Interview with Artist RB McGrath
by Mark Orr
RB McGrath is a painter who was born in a small fishing village named Branch, in Easter
Cove, St. Mary's Bay, Newfoundland, and has called Arkansas her home since 1964. I
found RB's art when I joined the Ovation TV Community web site. I was immediately
impressed with the beauty, quality and detail of her work. Her paintings are so life-like, they
could be photographs....but even photographs rarely capture the mood and feeling that
her paintings seem to effortlessly bring to life.
After you (loyal reader) finish reading this interview..please visit her web site(s) and take a
look at her outstanding art. I know you will be as amazed and enamored of her work as I.
Hi RB..thank you for allowing me to ask you some questions about yourself and your
amazing art. As you know I'm a huge fan of your work.
1. Let's start with your childhood....were your parents artists or artistic and were you
surrounded by art or encouraged to be creative? At what age did you come to realize you
had a love and gift for art?
This first answer is not going to be pretty. My father was a military man and a violent
drunk. My mother, a Newfoundlander who cleaned houses and worked as a nanny from the
time she was sixteen and who also developed a penchant for booze. I was born in
Newfoundland, which is known for it's rich artistic and cultural heritage and my lineage
extends to several successful Artists as far back as the 1700's. Our particular household
however was totally dysfunctional, often violent, and inevitability divorced. I was the first
born and I was born out of wedlock, subsequently I was the outcast. In 1949 in a Roman
Catholic village in Newfoundland, having a child out of wedlock was a big no-no. Being born
illegitimately I was taken to an island off the East coast of Newfoundland named Isle St.
Pierre where I was hidden, so to speak, with a family for the first year of my life, after which,
and following my parents eventual marriage, I was brought back to Newfoundland and
registered as having been born.
I was never encouraged in anything that I ever endeavored to do, and to be quite frank, I
was literally told I would never amount to anything. I suppose that is why I have always been
driven to prove myself, not so much to anyone else, but to myself. I showed an artistic
ability at a very young age, and I remember vividly an art school rep coming to our house
to talk to my parents about entering me in the school because they thought that I had
exceptional ability. My Father refused to enter me in the school saying only that I "would
never stick with it" and it would be a waste of money.
One Christmas day I was hoping to get a paint by number set that I had dreamed about all
year. When we all opened our presents, to my horror and disappointment, my parents gave
my brother a paint set and not me. I can't remember what I got, I can only see that paint set
in my brothers hands. Fortunately he tossed it aside down the line. Naturally, I grabbed it
for myself. Those are the only memories I have of my childhood artistic dreams.
2. Did you study art growing up and was it a passion?
I have never had the opportunity to go to an arts school. I have learned to paint
through my own research, endless reading, constant study of the masters, and a killer
library of some of the worlds greatest Artists on DVD and video. I learn something new
everyday. And watching the greatest Artists always inspires me. I guess that makes me
"self taught", so to speak. I've always been passionate about Art. Everything from Art
History to the actual production of fine art. I haunt museums. I eat it, sleep it and swim in it.
3. Do you think great painters are born with the gift...or is it something that can be learned?
I think that everyone has an ability when it comes to painting, or artistic creativity in
one form or another, but I feel strongly that the greatest painters are those who where and
are more inspired in their craft to the point that it takes over their lives. I think that's pretty
much the same with any chosen occupation or skill. Everyone can mop a floor, but some
people are more inspired than others when it comes to that so they do it better than
anyone else and in many cases make it their life's work. Great Chefs started out as good
cooks, great plumbers began as apprentices and so on. Many people love to draw and
paint for fun, and others are so inspired by drawing and painting that they immerse
themselves in it and are inspired to do more with it.
I think the basic rudiments of drawing and painting can be learned by anyone, and there
are a lot of degrees out there that belong to people who have studied fine art in college
and earned a degree, but if the individual is not "inspired" then their ability will wane.
Having the knowledge is one thing, putting it into practice is another. Hence, great painters
are born with a gift and they recognize it and run with it.
4. One of the amazing things about your work is that you can paint in any style. Your
portraits are wonderful as are your landscape, still-life and abstract. (My favorite is the
beautiful landscape "Paradise Park" shown above)
Do you have a favorite style of painting; portrait, abstract, landscape, still-life......and is
each style equally difficult to master? Is one more fun or come more easily to you?
This is always one of my favorite questions. One of the most common statements
about my work is that it is so diversified in style and technique. The reason I paint in
different styles is that I always allow the subject to dictate to me how it wants to be painted. I
might see a piece of fruit in the grocery store that beckons to be painted impressionistically
because it's colors are so vivid, or I might see a person who's back story is so interesting
yet convoluted that I am inspired to paint them in the abstract, or, I might be so
overwhelmed by another individuals dignity, intelligence, or high achievement that I can't
help but to bring every element of their portrait to extreme realism.
I don't think it's a question of mastering any one style, I think more so that it important to
learn by practicing different styles and applying them to the right subject in the right
moment. No styles or techniques come easy. Every work is a brain burner and exhausting.
Personally I feel that I've lost some of my life after each painting I finish. For me, it's all
about the subject and the mood of the subject. When I paint impressionistically I dream,
when I paint abstract, I feel reality, when I paint realism, I am searching for God.
5. I have a deep love for my area of the country, Indiana, and almost all of my photography
depicts this part of America that I am so rooted in and enamored of. I noticed that many of
your paintings are representative of Arkansas. The portraits of President Clinton (we'll
discuss in more detail later) and of Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Dr. Alan
Storeygard (The Alan Storeygard Trio CD cover). Is Paradise Park a real setting in
Arkansas as well and are you drawn to paint regional people, places and things by
proximity or desire?
Yes, Paradise Park is a real place. It's about ten minutes down the road from my
studio. I am drawn to paint what is around me simply because I am not in any other setting
right now and it's good practice when I don't have a subject that magnetizes me. Although I
do find a few interesting things to paint in my surroundings I am more drawn to people of
great accomplishment, of high achievement. People who's contributions to humanity in any
form go far and beyond that of average life. Were I in England I would be inspired to paint
the Queen. In France, I would paint the beautiful French countryside and probably Notre
Dam. In Ireland I would head for the villages and glens. In Arkansas, I zero in on anything or
anyone that takes my mind.....well......elsewhere.
6. Let's talk about the CD cover you painted/designed for The Alan Storeygard Trio's
"Third Time's a Charm" CD....I'm listening to the track "Summertime" right now...great stuff!
I read that you have some very exciting news regarding this cover. What is the scoop....and
how did you get involved in this collaboration?
Yes indeed, and here's a really exciting tidbit that occurred last night in ,Saturday, the
18th: Ramsey Lewis appeared in Little Rock and after his show met with Storeygard.
Storeygard covered two of Lewis's original tunes on his new CD. He gave Ramsey Lewis a
copy of the CD with my cover design. As for the CD itself "Third Time's A Charm", Alan
informed me several weeks ago that the music from the CD and the Cover Art are both in
the running for a Grammy. If the Cover Art makes it into the top five nominations then I will
have scored a coup. Being in the running is great, but making it to the top five nominations
would be awesome.
I came to know Alan Storeygard and his Trio through IBLA, the international music
competition out of Ibla, Ragusa, Sicily (Italy) about ten years ago. The IBLA performers
come from Europe and do a show at Carnegie Hall every year, and before they leave the
country and head back to Europe they come to little 'ole Jacksonville, Arkansas and do the
show for us at the largest church auditorium in town. Alan Storeygard is a past winner of
the IBLA competition for Jazz Piano Composition. He lives near here and is responsible for
bringing the IBLA show to us. The first year I saw the show I was so inspired by Salvatore
Moltisanti, the President of IBLA that I painted him. That painting, which is a four by four
foot work, is now hanging in the IBLA Headquarters in New York City.
I followed up the Moltisanti painting with a portrait of Alan Storeygard and subsequently
Storeygard approached me with the idea of using his portrait as the cover art for his
newest CD. I was thrilled. I used the portrait as the basis and then designed the front cover
title and credits and when Lawrence Hamilton, Broadway star and guest vocalist for the CD,
was in town, I went to Little Rock and did photographic portraits of him, Storeygard, and the
entire trio for the CD booklet. It is my first venture into cover design and portrait
photography. It was a great experience. If the CD wins a Grammy for cover art, it's going
right under my name on my resume and business card. I mean...who wouldn't?
7. Is it true that you have painted a self-portrait each year for the last 14 years? Are these
paintings available for viewing online...and if so...where? That's such a cool idea....what
was the impetus, and do you find your paintings have become better over the years or your
style has changed?
Well, I don't know how this will sound but......I like me very much. As a matter of fact I
like me better more than anyone else in the world likes me. I love ME so much that even I
get sick of hearing about me sometimes. Be that as it is, every year I like to paint a self
portrait in an attempt to examine my ageing process and my state of mind in that particular
time of my life. When I paint me I can be brutally honest, I do not have to align myself to a
particular style or theme and I can experiment. I also gain new style knowledge in that I can
go outside the boundaries of what I've learned and stretch.
In 2002 I did an ink drawing titled "Rage" which reflected my state of mind that year. In
2005, after decades of working, I finally acquired my first real home, my Shangrila so to
speak. I was happy, happy, happy. Then Mother came to live with me for a month. It was a
miserable month. My depression reflects in my self portrait for that year. In 2006 I was
emotionally wired and consistently confused by life, so much so that I began to wonder if I
was a total nut-case and everyone else is normal, or just the opposite. I painted a head
and shoulders portrait that was abstract and very Picasso-esque and it reflects my total
state of being at that time. Then in 2007 I painted the life size self portrait that won the
Harold Shultz FAA International Portrait Competition. That painting reflects who I really am
and what I am about. It is the image that represents me on my resume and in all my
Yes, my paintings in every genre have become better over time as a result of self
exploration through painting. And through that process I have, I believe, finally found my
own voice insomuch as style. I would describe it as realism infused with impressionism and
peppered with light. I used to post all my self portraits online at my web site, but now I show
only one. The happy one. The real me. The one that says "I am an Artist."
8. The Clinton portrait. Wow....I was immediately impressed with this painting. Not just
because of the exact likeness, wonderful muted tones and amazing light, but also because
this painting really allows the viewer to see what a complex man Clinton was/is. Perhaps it's
because he was a President of my generation and probably had more exposed about his
personal and private life than any President before or since....but when I see this painting, I
see a lifetime and not just one moment in time...the rigors of being a world leader, the
personal struggles and even the fear he must have felt with his health issues. Yet he hasn't
lost any dignity and he looks completely confident, proud and ....Presidential. To use one
of your favorite words...this is "Fabulous"!
*There's a question in here somewhere....ha. Maybe you can find it...if not just consider this
a glowing review...ha.
Oh yeah....what kind of response have you gotten from this painting and what do you hope
happens with this outstanding rendering of our 42nd Commander in Chief.
Thank you. The Clinton painting is one of my favorites to date and is a heartfelt
attempt to capture on canvas a man who I believe, from a historical standpoint, is one of
our greatest Presidents. If I were to list them in order I would say there were four great
one's, George Washington, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and William Jefferson
I live just twelve minutes from the Clinton Foundation Library in Little Rock. I was here when
Bill was Governor and throughout his Presidency. I've met Mr. Clinton before he was
President. My reasons for painting him are several: first, he is a man of high achievement
who has contributed greatly to humanity. Second he is a perfect subject for portraiture;
he's mesmerizing as a presence, his back story is the stuff of legends, he's recognizable
worldwide no matter if he's seen in profile or any other angle.
I wanted to paint something that would compliment the complex, almost surreal life that he
has led. You can find thousands of paintings and drawings of him anywhere on the net that
are little more than amateur knock-offs of magazine photo's, but I felt that I could paint him
better and I wanted to go a completely different direction. I wanted to produce a painting
that would not just compliment him, but would be more for the viewers in that it would draw
them in, cause them to analyze and make them question and present them with someone
whom most admire. I wanted to do something very dignified and something Presidential.
Hence, my painting depicts the President in his final days in office as he looks out a window
from a room somewhere in Washington. The glow from the window represents the light of
humanity and the presence of God washing over a man who's epic presence in the world
has risen him to the status of Legend.
I sent out a press release after completing my portrait of President Clinton, as I do with all
my works, and within ten minutes I received a call from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,
Arkansas' statewide daily newspaper, asking if they could send a reporter and
photographer to the studio for an interview. Things just started snowballing from there.
Loads of visitors from cities around Arkansas coming to the studio to see the work. It's fun
to watch people when they first stand in front of the work. It's life size and people's jaws
literally drop. They are speechless at first. But the one common statement that each and
every viewer makes is "I wonder what he's thinking?".......Mission accomplished.
Over the past few weeks I've spoken with Skip Rutherford, Dean of the Clinton School, and
Vincent Insalaco, Motion Picture Producer, both are close friends of Bill, and although I've
already had an offer from a private collector for this piece, I've indicated to Rutherford and
Insalaco that I would be willing to donate the painting to the Clinton Library. Alan
Storeygard, who plays piano for Clinton's formal dinners when he is in Little Rock, is trying
to arrange a private viewing for the former President. The red tape and logistics are mind
boggling. We are working on it.
In the meantime, I've picked up new commissions as a result. And even more exciting is that
Sherman Banks, President of Banks International Consulting has agreed to represent my
portfolio in Europe in the coming year. While that's all happening, I'm back in the studio
hard at work on a huge commission portrait. This year has been good. I may have to paint
myself as happy. Again.
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9. I read that you were an extra in the movie "The Stuntman" starring Peter O'Toole, and
that you made appearances on "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show" and "The Joan Rivers Show".
What was that like and do you have aspirations of being an actress?
Ah, "Memories, in the corner of my mind". In my younger days at the tender age of
eighteen I ran off to California to make my fame and fortune and conquer the world as an
entertainer. I did it all, danced, acted, sang my way into nightclub reviews, bit parts in
movies and documentaries, television, I tried it all. I even did two stints on the Gong Show
as one of the paid, fake contestants - hey! Union scale was four hundred and sixty five
bucks a show, so don't laugh. Yes, I was an extra in the movie The Stuntman with Peter
O'Toole and Barbara Hershey and Steve Railshack and a bunch of other big names. I
even got to sit on the grass and have lunch with all of them during a break in filming at La
Jolla Beach. A good thing too because when filming resumed they killed me off in a scene
where a mono-plane strafes the beach with bombs and bullets and blows us all up.
Anyway, I'd done enough in my younger year attempts at a performing career to garner
the attention of River's and Raphael and a few radio talk show hosts. So I did the shows,
got to take the all expense paid trips to New York, and to Connecticut and stay in lavish
hotels and ride in limousines and the whole nine yards. But the bottom line is, I gave
myself ten years to be where I wanted to be with my career in entertainment. If, at the end
of that ten years, I wasn't where I thought I should be then I would pull back and pursue
other ventures. And that's exactly how it went down. After ten years I knew I would never
be a big star,
I didn't like the viciousness and inside politics, and scandal and drugs, and all the
horrendous elements of show business, so I walked away from it all without looking back. I
remember vividly the night I decided to chuck it all. I was scheduled to appear in a show at
the Riviera in Las Vegas. I met with the producers earlier in the evening. I sat through a
run through of the show that I was to join. Afterwards, I went upstairs to my hotel room,
packed my bags, picked up my little terrier Woofgang Amadeus Mozart, said "fuck it all!" ,
got in the car and hit the highway for Little Rock, where I rented an apartment and got a
job as a fry cook in a grease pit on Capitol Avenue.
After a great deal of soul searching I finally found myself and knew what I wanted to do. I
knew I was an Artist. I wanted to paint.
I had a great deal of fun back then, and good or bad I don't regret any of my past, it is all
part of what makes me...me. But, I have no aspirations to be anything other than a painter.
The Artist as Queen Elizabeth I
10. I can't let you get away without talking about your musical talent. I saw a video clip of
you playing the violin and it was awesome. How long have you been playing the violin and
will you be posting more videos showcasing your musical talent?
Well, I'm an amateur but I've always been drawn too and inspired by classical music.
Throughout my youth, in school, I played French Horn, Clarinet, and Flute in the school
orchestra's and bands. But my heart was always with Violin. I use classical music
religiously as part of my studio method when I'm painting.
Be that as it is, I always wanted to learn to play violin, so back in 2005, I had a good year
financially, so I bought myself a violin and taught myself how to play by watching videos on
youtube. I found a friend of mine here in town who also liked to play so we started getting
together to play for fun. Eventually, wanting to know if I was playing the instrument and
doing it right, I hired a professional violinist named Ryan Lee for a few lessons just to
make sure I was doing everything properly. Turns out I was. He was amazed that I was self
At any rate, Ryan, who is with the Little Rock Community Orchestra and whom I painted in
2006, decided we should get together and "jam" on the weekends. That was five years
ago and we still get together on Sundays, sometimes with other violinists or violists and
cellists and play for the entire day. Loads of fun. I plan on video taping our group for a few
youtube musical clips in the future. But I have no aspirations to be a professional
musician. I'm a painter.
11. Last question.......what lies ahead for RB McGrath? Any special projects or dream-
projects you want to do soon?
Well, right now I'm hard at work on that big commission piece I mentioned previously,
and of course we are working on the presentation of the Clinton painting, and then there's
the Grammy thing which I can't do much about except wait and see, but I just got word of
the possibility of another large commission portrait for a Doctor in Little Rock, and then I
would like to do an update of my previous book ICON The Art of RB McGrath, which did
pretty well in it's first run. I do have a dream project but I won't state it publicly because I
don't want to risk having someone do it ahead of me. But I will say this, it involves every
organized religion in the world and....it's never been done.
I anticipate that 2011 and beyond is going to be good for me. I'm finally getting beyond
emerging Artist status and I'm making a name for myself and getting some attention. I now
know that a few of my works are going to be hanging in collections for decades after I'm
gone. There is something almost surreal about that. It's feels like no matter what I do from
this point on I have already left my mark on the world, which is something that I believe a
great many people want to accomplish, you know, having meant something or having
done something that means your were here.
But ultimately my short term goal is an old, fixer upper home in the country, financial
solvency and peace and quite where I can paint and not have to stand behind a salon
chair every day cutting hair to pay the bills. If I can get to that point I believe my work will
improve and grow. Following that I'll take everything as it comes.
Longliner in Quidi Vidi Harbour. Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland. 48" x 66". Oil
on canvas. RB McGrath 2006. Collection of Robert and Tommi Fell.
SHIFT #5. Elin Kolev. Violinist, Musician, Motion Picture Actor.
A child prodigy, Elin made his solo debut at the age of 8 with a
German philharmonic orchestra. At 17 he now tours the world and
made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2010. He recently starred in the
movie "Wunderkinder" and "Orchestra of Exiles", in which he played
his own music.
35 x 48 inches. Oil on canvas. RB McGrath 2012©
|In 2012 McGrath begun her "Shift" series of portraits. The first 6 portraits in her "SHIFT -
A Paradigm of Masters of the Arts" collection are now posted on her official web site:
The following is #5 in this series.
Thank you so much RB!
You can see more of RB McGrath's wonderful art at the Ovation TV Community website and at:
Mark Sean Orr September 20, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013©
All Rights Reserved