October 5, 2020
Will McGrath spent an unforgettable year in Lesotho.
“The Duck Stamp entries are definitely what I’m most known for. If I was run over by a bus tomorrow, I’m positive that obituary would lead with that. I’ve actually never sold any of them — at least the federal entries — and that’s entirely my choice. I want to keep them together as a full set and would only sell them to a public institution or museum that agreed to keep adding any future entries.”
I think you might be referencing an article from a few years ago and believe the exact phrase that was used it “the bad boy of the least edgy thing ever.” It’s really not too tough to get that title. It’d be like if I went to a convalescent home filled with octogenarians and competed in a “Who Knows the Most Whitesnake Songs?” contest. That whole notoriety and whatever prominence that came with it happened by accident. I started entering the Duck Stamp contest 20 years ago since it involves animals as a subject and being from Minnesota meant it was right in my wheelhouse. Really, it was just perseverance and carving out a place in a competition that wasn’t on the radar to non-traditional artists. It wasn’t until 10 years in that I even found out that anyone outside my circle of friends paid attention. The first inkling was from a journalist named Martin Smith out of SoCal and then a random Google search trying to figure out how he found me without knowing my name, just reputation. Turns out “duck stamp glitter” is all that was needed. One other thing I discovered in the results were message boards that were not pleased with my annual entries. But, it was mostly just smug one-upmanship of snarky dismissal and overall jerkiness. That all changed in 2012 when I managed to somehow make it to round two and you could literally watch the shift in tone in the span of five minutes on a duck stamp Facebook group. They started out with the usual snide remarks until they found out I made it to the second round. In an instant, abstract ducks became an existential threat to everything they held dear and that I “almost won” despite getting the lowest score possible in round two and not advancing further. Since then, while nearly all the artists agree that the popularity of hunting and wildlife art is a shadow of what it was in the ’80s, their solution is to actually double down and make it even more of a niche interest by keeping everything hyper realistic and making what qualifies as valid entries even more stringent. That said, many of them do see now that I wasn’t submitting designs to mock them, though I did parody the artwork of the most vocal trolls, which didn’t win me fans in that group. I do think the contest needs to evolve if they want to expand their audience and keep it going. Amongst the other artists, some genuinely don’t like me and “will be walking on the beach with Jesus before they make peace with the likes of me.” Most of them understand my motivations but will never ever agree with the idea to opening up the rules to give abstract and stylized work equal consideration. A sliver of them are fine with at least the prospect of it, but the ones in that world who I hear the most positive feedback from are employees of the USFWS and various state DNRs. I don’t mind the notoriety, but it really doesn’t affect my normal daily life. It’s only when the documentary plays at a venue or Animal Planet occasionally airs it and I’ve only had one negative encounter with someone coming up to me. The other time it anyone pays attention is if I attend the duck stamp contest in person. In 2018, it was held in Las Vegas and since my mom lives there, I decided to go to that one. I was invited to the casual meet and greet for employees of conservation groups, USFWS, Nevada DNR, artists and volunteers. As I was walking up the steps to the reception area at the Springs Preserve, I could hear someone behind me loudly whisper to their friend, “Oh my god, he’s here! I’m so happy right now!” That’s when it’s pretty fun. I do know that whenever I get introduced to someone new, I know the duck stuff is always going to be part of it and that it’ll turn into a thing where I have explain what it is since most people aren’t terribly aware of the program or its impact for environmental conservation. I don’t exclusively make waterfowl art and if the introduction takes place an art opening where I happen to be showing a piece, the inevitable question is “did you do a duck?” That was the case of the last pre-pandemic event at SooVAC’s “Get Lucky” annual fundraiser and I got to answer, “Nah, not this time, it’s that clown licking buffalo sauce off his face over there.”
Oh, that’s sort of a tough one to answer. I like a lot of types of art, though it’s almost always contemporary and doesn’t really influence me. Early on, the two main ones would’ve been a combination of surrealist artists like Max Ernst (I have a feeling he’s one of Gilliam’s, as well), Dali, de Chirico, Man Ray… you get the picture. The other big one was cartoons from the 1930s especially Fleischer Studios and Warner Bros, which themselves had a lot of surreal jazz going on, just with more humor and pie-cut eyes. If you wanted the technical term For the genre it’s “Inkblot Cartoon Style.” I first stumbled on what would become my aesthetic style in 1992 using both those elements as a backbone along with incorporating different textures. Although it’s evolved and morphed over the past three decades, you can still see those early influences in there, just tighter and scads more logos. A better way to assess what I like and admire is to look at the artwork that I’ve collected. It’s pretty extensive and there’s a lot from when I worked at OX-OP in the Pop-Surrealism/Lowbrow vein with pieces from Elizabeth McGrath, Shepard Fairey, Dalek, Junko Mizuno, Oksana Badrak and Colin Christian. There’s plenty of other types I like beyond the kind you’d find in Juxtapoz, like an early Jay Heikes felt piece before he blew up and a was lucky enough to score an Elizabeth Olds original gouache from 1954. The only criteria is that I’m drawn to the piece, so that covers anything from folk art whirligigs to Bill Kopp “One Crazy Summer” animation cels. I currently have my eye on an abstract Shlomi Haziza lucite sculpture and would like to get a Lindsey Balkweill piece, though they’re starting to get harder to find without chip or cracks with a lot of “inspired by” copies and if they are authentic, you’re paying top dollar for them. I like and have made a concerted effort to collect art editions that go beyond the normal litho or silkscreen prints, though I do have several blacklight prints ranging from Op-Art Third Eye designs by Nadziejko to a modern one from MARS-1. There’s just so much that goes beyond serigraphs or Giclées, not that those things are bad and I certainly have plenty of those. But things like a mezuzah design by Gary Baseman, Marcel Dzama salt and pepper shakers, DC Ice felt pennants, Takashi Murakami giant flower pool floaties, Misaki Kawai’s “Big Cat Family” rug design for IKEA, Amanda Visell belt buckles, Ralph Bakshi animation cels, Big Daddy Roth shifter knobs, Shag swizzle sticks and a Mab Graves’ View Master reels of her Dinokitties. That just the tip of the iceberg and really, that’s the kind of thing that influences me the more now than any individual artists. Things that toes the line between art and product. I’d love to do some weirdo projects involving some dead medium like gravel-by-numbers kits or TV lamps. Of course, my current level of popularity has a high probability of it being a financial black hole and would rather not have an attic filled with unsold chalkware lemur wall plaques.
There never seems to be a good balance between “serious” art and silliness. For all the flak he gets, Banksy consistently does a really good job at it. My feeling is that if you want to a way to reach people, you can’t have something that’s always so aggressive and esoteric that you make people feel stupid for not understanding your intent and as a result, they won’t even try. By including things like Dale Gribble’s head for no apparent reason, it gives a jumping off point of familiarity to draw someone in for more than an uninterested glance (plus I think it’s entertaining to have random imagery or phrases I’ve overheard in there.) So it was 2004 when I offered to donate a piece to the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts called “Drool Bunny in Oktober.” I had painted it over a decade before when I was 18 and it was equal parts odd and terrible, so a good candidate for them. I remember a friend at the time thought it was a bad idea that could damage my career and were emphatic that I shouldn’t do it. Now every artist has made crappy work at some point and never thought twice about donating it. I still think it’s funny that it’s in their permanent collection and really, people should have the ability to laugh at themselves and acknowledge that sometimes you badly miss the mark, but that’s OK. At least now Drool Bunny is out doing some good in this world. There’s other times that you make a knowingly irreverent piece that gets out of your control and goes so far beyond what you originally intended. This happened in 2013, when CO Exhibitions organized an art piñata show called Cinco de Mayhem. The event was all about smashing them to smithereens and for mine, I made a life-size white baby seal that hung from its back and sadly drooped. The inside was filled with individually wrapped Twizzlers and glossy, spray glitter-covered yarn as guts and a five-pound gummy heart. The real surprise was the bubble wrap filled with red watercolor paint underneath the crepe paper “fur” that obviously leaked out when it was hit. They saved it for the last piñata of the night and it got the reaction I was hoping for when people noticed the “blood” starting to soak into the crepe paper. I also realized that I made it far too durable and all three people who were chosen to break it open, couldn’t do it. I heard that the last guy to try was a very vocal vegan and animal rights advocate and he stepped up, partly out of irony. As he kept hitting it, a sizable portion of the crowd got this mob bloodlust vibe, chanting “BEAT THE SEAL” and a friend next to be later said he heard people behind us say, “this is SO F@#%ed up man, we gotta get out of here.” Eventually, the guy with the stick took off the blindfold and when he still couldn’t break it open, dragged it down to the floor and kept hitting it over and over. By this point, the DJ had stopped the music and the whole room of dozens, if not over 100 people, had fallen completely silent, so all you heard was this guy hitting the seal and grunting with each swing until he was exhausted. He eventually gives up, out of breath and drops the stick as it makes that distinctive sound of wood bouncing off the concrete floor. It’s still silent and the DJ says something along the lines of, well…I guess that’s it. Um, thanks for coming out” as the stick guy comes back for the seal and tosses it to an edge of the circled audience where, without skipping a beat, a dozen people rush over to stomp and stab the seal open with the wooden stick. The whole thing turned into something far beyond anything I could’ve imagined and became pure performance art and unintended social commentary. I can’t take credit for that outcome, but the irreverence of making it a baby seal was the catalyst that made that all possible. I didn’t even make one for the next year, because I knew I’d never be able to top what happened.
Glad to hear you liked the series and I’ve got a definite soft spot for the original Edward Lear poem. The show was in late 2009, but took about two years to paint all 12 pieces since I work slowly. The first concept to tackle the poem went back to 1998 and remember having the lightbulb go off for the idea at the old central Minneapolis library downtown that was soon being replaced by the current César Pelli building. They were hosting a series of artist talks on weekday afternoons with people like Piotr Szyhalski and Chank Diesel. I don’t know what made the Owl and the Pussycat pop in my head at that time, but that was the birth of the idea. Perhaps it was because someone mentioned that the new library was commissioning local artists for work, but whatever it was, that idea kicked around for a decade until Emma Berg and Kris Knutson of MplsArt.com asked if I was interested in doing a show at Fox Tax and that’s the reason it happened at all. Without that impetus, that series would probably still only exist as an idea. Fun fact: I found out during the process of painting them, that my mom said that the poem was the first thing I read all on my own, which surprised me since I thought it was some Dr. Seuss thing. Never knew that and was a nice little extra bit of trivia. There’s constantly new ideas that mostly get filed away for later and some of those stay pretty much as they are from its inception. Sometimes, they get refined along the way or maybe two or more will get smooshed together. Not all that many get completely abandoned if they’re at all thought out, though pieces of those ones still might be recycled for later. A lot of what happens is ideas that I’m all into at first lose their endorphin-releasing zing and then sit unfinished for a long time when I get excited about something else. They do end up getting completed, but sometimes it’ll take years to finish it and those are an equal mix of feeling reenergized or a tedious slog to get through it. There’s some ideas that I do want to do, but deep down realize will probably never happen because of the reality of an overly ambitious idea versus the reality of accomplishing it without abandoning everything else I’d like to do.
My output this year has been atrocious, but that tends to be a normal pattern where some years are very productive and the others are pure garbage. I work for the Minneapolis Institute of Art as frontline staff and we we’re closed from mid-March to mid-July, so it wasn’t like I didn’t have the time. I still worked my part-time gig at Amphetamine Reptile Records, but still, that was the most free time I’ve had since I was 18 and blissfully squandered it. Like, I’ve never really had that much down time in my adult life and took advantage of it, though that mostly meant scooter rides, three-hour back-to-back blocks of “Magnum, P.I.” reruns and watching my triglyceride levels go up. It probably doesn’t sound like it, but I kind of thrived during the shutdown. I’m generally outgoing, but am perfectly comfortable with a lot of isolation where talking to the Caribou barista at the drive-thru window was all the human interaction I needed for the day. I can’t say the turbulence of 2020 has had much of an effect on my work since most of the subject matter is pretty neutral, like cats or toys from the ’80s. The logos are where any social commentary comes in and that’s really an overarching thing that applies to my work as a whole. I also take Wellbutrin and had to have the dosage taken down, because I wasn’t able to land on any ideas for art and it affected my creativity at that previous level. Where it is now is much better, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t still sometimes affect my drive to make artwork.
The Duck Stamp entries are definitely what I’m most known for. If I was run over by a bus tomorrow, I’m positive that obituary would lead with that and wouldn’t be at all surprised that was it in the way of mentioning the art career. I’ve actually never sold any of them (at least the federal entries) and that’s entirely my choice. I want to keep them together as a full set and would only sell them to a public institution or museum that agreed to keep adding any future entries and not deaccession them later. They’ve only been shown in public once when they were in Telluride, CO in conjunction with “The Million Dollar Duck” being included in the Mountainfilm Festival. That was in 2016, so it was everything up to date, so 15 paintings. At any rate, I got offered a lot of money for them and I didn’t think twice about turning it down. He asked if it was pointless to offer more and the answer was “pretty much, I want to make sure they’ll stay together” and they said “good for you” and didn’t mean it sarcastically. They totally understood why I didn’t want to do it and I appreciated that they got that.
I did enter three state competitions. Twice for South Carolina, in 2001 and 2003, and Michigan in 2017. That last one was specifically because a producer on the doc wanted an entry from each of the main artists featured and asked if a state one would be OK since I wasn’t parting with any of the Feds. I traded the 2001 South Carolina with Dick Brewer for one of his pieces and the 2003 has been for sale, though it’s far from the top of my duck designs.
What I have been doing is selling prints of the parody pieces that I did as a response to the most vocal of the artists who were trolling me. One guy was super pissed about the first one I did of his, but afterwards, he generally cooled it with the constant crabbing about me. The odd thing was that he let it go for several years and I hadn’t made another design based on his work and then he suddenly started things up again with making memes about me and tagging mutual friends in public Facebook posts, so I’d see them. I was like, “well, if you really wanna do this again …” And I made another one and this time, he went absolutely ballistic. Like totally bananas with consulting copyright lawyers, making several anti-me Facebook pages and buying as many RobMcBroom-dot-whatever website domains as he could. It all culminated in something so over the line that he got a lifetime ban from the WeCanvas online forum. Surprisingly, we actually buried the hatchet and somewhat get along now, though he’s one of the most vocal ones that will never get on the trolley of non-realistic art in the contest and though he knows it’s futile, still actively lobbies to get me disqualified each year. He even gave his blessing to parody a piece of his winning entry for California’s contest as long as I offer mine as a free download and include a link to his web store that has the original limited edition prints that I based mine from. There’s still other artists trolling me with some regularity, so I make parodies of theirs now. The latest is a pair of wood ducks on blotter paper.
Sure do plan on entering each year for the foreseeable future and the judging for this year’s contest is this week (September 27th and 28th, 2020.) This year marks my 20th anniversary design and will probably do as well as they normally do, which is a big series of all five OUT votes in round one, but there’s always a chance of advancing and should that that happen, it will be met with a lot of hand-wringing from some of the audience.
As of right now, a whole lot of nowhere until things get back to some sort of pre-pandemic normalcy. Most galleries here haven’t reopened and I also don’t have anything lined up. Most likely, the next thing will be the “Get Lucky” fundraiser at SooVAC in January, assuming things stay on their regular schedule and the piece may or may not be another gross clown painting. Other than that MNArtists.com through the end of the year when they drop their current format. Then there’s my artist FB page: facebook.com/RobMcBroomArt. And my BigCartel online shop: robmcbroom.bigcartel.com/ Also, it took six years, but I finally got control of RobMcBroom.com. After the guy gave up on unsuccessfully trying to torment me, he offered to sell me all the sites and honestly, I didn’t need that many variations, so I was just going to wait until he didn’t renew them and grab “.com” when it showed up again on GoDaddy. Not a horrible plan, except while all the other “dot-whatevers” went back to the normal $8 or so. Couldn’t tell you what algorithm said it was worth that, but it slowly dropped over the next three years until I got it for the much more reasonable $11.99 this past February. Haven’t done anything with it yet, but when it’s ready, prepare yourself for the frustrating retro vibe of a hard-to-navigate mid-90’s web design visually assaulting you with the most rotating letters, multiple, extremely pixelated animated GIFs and beveled gray tabs you had hoped to forget.
— Photo by Danielle Pebbles