"I view fun as a catalyst for change and believe in the importance of providing immersive spaces where people of all ages and demographics are given permission to play."
I love Robin Schwartzman. Not just because she is my friend but because she is truly inspiring. I have never met another artist that explores color, play, and place in such a way. I have been admiring her for years! From outdoor art installations to mini golf, Robin invites you to explore, have fun, and connect with others!
Robin Schwartzman is a Minneapolis based artist, educator and lover of mini golf. She works as a Research Technician for Drawing, Painting, Printmaking and the XYZ Lab in the University of Minnesota Department of Art. She also teaches a class on 3D Modeling and Digital Fabrication. Outside of her day job, Robin is one half of A Couple of Putts as well as a professional caricature artist.
Robin’s sculptures and installations use 3D digital fabrication mixed with a colorful and playful aesthetic to create participatory and immersive experiences. She has worked on commissioned projects for the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar, Northern Spark, Made Here, Artscape Baltimore, Canal Convergence Scottsdale, and the Art Shanty Projects, to name a few. She received a BFA from Syracuse University in 2008 and an MFA from the University of Minnesota - Department of Art in 2011. Robin has received honors including: ArtPrize 10 Juror’s Shortlist for 3D; Award for Innovation, American Institute of Architects, Spartanburg 2015; Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists, 2013-2014; Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, 2012.
In this interview she talks in more detail about how she makes her work, what Holey Moley is, and how you can hire her do caricatures at your next event!
Read and admire on! You'll love Robin too!
Jes: Your artistic interests and art projects in leisure and play have brought you all over the world. I also notice that the idea of place is important to your work too. Can you talk about your what attracts you to these themes and how they appear in your art?
Robin: This story will start how many do - childhood memories. I grew up on the east coast and every summer, my family would take an annual, week-long trip to the Jersey Shore. For me, the best day of vacation was when we got to go to a small amusement park called Fantasy Island. The visuals of bright lights, moving colors, a cartoon alligator dressed in a dapper top hat and red and white striped vest and trash bins topped with smiling clowns stuck with me. Between the ages of 4 and 11, there would be countless trips to the plethora of amusement parks, large and small, that dotted the tri-state area of NY/NJ/PA. Every carousel ride, hand painted ice cream sign, cloud of cotton candy and scream of pure happiness that I shared with my sister and cousins became the ultimate distraction to my parents’ tumultuous, 7-year divorce. I turned the focus of most of my childhood back to those moments of joy.
And as I got older, I found ways to continue to surround myself in fun environments. I spent my summers through high school, college and grad school drawing caricatures at amusement parks and fairs across the country. After school, I spent time working in a fabrication shop that makes oversized props for waterparks, cruise ships and theme parks. After spending a lot of time with themed spaces and researching their history, I realized that many, many people have fond childhood memories of them. That’s when I became more interested in the idea of leisure space, collective nostalgia and the power of using signs and symbols to tell a story and sell an experience.
In my own creative practice, I borrow playful visual and social elements from leisure culture and transform them into new ways to experience ourselves, our communities and each other. Tropes such as Burma Shave style signage, classic marquee letters, hand-painted type, specialized color palettes, anthropomorphized characters, larger-than-life objects and chasing lights are inspired by memorable aesthetics of a bygone era and my own enthusiasm for lo-fi fun. Working at the intersection of art and design, I create interactive games, large scale installations and participatory performances that encourage play and re-imagine place. I view fun as a catalyst for change and believe in the importance of providing immersive spaces where people of all ages and demographics are given permission to play.
I am often asking questions about how theming can function outside of its commercial roots. Can a giant marquee transform a familiar urban landscape into a Wonderland? Can the game of mini golf highlight a community and celebrate its history? And can a flashy façade be used to entice people into finding value without money, being kind to strangers, and collecting and memorializing moments of generosity?
Many of your projects fall within the public art realm. You also build a lot of your art from scratch. What kind of tools do you use and what’s your creative process like?
For years, it was challenging for me to turn the ideas I was imagining into physical objects and to the quality and scale that I dreamed. But that challenge is what motivated me to learn how to use digital fabrication technologies to help produce my work. Every idea always starts in my sketchbook with quick scribbles and fragments of ideas jotted down on the page. I often pull together many visual references and inspirations, whether its historical photos, my own photos or works by other contemporary artists. From there, my ideas move to the computer. I use programs like Adobe Illustrator and Rhino to digitally illustrate my ideas, either in 2D or 3D space. With Computer Aided Design (CAD), I am able to quickly work through iterations of concepts without any commitment to material or scale. Sometimes, it takes up to five or six drafts of playing around with an idea to finalize it. Being able to see a scaled and dimensional version of my idea in digital space is so helpful to its realization. Once it’s time to actually make/build it, the hard work is done. I can pull dimensions or curves from my models and use those to help me cut structural wood and metal or to use a laser cutter or CNC router to cut organic shapes and forms. It’s all like one big puzzle, where I use different tools to make the pieces and then use my digital model as a map as a guide for how to put it all back together.
Once assembly is complete, I always like to go back in and do hand finishing work to bring the artist touch back in, whether it’s drawing, painting, using a jig saw or hand sanding.
What kind of advice would you give to an emerging public art artist?
Always leave room for error. Both in your timeline and your budget. Public art takes a lot of work and a lot of people coming together to make things happen. In fact, sometimes I feel like being a public artist is more about managing people and schedules than it is about actually making the art.
That being said, between weather, durability, scale and scope, things that you could never have planned for inevitably will go wrong. There’s no way to prevent them from happening, you can only anticipate that something will happen and be ready for it. Stay patient and flexible (two things I’m admittedly not great at myself) and be kind and grateful to everyone who helps you make it happen.
What kind of resources have you used as an artist?
I look on mnartists.org all the time to scope out new opportunities. I use Google Drive for everything, from budget sheets to folder and file sharing. Especially when working with collaborators, having a living version of everything is so helpful. I’m also addicted to Instagram, sometimes to share my work but more so to get a daily look at work by hundreds of so many different types of talented artists from across the globe.
I love the Barter Boat. Tell me more about it, RADAR Art Collective, and how the project lead you all to be part of ArtPrize 2018. What was that experience like?
RADAR Art Collective consists of myself, Anna Abhau Elliott and Desireé Moore. The three of us met during our six-month Artist Residency at Hub-Bub in Spartanburg, SC back in 2015. We kept in touch after the residency and accidentally stumbled into the idea of Barter Boat together back in 2016. It started as a different project, really. It was originally called Minnesotan Ice and was made for the Northern Spark Festival themed around Climate Chaos. The idea was to freeze tiny objects and trinkets, what some may consider trash, into ice pops (made of literally ice) and exchange these with people for their own stuff out of a giant and brightly lit carnival-inspired facade of a boat. The logistics of making thousands of ice pops was insane, so instead we transitioned to just putting the stuff into the eco-plastic bags we were using to package the ice pops, except without the pop. And the title of the piece evolved into Barter Boat.
We got invited to bring the project to the IN Light IN festival in Indianapolis later that year, and things just sort of snowballed from there. People love trading their things and telling us stories. We love collecting things and curating them into packages, or we like to think of them more as handheld assemblages. And we found that it all becomes more meaningful as we travel from city to city across the country, collecting small treasures and connecting strangers through their stuff. Since 2016, the Barter Boat has been to Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Atlanta, Scottsdale, Breckenride, Grand Rapids, MI and Spartanburg, SC. This October, it’s headed to Bentonville, AR for an event at The Momentary and then onto Cincinnati, OH for the BLINK Light-Based Art Festival.
Barter Boat was fortunate to make the Juror’s Short List (top 5) in the 3D Category at ArtPrize 2018. Juror Rebecca Carbin said this amazing quote about Barter Boat:
"It uses humor and lightness as a way of introducing and unpacking some pretty complicated questions about commodification and consumer culture -- the things we value, the things we throw away, and how those things, those little pieces of nothing, actually become a thread that connects people."
Many of us know you love mini golf and co-founded A Couple of Putts with your husband Tom. Can you talk more about your background with mini golf and how you’ve built a career around an activity that you love so much?
Tom and I had both played mini golf growing up. He has memories playing at LilliPutt in Coon Rapids. I have memories playing in my hometown of Bethlehem, PA as well as at the shore. I always enjoyed the game, but it wasn’t until I met Tom when our passion for mini golf moved to another level. Our first date was at Big Stone Mini Golf in Minnetrista, MN. It was a magical place that was the perfect backdrop for a magical day. After that, we kept dating and playing mini golf together. The more we played, the more we realized that there weren’t a ton of great resources out there for the game. A lot of courses had super dated websites or none at all. It was hard to find good photos or history of the game, aside from the one mini golf book that was published back in the 80’s. So we decided since we were playing anyhow, that we’d start documenting and reviewing courses and put them on a blog. We came up with the name A Couple of Putts while waiting in line for a water slide at Noah’s Ark in the Wisconsin Dells.
From there, things just sort of took off. Later that year, the Walker Art Center put out its call for Artist-Designed mini golf. We designed and built our first hole called Can You Handle This? and it all just came so naturally to me. I was able to mix my cartoony aesthetic with my growing fabrication skills all in the name of something unapologetically fun and playful. Since then, we’ve played and reviewed over 200 courses as well as designed, fabricated and/or consulted on holes for the former Indianapolis Museum of Art (currently known as Newfields), Virginia Commonwealth University in Doha, Qatar, ArtCourse at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Bull City Mini in Durham, NC, Sparkle City Mini Putt in Spartanburg, SC, and have contributed designs for the last six years at the Walker Art Center.
You’ve been pretty busy lately! What you’ve been working on? For folks out there who don’t know - what’s Holey Moley?
It’s been a busy year for me, but somewhat quiet in regards to my art-making. This past spring, Tom and I filmed Holey Moley for a week out in California, finished consulting on two different mini golf projects in Kansas City and Durham, NC, got married, and went on our honeymoon to Tanzania.
What’s Holey Moley, you ask? It’s a new extreme miniature golf game show on ABC Primetime. There are 10 episodes and on each one, 12 contestants compete head to head over three rounds for a chance to win $25k, the Golden Putter and the coveted Plaid Jacket. It’s like Best in Show meets Wipeout combined with Double Dare and mini golf. There are 25’ windmills and holes that stand 12’ over a pool of ice cold water where you get dunked if you miss your putt. It’s crazy and insane and we both got the amazing opportunity to be contestants on it. Tom’s episode aired on August 8th and mine is coming up on Thursday, August 22nd at 7pm EST/8pm CST. And if you miss it on primetime, it’s streaming on Hulu as well as abc.com.
On top of all of the cool things that you do, you are also an award-winning caricature artist! When did this part of your career start and can people hire you for parties and events?
This part of my career actually started first. I started drawing caricatures at a local amusement park near where I grew up as my high school summer job back in 2002 and I’ve been doing it ever since. I love this art form so much, as it allows me to go back to simple analog drawing with a pen and paper. I can also push my limits using digital drawing apps like Procreate on my iPad. It’s really a fun way to observe and connect with total strangers. Drawing the face is also like a puzzle. You have to observe all of the shapes and unique characteristics that make up one’s likeness and figure out the best way to stretch, skew and scale them on the paper. It’s a real challenge that I don’t feel like I’ve mastered as well as I’d like to, which keeps me curious and motivated to get better year after year.
There’s also a great caricature community out there called the International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA). I’ve been a member of ISCA since 2006 and try to attend the annual conventions whenever I can. It’s one giant family of caricaturists from around the globe who gather for one week each year to draw each other, share skills and push the limits of the art form. Plus, I have a killer collection of caricatures drawn of me from the last decade.
I still draw at parties and events when time permits! You can find my caricature services online at caricaturesbyrobin.com.
Where can we find you online?
You can find me on instagram @robinschwartzman or follow my mini golf endeavors online at acoupleofputts.com or on twitter/instagram/Facebook as @coupleputts
Thanks for answering all of my questions, Robin. I will be for sure tuning into Holey Moley on the 22nd, and I hope my readers will too!
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.