“Bob the Dog” painter Rod Swenson found that you don’t have to starve to be an artist
Artist Rod Swenson has a pragmatic approach to earning a living as an artist: The former Sacramento resident doesn’t believe in starving for his art.
“The social part of it is very nourishing and getting pushed around by people is just as valuable as resisting them,” offered Swenson.
Swenson is a professional artist who is most famous—or infamous—for his “Bob the Dog” paintings. In fact, the cartoonish canine has been Swenson’s signature character. The pointy nose and eyeless dog with impossible feet has been an enduring artistic icon for Swenson.
“When I first painted Bob,” said Swenson, “I had a real bad day. I was frustrated and I just scrubbed out a big painting and because I had spent my whole day painting and came up with nothing, and just in frustration I just scrawled this dumb dog. Someone walked in the studio within two days and bought it. A friend of mine named it, he said, ‘Well, it looks like Bob the Dog to me.’ ”
Swenson has sold every Bob the Dog painting that he has created and has made up so many different Bobs that he has completely lost count of how many that he made. He even painted three murals of Bob the Dog, one in Springfield, Oregon, and two in Sacramento: at 28th St. and Capitol Ave. and at the Enotria Restaurant on Del Paso Boulevard.
Swenson has no idea why his paintings of Bob the Dog sell: “The thing that I like about it [is] they are kind of funny and stupid. The other thing that appeals to me about Bob is that he debunks the notion of art as a secular religion. When you are in a museum in San Francisco, you tiptoe around quietly looking at the fine art. I think that one of the reasons that people respond to Bob is that he is not intimidating, they’re just fun.”
Swenson is a gregarious man in his late 50s with a wisp of white hair who appears larger than his 6-foot-plus frame. He seems to grow in height as he speaks passionately about his artful lifestyle, first speaking softly, like a hippy grandfather telling you a secret, only to raise his voice to a booming level to emphasize a point, which is usually followed by hardy laughter.
Swenson, who graduated from Highland High School in Roseville in 1961, has been making a living as a painter for 10 years, the last three residing in China. Yet he became an artist not out of some burning creative desire, but almost as a lark.
His father was an Oakland contractor who moved his family to Sacramento in 1958 to cash in on the building boom here. After graduating from high school, Swenson attended Wheaton University outside of Chicago, where he first got a taste of art.
“When I was in school in Chicago, we used to go to the Art Institute, which has a fabulous collection of stuff. But I thought you had to be a genius or talented to be a painter and I obviously wasn’t,” laughed Swenson.
After transferring to Berkeley, getting drafted in 1965 and fortunately serving in Germany during the Vietnam conflict, Swenson finished his college education at San Francisco State with a B.A. in English. By the end of the ’60s, Swenson was married with a baby on the way. He did what any terrified young man with limited prospects would do: he got a job at the Post Office. And for fun, about the same time, he started painting.
“When my daughter was born in 1970, it did something,” said Swenson. “It was like it suddenly made me feel like an adult and I could do what I wanted, even if it was crappy. It didn’t matter. So I started painting in 1970 and I just never stopped.”
When his marriage broke up, his ex-wife moved to Eugene, Oregon, and Swenson—wanting to be near his daughter—moved there too. Being a city boy, living in Eugene took some getting use to, but he settled in and continued working at the Post Office and painting in his spare time.
Yet it was in Eugene that Swenson’s hobby became his calling. He started showing his work in cafés and people shelled out cash for them. By 1990, he quit the Post Office to paint full time, which has completely change his perspective on what it is to be an artist.
“When you are supported by a job like [the Post Office], you don’t have to pay any attention to what anybody buys,” said Swenson. “When you have to live on it, you have to please whoever will buy a painting from you. You get pushed in all these places, which is really good. It makes you much more willing to accommodate with everybody out there that has a few hundred bucks burning a hole in their pocket and for some reason wanted a painting.”
Living the life as a middle-aged starving artist was not on Swenson’s agenda. He watched what people bought and adjusted his style to ensure that his buyers got what they wanted.
“It is counter to the myth of the artist who is starving to death to follow his vision,” said Swenson. “That’s OK, but it’s good to get shaken out of your vision every once in a while.”
Not every painting that Swenson creates is a Bob the Dog. He has a gentle, eclectic style that ranges from realistic landscapes and still-lifes of fruit to Van Gogh-ish fields and Chinese-influenced modernism.
His wife, Lizann, loved the Chinese countryside, and Swenson loved his wife, so they have spent the last three years living in the hinterlands of Yuxi, China. Yuxi is an hour bus ride from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province deep in southwestern China, near the Golden Triangle. Lizann teaches English at a Teachers College and Swenson paints and takes care of their 1-year-old adopted daughter, Natasha.
“All the art departments that I have ever seen in China are fabulous,” said Swenson. “In the ’50s in America when abstract impressionism happened, which I really love, people lost drawing skills. A lot of people never learned to draw and that’s a real important skill. In China, they never lost that sort of terrible social realism thing that everyone had practiced for a long time. They’ve kind of taken in that abstract impressionism stuff too, but the in the context of traditional skills.”
Swenson says he’s overwhelmed by China. His landscapes of China are a lot like Van Gogh without the absinthe-induced insanity. “This one ended up looking like California,” laughs Swenson. “It looks like Napa! Because I’m a California boy, that’s what happens. For me, my painting constantly goes in a bunch of different directions like that. Like trying to come to terms with my own thinking about the world and about life. And also, just looking at stuff. There is a kind of belief that comes out of seeing and a kind of relationship with the world [that] comes out of seeing. The way things look are such a big part of life.”
Swenson, who is probably the tallest man in Yuxi, attracts a crowd when he paints outside. He has a deep affection for the Chinese people and their culture. The discipline and skill of modern Chinese artists are his inspiration.
“One of the interesting things about Chinese painters,” Swenson whispers as if he is telling a secret, “is they can put words in their paintings and it’s OK, but it is still very verboten if you are a fine artist in the West. It’s like an advertisement: you trying to sell Cokes? It’s hard for me, it makes me feel a little nervous. How can I put a word in a painting?
Not one to repel his instinct, Swenson’s most expressive paintings are a blend of French impressionism, Bay Area figurative and modern Chinese.
“A lot of the inspiration from my paintings comes from other painters and wanting to do their paintings!” shouted Swenson.
Swenson recently noticed that his paint palettes started taking an artistic life of their own. He manipulates them a bit and has them framed. “My part of the process is almost completely passive with these little abstract pieces,” explained Swenson as if he were describing a child. “They just sit around as places where I mix my paint, but now I’m starting to watch them. I manipulate them a little, but not very much at all; I just have to be alert and catch them.”
Swenson has been showing his art in China and the influx of successful businesses and young urban professionals that have appeared in the New China most often buy them.
He has had shows in San Francisco, Oregon, Taipei and this month at the 20th Street Art Gallery in Sacramento, where everything must go because the storage and freight charges back to China are pricey.
“That’s a problem,” laughed Swenson. “I live in China and my show is in Sacramento. What do I do with the paintings that don’t sell? They’ll be priced to sell.”