Schenectady artist Robert Laper is a talented painter and cartoonist, but on Saturday at the Stockade Art Show, he’s quite sure that it’s his “Baby Face” sculptures that will cry out to viewers.
“I get the most response from these. You either love it or you hate it,” he said, pointing to the small wall sculptures in the kitchen of his Stockade apartment.
The pudgy-cheeked white plaster cherubs, made with the faces of antique toy dolls, are more soulful than sweet, and somewhat neo-classical, like Erastus Dow Palmer’s bas-relief at the Albany Institute of History & Art.
However, it’s the twist of contemporary art that gives these babes their character.
59th annual Stockade Villagers’ Outdoor Art Show
WHAT: Exhibit and sale of professional and nonprofessional artwork, including drawings, paintings, sculpture, graphics, textile art and photography. Judges will award 24 cash prizes, ribbons and other honors, including a Young Artist (ages 8-18) Award. Artist registration begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, with a fee of $30.
WHERE: Schenectady’s Stockade District, centered at Front and Ferry streets.
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. (Rain date is noon to 4 p.m. Sunday)
HOW MUCH: Free
Each “Baby Face” has a piece of found metal incorporated into the sculpture. An angelic profile juts from a rusted oil can, another innocent is framed by piston rings from a farm tractor.
Faucets, wire and hardware from broken toys and machines find their way into the faces. In some works, a tiny plaster arm reaches out.
Laper began making the sculptures a few years ago during a painful divorce that tore his family apart.
“The sculptured baby faces were my way of understanding emotions that I couldn’t put into words or expected that anyone would hear. It was a creative way to keep my mind distracted from missing my children, and in the end, helping us all heal,” he explained.
“The emotions and human messages that go into his ‘Baby Face’ sculptures have touched my heart,” said Lis Rolfe, owner of Crossroads Gallery in Duanesburg, where Laper’s sculpture and paintings have been exhibited for the past three years.
Laper creates the sculptures in a basement below his Front Street apartment, where there’s a small wooden worktable strewn with the heads from toy baby dolls and a tray filled with 3-inch-long arms, mask-like faces and a few angel wings, all made of plaster.
He presses Silly Putty onto the face of a doll to make a soft mold, then pours in a high-density plaster, which dries to form the finished face.
He always uses dolls that were made before 1960.
“They have an expression to them,” he said. Faces are molded with the eyes closed so there are empty spaces instead of eyes. “I like that concept. To let the mind’s eye fill in the blank spaces.”
Collector of everything
Upstairs, “Baby Faces” are just the beginning of what you see in Laper’s apartment, which looks like an old-time curiosity shop. Nearly every inch of wall is adorned with paintings, some of them his own ethereal oil landscapes and many others with ornate, gilded frames. Shelves and cabinets are packed with miniatures, collectibles and oddities, from driftwood and old-fashioned rolling pins to hundreds of bisque figurines.
The only clues to the 21st century are the color photos of his daughters Rebecca and Ashley tucked among the bric-a-brac.
“I’m a picker. I’ll collect anything,” Laper said with a laugh, making reference to “American Pickers,” the History Channel reality show about two guys who hunt for antiques and collectibles in unpredictable places.
Some items came from Broken Art Studio, a fine art restoration business he operated eight years ago on South Ferry Street, where the Moon & River Cafe is now situated.
“It was fun,” said the 56-year-old Laper, describing how he mended oil paintings, picture frames, statues, figurines and lamps “on a shoestring budget.”
“It was an experience to go there. His artwork was in the back and his antiques were in the front,” said Connie Colangelo, a longtime Stockade resident and co-chairwoman of the Stockade Art Show. “Bob did some art restoration on some dear paintings for us. He restored them beautifully.”
Laper closed the shop but he still restores artwork, landscapes gardens and yards in the Stockade and sells antiques and vintage items on eBay.
During the winter, to escape the cold, he creates his moody light-infused landscapes, scenes that are fluid, impressionistic and open to personal interpretation.
Without a formal studio, he isn’t sure where he’ll be doing his painting this winter, as he shares his apartment with four doting felines that follow his every move as they tiptoe among the tchotchkes.
“I was painting on the kitchen table and then the cats had kittens,” he joked.
When he does paint, his grandmother, painter Ann Mittleman, is never far from his thoughts.
Even the smell of turpentine reminds him of when he was a little boy and watched her at work.
A New York City artist who is listed in Who’s Who in American Artists, Mittleman took him to galleries and museums to see work by pop artist Andy Warhol and abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock as well as the masters. She died in 1972.
Laper, who grew up in New Jersey and studied at the Boston Architectural Center, has worked at a blueprint company and as an illustrator.
In the late 1980s, he started drawing the cartoon “Filbert,” a comical paintbrush figure that he submitted to The Artist magazine. The magazine rejected “Filbert,” and it sat on a shelf for 20 years.
Laper recently revived it, and now, nearly every morning, Laper turns an idea in his sketchbook into a cartoon that appears on his — and Filbert’s — Facebook wall. Once in a while, “Filbert” also turns up on a Yahoo! group linked to historicstockade.com.
“Filbert has no hands. It has everything to do with the eyes and the caption,” he said. When Laper posted the 100th “Filbert” in late July, the character was honored with an appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterstencil.”
While Filbert is a digitally created cartoon, he may make an appearance at the Stockade show in printed photocopies. But then he’ll be back on Facebook.
“Filbert” has 99 devoted Facebook friends, including Colangelo, who check in for their morning chuckle.
“I love Filbert,” she said.