During your education, you went from Fine Art, to Electrical Engineering, back to Fine Art. What’s the story behind that?
Wow. How to explain all that… It’s a longer story than you probably have time for, but let me see if I can condense it-
When I attended the fine art program at CMU, I was actually still in high school. I was invited to study there, and attended at nights and on weekends for four years. When I graduated from high school, the US was in a prolonged economic recession. My family was not at all well off, and it was sort of a scary time. My father was a steel worker for 35 years and because of what he had gone through in trying to provide for my mom and me, job security was the number-one priority. I wanted to continue school in fine art, but my father forbade it. At that time, the fastest path between a high school diploma and a well paying job was engineering. So that’s how it started.
My first job out of college was writing flight control algorithms for military aircraft. It wasn’t a great fit at first, and it made me a very restless young man. I quit my job and went to Europe for a while. When I came back, I applied to SMFA and soon moved to Boston. Art- engineering- art. That’s it.
In hindsight, it mostly worked out okay because it gave me access to resources most artists don’t have. I found ways to make creative outlets within my technical roles, so peace came eventually.
By day, you work in IT. What is that comprised of, and has it impacted how you make art?
Hmmm. Well first off, I don’t really work in IT. My business role is hard to explain succinctly, so saying I work in IT is the easiest way to describe it. I have worked in IT at times before, but what I do is a mixture of electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, energy management, real estate, and product management in support of large scale data processing. My area of expertise is the buildings that “the cloud” lives in; more or less.
The relationship of my business role to my studio practice is really quite strong believe it or not. When people meet me, they often meet me wearing one of my skins or the other. When they know me from a business or technical role, they’re surprised when they learn of my studio practice. (“You don’t look like an artist.”) Similarly, when people know me from my studio work, they’re surprised to learn that I have three engineering degrees. To most people this seems incongruent, but to me there’s not much difference between the two. I’m a very balanced left-brain/ right-brain thinker. For me, everything starts in the completely abstract, and comes into focus as I noodle on it. The same process happens whether I’m in front of the desk or in front of the canvas.
Another thing is this- I find math and science visually beautiful and also great brain food (I actually have a patent on an arithmetic algorithm for error detection and correction in memory systems. It’s flying on satellites now.) Space exploration, physics and metaphysics are something that I think about a lot, actually. Math can be very abstract, and explores that same conceptual space that we artists do. You’ll find lots of references to formulae, theories and anti-theories in my work. Coming up with a formula to describe something fires the same neurons as making a painting. Why not make a salad out of the two?
Bob Landstrom, Liber Primus, volcanic rock on canvas
If you’re not working at the computer or in the studio, what can we find you doing?
Well that’s most of what anyone would find me doing already, but I have a number of vices too. Ice hockey was my first love as a boy, and I still play today. I play on two teams, and usually have at least one game every week. Both of my sons are teammates with me on one of the teams. That’s great fun!
I really do enjoy hanging out with friends, and I wish I could do more of that.
I’ve spoken with you before about meditation- do you see art as a form of meditation, and how does it differ from transcendental?
Oooh that’s an insightful question (no pun intended). Making art is absolutely meditative. I go places far away when I’m working. Sometimes my subjects are what come out of meditation, so that’s kind of hard to wrap my head around.
Yeah, I remember we talked about Transcendental Meditation. I’ve long recognized that there’s “something to this meditation thing.” More than just stress management, I’m searching for more. Meditation was hard though, and I just couldn’t get past the constant babbling brook in my own head.
I came across TM sort of by accident. I’m a fan of David Lynch’s brain, and I heard him once talking about TM and this foundation he’s started that uses consciousness-based education as a path to peace and creativity. I looked into it further and found the TM schools following Maharishi Mahesh’s teachings. That’s where I learned it and got assigned my mantra.
For me, TM makes meditation easy, and it works. It’s brought me to some really funny moments (well, they’re funny to me). I was looking for all these heady answers down there and instead found “nothing.” Then it turns out that “nothing” is the headiest thing of all. Okay, I’m a nerd.
Bob Landstrom, Untitled (Farr), volcanic rock on Arches 400lb watercolor paper
While some meditation practices encourage emptying the mind of all thoughts, Transcendental Meditation is more about letting thoughts come and go, like the passive activity of watching a cloud float by.
What are the top places you’ve traveled to thus far, and where is next on your bucket list?
I’ve traveled to a lot of places. Well, “a lot” for most people I guess. I’ve flown over a million and a half miles on one airline alone. I’ve worked in 15 countries on three continents. You can always find fun places in crummy towns, and crummy places in fun towns. Anyway, I could give you a top-best, top-worst, top-fun…
In 1999 I was in Guatemala studying glyphs on Mayan ruins. I felt really at peace there. I don’t know why. I may have lived there in a past life.
A few years ago, I was in Dhaka for a while. The level of poverty literally made me cry.
I’ve spent a lot of time in East London. It can be nasty as hell there on weekends, but I love the history and all the old ghosts. SO many places to get lost with your notebook.
I like to stay on the Singel in Amsterdam. It’s just so calm and peaceful and laid back. You can sit and listen to so many languages, watch the boats go by. It’s nice.
Next on my bucket list is Iceland. I want to see the Northern Lights before I lose my sight. My wife and I have been trying to arrange a trip there for some time. Something always gets in the way.
You have the power to sit down and chat with one person... dead or alive. Who would it be?
Just one person? Siddhartha Gautama- can't go wrong there.
Are there any contemporary artists or craftsmen that you enjoy, and why are you drawn to them?
Yes there are. But this is loaded for me. I have to try hard to not look too much at other artists’ work. I’m too easily distracted. It’s like getting a song stuck in your head.
I’ve always loved Squeak Carnwath. Yang Yang (line), Fred Tomaselli (materials) are interesting.
Sadly, most of my artist-heroes are passed. There's a long list of those.
We have some fantastic artists in the gallery here. In particular I hope to add Rana’s and Jean’s pieces to my collection at home. I already have one of Michi’s. Shout out to you, guys!
Squeak Carnwath, Bobby, 2015, Oil and alkyd on canvas over panel
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
Besides what we’re talking about here? Probably a lot. I don’t know where to start.
I drive a Mini Cooper convertible.
I have three children.
I ran NCAA Division I track and cross country (I know what you’re thinking)
I love dogs and cats. Like Ben says, I become a child when I see a dog.
My secret fantasy was to be a WWE wrestler.
What’s your top movie picks and why?
I love the 1950’s atomic-age sci-fi B-movies. Especially the outer space movies with robots and goofy monsters. I honestly can’t get enough. I don’t know why. I’ve loved them since I was a little kid. America had imagination then. We aspired to learn new things.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to think of contemporary film that flips my switch. IMO, throughout my lifetime Hollywood has been an uncreative recycle bin. Every time I go to the movie theater I feel fleeced. Do you blame the product or the market?
You have a sketchbook you carry around- can you send us a few shots and explain how those ideas came to fruition?
Gawd I have so many sketchbooks! The car, bedroom, kitchen, plane, hotel… they’re everywhere. People in bars must think I’m a Yelp reviewer. About a year ago I discovered the iPad and that’s just about changed my life. Most of my sketching and note taking is now electronic, believe it or not.
It’s important to have something to record your thoughts with. Thoughts are so fleeting. You never know if it’s a good idea or a dumb idea, until you can step back and look at it later. Most ideas are just forgotten.
These formulas are actually descriptions of the radio wave. Then there's this diagram... When you transmit a radio wave to a certain frequency, you actually get two copies of it. You get an upper sideband and a lower sideband from the carrier wave. And the radio tunes into just one of them. In that case, the upper side band- the USB. I just like the math associated with electromagnetics.
I listen to number stations. Way back when, at the end of World War II and through the Cold War, there were ways of communicating with spies out in the world. If you were an agent, you would know: 1215. Tune in to this certain frequency and you would hear someone reciting numbers... and it goes on and on and on for 20-30 minutes at a time. And they're not always in English. They can be in all sorts of different languages. And there's a lot of static in the background because it's on short wave radio. It's kind of like zen to listen to this. It's very monotone. But at the same time, if I pay attention and try to write down the numbers while it's going on, it's a meditative exercise for me as well.
It seems completely random, but it's purposeful because it's at a certain time of day at a certain frequency. You tune into that time of day, and you know there's going to be a voice talking to you, telling you these numbers.
Some of my sketchbooks are all writing; just notes and stuff. Others are painting concepts and stream-of-conscious doodling.
Portrait of Bob Landstrom in his studio
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