The big theme of West Virginia artist Robert Singleton’s work is the space that is in between dualities. Life and death. Yin and yang. Male and female. Earth and sky.
That’s why he’s loved painting skies and clouds, and horizon lines, ever since he had an epiphany on a car trip through Kansas decades ago.
In Kansas, he saw “a line that was the division between sky and the wide-open prairie; uncluttered space, empty space with this hard, crisp line intersecting. It was the essence of being alone. Nothing man made, just me, the sky, that line and the earth below. ”
I discovered Singleton’s work via a new documentary film by Douglas John Imbrogno and Bobby Lee Messer, House in the Clouds: The Artistic Life of Robert Singleton, which premiered this past weekend at the Clay Center in Charleston, West Virginia.
It’s a beautiful film because it’s about a man who makes soulful, thoughtful art, but it’s also an ode to a life that has been beautiful in its reckoning with deep pain and suffering. And in capturing those in between spaces, Singleton tells us something about where we are. The in between is where crisis, death and rebirth, happen. And it matters that Singleton long ago chose a hilltop in West Virginia to live and paint in. This is a state where complexity and crisis wrestle every day with love and beauty.
Singleton, who is now 85 years old, is a gay man who grew up in a small Virginia town where that was not understood or welcome, and suffered various forms of abuse and banishment as a young person, and then the deadly HIV-AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. He never caught the HIV virus, but lost scores of friends to the disease.
Singleton survived, but at the cost of his art. For twenty years, crippled by depression and anguish, he stopped painting. He resurrected, and that’s why Imbrogno, a former Charleston Gazette arts editor, and Messer, a Huntington, WV-based cinematographer, are telling his story.
The film is a tribute to the number of ways we find to love each other in a fallen world.
In the movie, Singleton tells the story of visiting his father on the day he died. He looked him in the eye and said “Dad, I forgive you for anything you’ve done to hurt me, and I ask forgiveness for anything I did to hurt you.”
That moment of grace led him to paint a series depicting the physical manifestation of the emotions — clouds of the face — he saw that day gracing his father’s eyeballs.
Imbrogno, whose excellent online magazine WestVirginiaVille has republished some pieces from this website, writes that the film is a “small, but significant response” to the hopelessness of the world, because Singleton “has faced his own deep losses and dark periods with grace and strength. He has come out the other side with a still-thumping jovial heart.”
The art itself is crucial to understanding Singleton, Imbrogno adds: “While we may not be trying to figure out the 27th different shade of blue or white to paint a sky, cloud or horizon line, we all have work to do in our corner of the world.”
You can follow the film’s screenings and other evolution on this website. I recommend.
John W. Miller