Connecticut conceptual multimedia artist Bob Gregson prefers to make his art with the help of total strangers.
“My entire life is my studio,” says Robert “Bob” Gregson, conceptual and graphic artist, modern architecture fanatic, sculptor, thinker, author, teacher, and prankster. He says this with a laugh. Indeed, Gregson laughs a lot when he tries to explain his art. If you spend any time at all with him, you realize that the world is Gregson’s canvas, and he intends to have fun painting it.
A public artist of near legendary status in Connecticut since his graduation from the University of Hartford in 1970, Gregson has enlisted thousands of strangers over the years to play along with his often audacious stunts. Best known for his years of work in Hartford through the Knox Foundation and, later, his own non-profit, Sidewalk, Inc., he seemed to be on a one-man mission to revitalize the Insurance City’s downtown.
Among his creations was “Thursday Is a Work of Art.” On that day each week in downtown Hartford, he and his co-conspirators unleashed all manner of gleeful mayhem, including skywriters, sword fighters, parachutists, bump dancers, street games, oversized furniture and clowns. “It was very controversial at times,” he says with another laugh. “I had to leave Hartford for a while.”
Gregson’s latest foray in the public sphere is “Out of Order,” at Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven. In it, Gregson invites visitors to create their own art space by remodeling his wall installations and sculptures, the latter mounted on the wheeled casters on the floor. All of the pieces are painted in geometric Mondrian-like patterns, in every conceivable permutation, from bold (yellow, red, black) to muted (grey, silver, brown). A prodigious amount of work went into installing the month-long show, which ends June 30. I counted 32 moving parts in the downstairs gallery alone. Think: Playscape for adults.
Outside of two years at the Art Institute of Chicago, earning his master’s degree, Gregson has lived in the Nutmeg State since his undergraduate years in Hartford. “I never felt a part of where I came from, New Jersey, and I was not good at suffering alone in Brooklyn like a hipster,” says Gregson, who was also creative director for Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism for 22 years. “I had a lot of friends here. Early on, people became a medium for me. I started off in art school doing traditional representational work and was even highly mocked for it by other students. At some point, I was taking one of my pieces down from the wall and noticed that some of the other students had started to play with them. It was more fun than just hanging stuff on the wall, more dynamic. I thought, ‘The art work is a prop for this experience.’”
That was the proverbial lightbulb-over-the-head moment for Gregson. “I began to ask, ‘What is it that I’m contributing with my art?’” The answer was a framework that gives people permission to play.
After looking back over the past half-century of his art career, Gregson concludes, “I have led a lot of lives.”
“Just A Phase” offers a closer look at Gregson’s many lives; the short film was created by his nephew, also named Robert Gregson.