Artist Spotlight: Rob Larson

Rob Larson, “Japanese Bridge 6.10.22,” acrylic on canvas. 24 in. x 36 in. —

Anabaptist World: How did you become an artist?  

Rob Larson: As a boy, I wanted to be a Disney cartoonist. I used to pause the VHS videos on the TV to sketch my favorite characters. These were mainly simple line drawings. I had fun showing my sketchbooks to my kids recently. As a teenager, my attention turned toward the unavoidable spiritual questions:  Who am I? What am I doing with my life? Is there a God? Does God have a plan for my life? I did a lot of soul searching, hiking and camping during those years.  Those were my wilderness years. 

In high school, I took a drawing course and art history course and haven’t stopped since. The beauty and mystery of the stars, trees, birds and rivers filled me with awe. I became an artist to respond to that sense of awe. As I studied art history, I learned that people had been responding in their own way, in every era, and that this was inherently meaningful to the formation of culture. I kept a sketchbook, and this led to experimenting with watercolor, gouache, acrylics and oils. I dabbled in some sculpture, but the line drawings of my youth, coupled with my love of color in painting, led me to continuously experiment with paint as a way to express my joy of being alive. 

I could see that my small drawings (clumsy as they were) were a metaphor for what creation was in the hands of God, full of blazing light and beauty.  I’m an artist to follow in the footsteps of The Artist. I’m grateful to have realized this early on: that God was intricately intertwined with creation and creativity; the life of the spirit, the stuff of the earth.  For me being an artist meant getting my hands dirty with story and questions, joy and love, seeing and sharing, and partaking in mystery at the heart of nature.  In short, I became an artist to enjoy communion with God and to live into a wholehearted response. Last time I checked, we’re all invited to the table.

AW: When I look at your work, I see a vibrant use of color. I also see the influence of Van Gogh and Monet. Who or what has influenced you artistically?  

RL: I remember going to the Art Institute of Chicago with my family when I was 12 years old and seeing the haystack paintings by Monet.   After that experience, I appreciated the light that I would see when hiking through the woods, or while I was canoeing in a fog and trees emerged from the mist. I like Japanese watercolors for that reason too.

Artists give us their eyes. As a painter, I’m influenced by so many other painters. The challenge for me is to find my own path through all the painters that I love. I go through phases where I copy their styles and learn from them. I study painters’ decisions and why they did what they did. I then see if I can find my own way of painting, my own language. It’s a process.  I have an affinity with the French post-impressionists the most: Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Pierre Bonnard and American painters such as Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Mitchell and Wolf Kahn. I consider myself to be a colorist and an expressionist, so I’m working with both representational imagery and abstraction, and I like the play between the two.

Rob Larson, “We Stand as in an Open Field,” acrylic on canvas. 36 in. x 36 in. —

In college, I read biographies of Vincent Van Gogh and his spiritual yearnings. I could sense similar emotions rising up in me: bold, visionary, wild, free and a little crazy. (I blame the beauty of the world.) This gives me hope that the wildness of the world is good and colors outside the lines burst forth like dawn, beyond boundaries or borders.

Color is one of those divine gifts, abundantly and wastefully spread all around by God. I see color as “beloved dust” that is not unlike “star dust” and in essence, made of light, so I’m reminded of Psalm 19: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Well, if colors do that, let’s join the song! Esteban Vicente was a Spanish painter who would painted these interior landscapes and said, “The quality of the color is the light.” It’s cosmic and dynamic and intimate, and it’s all around. 

AW: You’re a member of the Reba Place Church in Evanston, Ill. What role does this congregation play in your art practice?   

RL: I love being a member of Reba Place Church. We are a relational, peacemaking, Christ-centered community, and most of us live in a neighborhood where love and forgiveness, joy and mutual support are at the heart of our life together.  That is good ground from which many creative projects can grow! 

I’ve recently been leading contemplative prayer services on Wednesday nights where we sing Taize songs, sit in silence and listen to the Gospels using Lectio Divina.  Before leading the services with others, I practice in my art studio. The studio is my prayer closet and the place where I try on these creative and spiritual practices. The church as a whole has such a rich history of spiritual practices that are wonderful accompaniments to the creative practices in my studio.  I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Of course, I’m painting in my studio, but there is a fair amount of sitting and waiting, praying and breathing, mixing a color and laying it down, and cleaning brushes.  There is ritual and rhythm and connection.  The art studio, like our house of worship, is a sacred space. The congregation reminds me that art is a gift to the community and nourishes our common life together.

AW: Art seems to be a significant part of Reba Place’s congregational life. Could you say more about art at Reba Place, including its banners?  

RL: Our pastors support and encourage all of us to explore and share our spiritual gifts, and because of that there is a rich tapestry of creativity that is woven into our Sunday worship, whether that be music, poetry, dance, or drama. We sense God is with us in these unfolding community building creative projects. Our pastors continue to encourage us, and they are both creative in their own ways as well, so that makes it fun to bring these creative ideas to life.

In 2019, we decided we would make some large banners to express our core values and mission.  We live in a dense urban area, so when COVID-19 hit in 2020, we met on Zoom. We decided to turn our meetinghouse into an art studio and spread out huge canvases on the floor, and we painted for over a year. It was a dream come true for me!

“Encountering Jesus,” banner made by Rob Larson and members of the Reba Place Church, Evanston, Ill. 13 feet x 13 feet. — Rob Larson

To start the project, we gathered people’s ideas, collages and drawings after our ‘core values’ sermons. I made sketches and designed the banners with input from the pastoral team. I used the quilt pattern designs to incorporate our Anabaptist roots.  And so with 26 volunteers from the church community, week by week, we painted, layer upon layer, until the finished paintings hang on the outside of the meetinghouse.  Our largest banner is 13 by 13 feet, and made out of outdoor acrylic paint on canvas.  It is a symbolic painting of Jesus with his arms open wide standing next to one of his parables of the Kingdom of God, where he says the Kingdom is like a tiny seed that grows into a tree where birds come and nest in its branches. Our worship space is an old bus garage, so the banners help people walking by understand this is where the church gathers, where growth and transformation happens — a place where we encounter Christ. 

AW: You have begun to re-imagine icons in your recent work. Could you describe your process? How does worship influence your process?

Rob Larson, “Trinity Icon.January 2024,” acrylic on canvas. 10 in. x 8 in. —

RL: Yes, this is a recent and unfolding series that is rooted in color and process. I don’t have the words for this quite yet, but I can tell you this story. I used to come into the studio and fling paint around and wonder what I was doing. It felt aimless and meaningless, and it was, to a certain extent.  Experimentation without worship is eventually a dead end.

So in 2020, I joined a Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina group on Zoom from my art studio. In the silence of prayer and listening to the Gospels, I connected with a deep desire to paint icons of the life of Christ. This led me to revisit how iconographers incorporate spiritual practices into their process. I’ve been incorporating sitting in silence prior to painting, and even though I paint less, I sense the icons have more meaning. I’m a contemporary artist in conversation with other artists, so even though I’m using traditional iconography, I’m seeking a colorful and expressive new life within the old structures. 

AW: What do you hope people will learn or take away from your work? 

RL: I’ve been diving more into the psalms and finding this sacred poetry correlates with the wholeheartedness that I’m trying to express in my paintings. My paintings are my prayers, and my prayers are my paintings. I’ve been learning that colors sing in the silence, and paintings reveal more and more as we live with them. So my hope is that anyone who slows down enough to look at the paintings can somehow catch a glimpse of the love that is flowing. Creativity is a spark that has its origin in God, so it is about worship, and it is God’s love, and it has a way of overflowing. 

I turn toward God when I encounter beauty, and my hope is that the community of people responding to God grows. I see an interconnected and beautiful earth that the human family is destroying very quickly, and I want to do my part to support the human family to be renewed by Love, and tend to this garden.  That beauty of creation reorients me to slow down and look again, and create paintings that point to the mystery and joy of living. That is what I’m trying to respond to with my paintings. Each new day is an invitation by God, and each new canvas is an invitation to follow the threads of discovery. I do sense God is calling, and God’s abundant Love is up to something true, beautiful and good.

As a painter, I’m putting forth a splash of color, but I trust God can make it flourish as an encouragement in the heart of people.  By the grace of God, all creation will burst forth into all of its fullness, and God will be weaving it all together for good.  

Rob Larson

Rob Larson was born and raised in Mexico in the 1980s. His first impressions of light, color and music were Read More

Eileen Kinch

Eileen Kinch is digital editor at Anabaptist World. She lives near Tylersport, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two cats. She Read More

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Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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