Oliver's Observatory

The Blog & Observations of Oliver H. Evans

Robert Coombs and ArtPrize


One of the delights and achievements of ArtPrize is that it provides a diversity of venues for a diversity of artists. Fountain Street Church, for example, is a venue that reflects its values in what it chooses to exhibit. Growing out of the Baptist tradition, Fountain Street Church “strive[s] to be a vibrant church community that challenges individuals to craft their own spiritual journeys and to engage in creative and responsible action in the world.” That Robert Coombs is exhibiting at Fountain Street testifies to Fountain Street’s mission and to Robert’s stature as an artist. I have to start with the most obvious thing about Robert. A few years ago, he was an outstanding gymnast whose body responded to whatever he wished it to do, gliding—as the photo from those days shows—as though gravity did not exist. But that ended with an accident that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Robert has taken the occasion of his accident to embrace the fullness of who he is. As a creative artist, as a gay man, and as a man with a disability, he has articulated through photographs of himself and of other men the reality of that disability and a simultaneous assertion of himself and the other men as sexual individuals.

Not at all sentimental, Robert’s photographs cause some sadness in their uncompromising portrayal of the reality of these men’s bodies. Robert’s work compels us both to engage emotionally with them in embracing who they are and in celebrating their lives lived out as though gravity still does not exist.

Observing Robert’s work gives rise to many thoughts. The photo of him as a gymnast leads inevitably to thoughts of Icarus and to W. H. Auden’s poem, “Musee de Beaux Arts,” with its discussion of Breughel’s Icarus, and of how everything turns away from suffering. Robert's work does not allow us the luxury of "turning away."

For anyone struck by an overwhelming injury, many ways exist for the person himself or herself to “turn away, “ to deny, to strike out in anger, or simply to seek to ignore what has happened. Obviously something of tremendous importance has happened to Robert, and he sometimes makes me remember the Joy Hopewell, the central character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Good Country People.” Having lost her leg and confronting a life with an artificial leg, Joy Hopewell changes her name to Hulga and decides she “believes in nothing.”  I resist the temptation to summarize what goes on in this wonderful story; it is a one of those works that is an absolute delight, which may seem a strange way to describe Hulga's encounter with a man who tells her that he has been believing in nothing since he was ten years old.

Robert is not a man who has given up being joyful; nor does he avoid making us confront what may be uncomfortable. He clearly believes in something, starting with his ability to construct and communicate complex and moving visions through photography. He has connected that ability with his own valuing of himself. Prior to his injury, he expressed that valuing through photographs of himself that in their expression of the freedom of movement through the air and the triumph over gravity. The work he exhibits in ArtPrize reflect a different kind of triumph on his part and on the part of the courageous men he presents.

I know that if all goes as planned, Robert will graduate from Kendall College of Art and Design in May 2013. Assuming commencement happens where it has happened for many many years, that commencement will take place in Fountain Street Church. On the day he graduates, Robert will be appropriately at home in Fountain Street Church, just as his work is appropriately at home in a venue that “challenges individuals to craft their own spiritual journeys and to engage in creative and responsible action in the world.” That is a wonderful description of what Robert has achieved and of what he presents for all to see during ArtPrize.