Nostalgic Collectibles Inspire Art Career

Images | Robert Cantor Robert Cantor’s “Tacky Treasures” exhibit at the Urbana Regional Library—including “Fast Rooster” (top, L), “Gourd Heads” (top, R), “Pigs Night Out” (bottom, R) and “Santa and Monkey” (bottom, L)—is on view through February.

Images | Robert Cantor
Robert Cantor’s “Tacky Treasures” exhibit at the Urbana Regional Library—including “Fast Rooster” (top, L), “Gourd Heads” (top, R), “Pigs Night Out” (bottom, R) and “Santa and Monkey” (bottom, L)—is on view through February.

Sometimes one passion spawns another. Artist Robert Cantor has parlayed his playful trove of close to 900 figurative pencil sharpeners into a collection of nostalgic and personal oil paintings. On view through February at the Delaplaine Satellite Gallery at the Urbana Regional Library, “Tacky Treasures” takes us through a look at the ephemera—pencil sharpeners, salt and pepper shakers, metal banks and miscellaneous figures—that are collectibles crafted from a kind of gypsum or plaster and produced primarily in China in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some come in sets like the 300 he has of the Lark or Giraffe brands. The subjects run the gamut from cartoon characters, functional items, animals and folks with comical expressions. “I have a fond spot for collecting odd, kitschy things,” he said.

Cantor’s hobby evolved over 35 years. He started buying souvenir pencil sharpeners on business trips as they seemed a useful and fun collectible. His first one was of the Golden Gate Bridge.

His interest in painting the figures was awakened after seeing an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art on the Index of American Design, a Depression-era program to archive folk art, furniture, quilts and tools. Commercial artists submitted illustrations of the items—“They were watercolor drawings, realistic and technically done but with an artistic sensibility, on white background.” As he saw more and then was inspired by color perspectives at an impressionist show at the Phillips Collection, he set to painting. The figures were originally sourced from souvenir gift shops, toy stores, antique shops and later eBay. He sought small expressive examples—”I like painting something that looks back at you!”

A computer programmer for 25 years, his interest in commercial art developed into fine art 15 years ago as he segued into retirement and began to paint more. “The paintings in this show are done in a highly polished, photorealistic style,” Cantor said.

“I’m now experimenting with a less detailed style, not as exacting and employing more spontaneity. I paint the same subjects and also flowers, just not as rigid.”

The artist begins with a detailed monochromatic underpainting followed by many glazes of transparent color. Waiting for each step to dry means each painting takes up to several months to complete. Working in oil and primarily on panel, he reserves linen for his interpretations of well-known works at the National Gallery of Art: “Daisy in the Doggies’ Den” is based on Rubens’ “Daniel in the Lions’ Den,” “The Feast of the Dogs” is based on Bellini and Titian’s “The Feast of the Gods” and “Fast Rooster” is based on Winslow Homer’s “Breezing Up (A Fair Wind).”

Cantor has participated in three solo shows at the Delaplaine. One featured black-and-white family snapshots from the ‘50s and ‘60s as background with his figures substituted for his brothers.

His current exhibit’s title, “Tacky Treasures,” was suggested by his wife. They both enjoy collecting and have an annual Tacky Party where friends bring their kitschy items for judging and prizes. Cantor is drawn to the shiny surface, hand-painted details and nostalgic quality of the collectibles. “I’m attracted to the nostalgia. They have some things to say about our consumer culture,” he said.

You can view some of Cantor’s collection here:


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