact information; I didn’t even know what that was. I didn’t understand so much the collecting aspect of it, the difference between a viewer and a collector, and I had to learn that. I had to learn that just because collectors are dwindling doesn’t mean we can’t create new collectors.
Everything I’ve learned I learned by desperation. I was going to keep it afloat by hook or by crook. I don’t just do it for me; I do it for the artists who spent their time not only being an artist in the gallery but also being very much a friend and also helping to support me. I think I’ve done what I set out to do here, because I didn’t just want us to be artists in a gallery; I wanted us to be a family, to help each other, be that central support, and it is. I’m really proud of it.
JL: Do you have any goals for yourself and your art in this year and also the next few years?
RR: I actually would really love to get my art out there. I’ve had a solo show before on a smaller level. I would love to have another solo show on a larger caliber for the Observation Series at some point when I feel like I have enough pieces. I want to be able to get into some more museum shows.
I would like to continue to tell my story to people, because I think it’s unique, and it comes from a pure place in my heart, and I think that artists need to know that places like this exist, and I’m sure that I’m not the only one like this. There have got to be more people like me out there, but I think artists get a little sidetracked, and they don’t know if the art world is for them because they’re met with doors closed in their face. They’re ignored; nobody’s helping them. But that’s one of the main goals. I really want to talk about my story more, you know.
And I also want artists’ stories to be told. One of the things that we had talked about is doing artist video documentaries—not long ones, maybe half hour for an artist—and go to their studio and sit and just talk to them. No preconceived notions or questions. Bring your camera and show up and you watch the artist and you let them talk. If you have a question in between you throw it in. It’s completely free. You just let them be themselves, and then in turn allow people to see the true nature of an artist. None of that hoity toity conversation that people don’t understand. A lot of these people are very visual, and what better way to pull them into an artists’ studio than playing it on YouTube, get people seeing what artists are doing. They’re just seeing the show after it’s been hung and they don’t see what goes on behind the door. Those are probably my biggest goals.
Last year I pushed myself to get into some shows, but I’m so busy raising everybody else that I forget that I need to raise myself a little bit. I’m excited. Little by little. I’m a little bit picky about where my pieces are going because I don’t have money to ship stuff, so I have to be careful. If I can drive and drop it off, those submissions are good to go. Anything beyond the Chicagoland area I have to really think about that, so it limits me a little bit, because I’m not in that financial bracket.
Ultimately, my goal is to celebrate 10 years of being in this business. That is my ultimate goal. Have all my friends here who supported me, been with me from the beginning, have you guys here to celebrate. That will really be something. That would be ultimate. I can see it.
Featured Image: “Woman” by Robin Rios. (Image courtesy of Robin Rios.)