Royal Robertson outside his home (from the documentary Make by Scott Ogden and Malcolm Hearn)
21 October 1936|
St. Helena Parish, Louisiana
|Died||5 July 1997
Royal Robertson (21 October 1936 – 5 July 1997), also known as the self-proclaimed Prophet Royal Robertson, was an American artist.
Early life and marriage
Born in St. Helena Parish, Louisiana, on 21 October 1936, Robertson later moved to Baldwin, Louisiana. He spent almost his entire life in Louisiana. Robertson left school having completed the eighth grade. In his late teens he apprenticed as a sign painter and traveled to the West coast in his early twenties working as a field hand and sign painter. He returned to Louisiana in the 1950s to care for his mother where he continued to work as a sign painter. He married Adell Brent in 1955 and they had eleven children. Their marriage ended after 19 years when Adell left him for another man, moved to Texas taking their children with her, and became a minister.
Robertson remained in Louisiana after his marriage ended and became a recluse. He was largely scorned by his neighbors and was overcome by misogynistic rage towards his former wife and women in general. Robertson suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and claimed to have had his first vision, a futuristic vision of a space ship with God as driver, when he was fourteen. When his marriage ended he began to record his visions in his imagery and writings. Numerous hallucinatory visions of space travel where aliens predicted the End of Days through complex numerological formulas and warned him about the dangers of adultery and fornication led Robertson to believe that he was a victim of a global female conspiracy. He believed that his ex-wife's betrayal would be the cause of the cataclysmic destruction of humanity, and that his art was divinely sanctioned. According to social anthropologist Frédéric Allamel, Robertson saw himself as a patriarch in search of a new Zion and a prophet whose legacy would consist of his apocryphal work. He identitied himself as "Libra Patriarch Prophet Lord Archbishop Apostle Visionary Mystic Psychic Saint Royal Robertson". Robertson was a self-taught artist with no formal training although according to Paul Arnett, a writer on African-American vernacular art of the American South, Robertson took a correspondence course in art.
Materials and themes
Robertson worked on materials like poster board and paper or wood using magic markers, tempera paint, colored pencils, ball point pens and glitter. He studied the Bible and there are many references to it in his work together with references to "girlie magazines", comic strips and science fiction. He was preoccupied with numerology and biblical prophecies of the End of Days from the Book of Revelation. Frequent themes included images of aliens and their spaceships, Bible verses and religious references, fire breathing, godzilla-like monsters, snakes, architectural drawings of houses and temples in futuristic cities, superheroes, and portraits of Adell often identified with Jezebel and other Amazon-like "harlots". His colorful drawings often included rambling, judgmental, ranting texts, sometimes in comic book-like speech balloons, about "adulterous whores" and unfaithful spouses. He frequently referenced precise and painful moments in his life, particularly his wife's unfaithfulness to him and produced calendars chronicling memories of his marriage in short journal notations scribbled in each date's block. Much of his work included images that conveyed a sense of artist pitted against the forces of evil. His works were often double-sided and when he signed pieces, he would add "Prophet" to the front of his name, or alternatively "Patriarch".
Robertson's home and yard were decorated with hundreds of his signs, drawings, calendars and shrines. The exterior was decorated with a variety of painted and rotating signs including warnings that "whores" and "bastards" should stay away and misogynistic messages denouncing "bad" women often addressed to his ex-wife Adell. The interior was decorated with his drawings pinned to every available wall. Many drawings inside his home were of his ex-wife and the interior included a number of shrines dedicated to her. According to Allamel, Robertson developed a "complicated spatial ritualization" before he would allow visitors into his "sacred/profane inner space". His home was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in August 1992. Two collectors helped him file papers with the federal government to recover from his losses.
Exhibitions and collections
Robertson's work has been featured in many exhibitions and a number of works are held in permanent collections including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Mississippi Museum of Art, the University Art Museum, Lafayette, The Brogan Museum, the American Visionary Art Museum and the Art Museum of Southeast Texas.
Robertson died suddenly from a heart attack in 1997, aged 60.
In 2009, Scott Ogden and Malcolm Hearn produced the documentary Make that examined the lives and art-making techniques of Robertson and self-taught artists Hawkins Bolden, Judith Scott and Ike Morgan.
In popular culture
The title of the 2010 album The Age of Adz by American artist Sufjan Stevens is a reference to the work of Robertson. Robertson's work is used for the cover and interior design of the album, as well as for the supporting tour, where his imagery is animated synchronously with the live music. The album's thematic and formal content reflects and responds to Robertson's work and circumstances, including themes like the apocalypse, prophecy, and internal chaos.
- Ogden, Scott; Malcolm Hearn (2009). "Make". Retrieved 28 February 2011.
- "Royal Robertson". Webb Gallery. Retrieved 5 September 2010.
- "Royal Robertson". ANTON HAARDT GALLERY. Retrieved 5 September 2010.
- ""Prophet" Royal Robertson". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
- "Royal Robertson (1936 - 1997)". Robert Cargo Folk Art Gallery. Retrieved 5 September 2010.
- "People:royal robertson". The Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science. Retrieved 7 September 2010.
- Moran, Mark; Sceurman, Mark; Lake, Matt (2008-11-04). Weird U.S. The ODDyssey Continues: Your Travel Guide to America's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Sterling. p. 144. ISBN 978-1-4027-4544-7.
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- Allamel, Frédéric (2007-03-01). "Sacred Spaces and Mythmaking A Sociological Perspective on Southern Environmental Art". Sacred and profane: voice and vision in Southern self-taught art. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-57806-916-3.
- Wertkin, Gerard C. (2003-12-17). Encyclopedia of American Folk Art. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-92986-8.
- Allamel, Frédéric (2001). "'Prophet' Royal Robertson's Architectural Odyssey: Psycho-Spatial Drama in Three Acts". Southern Quarterly. The University of Southern Mississippi. 39 nos. 1-2 (Fall-Winter, 2000-2001, Outsider Architectures: Laboratories of the Imaginary): 152–168.
- Arnett, Paul; Arnett, William S. (2000). Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 1: African American Vernacular Art of the South: The Tree Gave the Dove a Leaf. Tinwood Books. ISBN 978-0-9653766-0-0.
- Moses, Kathy (April 1999). Outsider Art of the South. Schiffer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7643-0729-4.
- Sellen, Betty-Carol; Johanson, Cynthia J. (December 1999). Self Taught, Outsider, and Folk Art: A Guide to American Artists, Locations and Resources. McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0-7864-0745-3.
- Yelen, Alice Rae (September 1993). Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-0-87805-676-7.
- "Obituary". Folk Art Messenger. Folk Art Society of America. 10 (4, Fall 1997). 1997.