Robert Piersanti needs no introduction. He is a Jersey City fixture, not only has he been a long time resident, but he paints the different characters that live here. You can also see his work at many different locations such as Two Boots, Grassroots and now The Dopeness. Bob Piersanti is a character himself; long hair, cool style… and he is such a sweet, friendly and genuine human being. He invited me to his home/studio to see his work and hear his story. It was such a fun day! He even played the drums for me. At the end of the interview, Bob took some photos of me and then a week later he showed up to my Birthday party at The Dopeness, holding a painting he did of me based off one of the pictures he took. I am so lucky!!
How did you start painting? Well I’ve been an obsessed artist since I was a child. My grandparents came from Italy. My father was the firstborn of 8 kids. He was a Teamster truck driver. We are an old fashioned family;my mom was a housewife and stayed at home and he brought in the money. He would deliver papers and bring these big rolls of yellow paper and I would turn them into big scrolls of art. We would always talk about the Sunday comics and the way they where drawn and he would tell me who he thought was good, like Chester Gould who did Dick Tracy. He used to say to look at the way he drew criminals so I’ve always had encouragement from them. I did that thing, when I was a kid. Then I took that famous artist school test to get into art school.
Oh I remember those informercials! Yeah like you draw the picture… I passed it with flying colors but got a rejection letter back because I was too young but I continued to be obsessed with it. My sketchpad drawings reflected every year what I was interested in. One year it was superheroes and the next was baseball… My work today is sort of the diary of the people I meet so its similar in that respect.
Yeah you like to paint people? Yeah I am drawn to local people….I had this mentor, his name was Joe Shetteri who was Norman Rockwell’s sidekick and helper at Boy Scouts of America. I was introduced to him when I was a young man and he was my mentor… I said I want to take my drawing skills and painting skills to another level. I also accepted the intertwining of commercial art and fine art and how you can do representative art and connect it to business and work. I worked in the garment industry when I got out of art school for a while doing drawing for silk screens for kids’ clothes in Chelsea. Then after I left that business I went into editorial illustration and put together a new portfolio, just starting to go to libraries and magazine shops finding out who all the art directors were and seeing where I could fit in at a magazine. My first big break was at Entertainment Weekly where I made caricatures and then work really started flowing… I would send postcards once a month to new clients and I ended up being a regular for New York Press, doing stuff for Daily News, Sports Illustrated, New York Magazine-my holy grail was The New Yorker!. I became a well published illustrator and about 10 years ago decided to leave that behind and just paint for myself. I paint in sort of a pop art style, with bold colors and its got black line which goes back to my relationship with commercial art and pop art.
Can you tell me about the people you paint? When I started painting people, I would use old men’s magazines that I had in my collections because I am a big collector of comics and magazines and stuff from the 50’s and 60’s, so I love all that vintage stuff…I would use the old mens’ magazines when I started this style of painting this pop art style…Then I started meeting so many interesting people in the neighborhoods of Hoboken, Jersey City, Manhattan and Brooklyn and I could really take it to a so much more original level and pure level by painting the people in the neighborhood instead of working from someone else’s photograph.
I started out and took pictures of people and then I hooked up with the mermaid parade in Coney Island which is a yearly event where people come up all dressed up like mermaids and King Neptunes so it was the perfect situation where I could take these candid photos of people already in costume providing instant reference for me. After that I would find local people that would get me some connections through the neighborhood, like barmaids, people at tattoo conventions…I would go to ComicCon and would meet people that would serve as good subjects.
How long does it take you to complete a painting? I can do a midsize painting, like a 20×24 sometimes in a week. Some things take a week maybe longer… If you consider things like if I am doing a photo sessions with one of my models, it’s hard to really say… I probably do 50 paintings a year. I also have this old habit, to keep my drawing skills alive. I love traditional art too, I love the old italian drawing… so I go to live drawing sessions at Jersey City Art School once a week and draw live models to keep my skills up.
What’s your creative process? Well as soon as I am done with family duties, in the morning I go play basketball for 60-90 minutes every morning to get outside, get exercise and sunlight and then I don’t feel guilty locking myself up for 10 hours and working on stuff. I used to work out of another building in Hoboken… now that my studio is in my home ,I can work around the clock. It’s a pleasant environment especially to have photoshoots with my models…
Can you give me a tour? Sure.
I have a soundproof room built into the loft because this place was originally constructed in the late 1980’s for record producer Arthur Baker who had alot of hits in the 80’s and produced stuff for Blondie and Queen Latifah… This place has alot of great history in it. I have a set of drums in my loft for the first time in years because during my art school days in Newark I had a cover band and we would play all over New Jersey. Its great to be able to play drums in the city and not bother anybody.
Tell me about her? She was a local Jersey City person who I met at the local drawing class and I kept in touch with her… Sometimes the figure will inspire the composition of a painting but sometimes a song will inspire the detail…. I call this one Dragon Fly because while I was sketching the Fleetwood Mac song of the same name was playing. Sometimes I will take an element like that. Sometimes I will get things like this and restore it, I added a light to this one…
Why is that called cramps? Cramps is a rock band that I loved from the 70’s that where sort of a rockabilly band….
What about her? She is a Jersey City gal that came down with her girlfriend… I always tell the models when you come down you have the freedom to do what you want, bring the outfits you want. They wanted to do a thing with local tee’s so one of the girl had a WYLDLIFE shirt, and this girl had a Jersey City Tattoo one…. so this painting has a sort of significance because it was at my last 58 Gallery show and someone stabbed it in the eyes so I had to repair the eyes.
That’s mean! Maybe it was an old boyfriend of hers, or someone who was jealous…
What’s with the swing? hen I bought this place, the swing was a gift manufactured by my friend who lives in Harlem and Upstate New York and cut the swing from his own wood on his property and came here and mounted it himself.
How does your wife feel about all these models that come over? Well she is a very successful editorial art director in Manhattan. She worked for many magazines so during her younger years her dad used to say to me “Are you jealous that your wife travels for all these business meetings” and I would say ” I am so secure in my position, and my place in life…” We trust each other… so now my day has come. My wife is a big critic of my artwork. She really feels like I’ve found my voice in my work and she is my biggest fan.
Who’s she? She is a girl from Queens who I met through John Fathom and came to model for me when I first came to Jersey City She is a great young, Hispanic girl from queens.
I love your kitchen! This apartment was done in 1989 for Arthur Baker and they used a famous architect that designed the space and combined the old 1890’s beams which they left exposed and combined all these modern elements….
This is where I have my record collections, and also a place where guests can stay.
Wow I love the round bed! In the old black and white Beatles move “A Hard Days Night” they all have apartments that are interconnected and John Lennon got sort of a sunken bed in his section of the room so I wanted to do that. It also has so much shelving that I am able to keep my record collection active and use it for all my books also…I spend so much time working I like to listen to all different types of music.
This is my daughters room…. You know how the film students to graduate they have to produce a small film… so used to constantly go on auditions and get lead roles in these student films between the ages of 12-14 and when she was 14 she was asked by an up and coming director from Brooklyn to be in a film of his and it ended up making it to Sundance. She became this little film star, touring around the globe doing Q&A’s and film openings.
How does she feel about your artwork? She loves it. When she was a baby, I worked mostly at home so I was able to take care of her with the help of a babysitter. My way of entertaining her was her telling me things to draw and I would draw them and then she started imitating me. She is actually a really good artist.
I can tell she is stylish. She is very unique.
What’s her film called? “It Felt Like Love”, It’s on Netflix now. You would love this film because it’s a coming of age film… a young girl in Brooklyn, she has a girlfriend who is a year older and has like a heavy sexual affair with her boyfriend and my daughter plays the part of a more innocent person who is watching her and ends up getting herself into a bad situation….growing up too quick. There is also a Hip Hop theme around it…since her friend is a hip hop dancer.
She has the nicest room! Gina is such a good girl… Years ago one of her girlfriends was boy crazy and I heard her say to Gina one time…”Your so cute, why don’t you have a boyfriend already?” and Gina said “My father doesn’t approve of that at this age”.
I love that! I love it too, haha.
How does she feel about all these chicks in your paintings? She’s 16 now and I’ve been doing it now for 10-11 years so I think she knows it’s done with love and respect. She used to also model when she was younger…
Here let me show you my studio…. I am doing some collaborations now with Cortez from Newark, and Joe Cursado, we are doing this thing where I start a painting and I hand it over to the next artist.
Are these subjects of your next paintings? Yeah, I snap photos and put them up here and go back to them to see if I still like them.
Remember that painting downstairs I showed you with the eye? When I lived at the Zephyr lofts she lived on the second floor so I told my wife that I invited her to be one of my models and my wife said “Oh she is so conservative, she isn’t going to dress like you like” and the girl ended up bringing the baddest outfits…. she had a hoodie on and then when she unzipped it she had a garter belt on and everything…
That’s funny! you know like those B movies where the lady comes and opens up her coat…
How do you choose the models? I don’t know, I don’t really go for playboy’ish girls, I like girls who have a certain quality and fun to them. Great style and a great attitude…that is sort of an ice breaker for me.
It’s a great studio… I don’t paint in the traditional way since I’ve been doing the pop art stuff so that is why I do a photo session with the models… I work off of photographs. This is my friend Elle from Brooklyn, she comes down with a few outfit changes… Look at her joy. I love that.. She is a free spirit. I must have 100 pictures of her.
How long have you been in Jersey City? I’ve been here in the Wells Fargo building for 7 years, 3 years in a different spot in downtown Jersey City. I love Jersey City for its diversity and that is reflected in my subject matter of my paintings. I was really welcomed here with open arms and I was very interested in getting in the 58 Gallery because that was the hip gallery at the time… that was run by Orlando Reyes. We missed hooking up for about a year but eventually we got together and met, and I worked on a solo show with him. Now what I do, since we have a lack of galleries in Jersey City is I love to do alternative spaces like G.P’s in Hamilton Park or L.I.T.M, or The Dopeness now for example. Where people can see my work, and its a way I can provide them with an opportunity where they can walk in and see my work there anytime. These locations are perfect for that… Some galleries are open maybe one or two days a week and these different places are open 7 days a week.
Do you sell your paintings that way? Yeah I sell them that way…sometimes people will come to a show and they will contact me a year later and commission me for something or visit my studio because I have a massive amount of work. I paint and draw six days a week.
So whats your favorite Jersey City hangout spot? I love to eat at Marco and Pepe, they treat me so nice there and the food is consistent. I love The Dopeness now. Sometimes I will go to White Star for a veggie burger…sometimes I will go to Hamilton Inn. The owner of Hamilton Inn just commissioned me for two paintings… and I love G.P’s…. There are so many options Downtown now. My daughter is vegan so we go to Subias for lunch sometimes.
Can you tell me about your toy collection? yeah this is all my stuff that I’ve collected over the years from flea markets… Which is another influence on my work and some of the subject matter of my work….I love all the space themes, the monsters, surfing, rock and roll…. I love records and magazines. I was so influenced by printed material and Saturday morning cartoons that my work reflects that.
I love New Jersey because its like the underdog of New York City, being close to Manhattan…
And you feel like you are part of a community. Yeah absolutely. It’s a great community and its reflected in my work for sure.