An artist’s journey: Robert Stackhouse returns to his alma mater

Standing in the middle of the gallery, surrounded by images of serpents, shipwrecks and winding wood tunnels, Robert Stackhouse is a pioneer.

Since he and his fellow classmates became the first students to set foot on USF soil nearly 50 years ago in 1960 – the first year the University admitted students – he has acted as a charter graduate, a teacher, a painter, a sculptor, an internationally renowned artist and an honorary Doctor of Letters. His art has explored exploration itself with monumental sculptures and prints inspired by Viking longboats and ocean voyages.

Now, for the first time, the USF Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) is exhibiting samples from Stackhouse’s Editions Archive, a complete collection of the artist’s print multiples that show the history and development of his art.

Of the 60 works officially presented to the CAM in 1993, only 36 are on display, along with a separate piece on loan from the artist specifically for this show.

A large majority of the archive is prints detailing the various structures that Stackhouse has built over the years: towering A-frames like upturned ship hulls curving invitingly into the distance and wooden frames seemingly flattened into boat-like shapes.

The images – with their nautical references and vivid, emotional lighting – call to mind the journeys of ancient peoples and rites of passage, transitioning from one state to another. These works, which feature studies of Stackhouse’s enormous constructions in wood, represent the journey he has made from his beginnings here at USF, and the experience which helped to shape the direction of his work for years to come.

One of Stackhouse’s key influences was his mentor and onetime dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Harrison Covington, whose encouragement, Stackhouse said, was instrumental in his remaining with the art program.

“When he asked us what we wanted to do, we said we wanted to go to New York and be successful artists,” Stackhouse recalls. “He said, ‘You can do that,’ when most of the time people said, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t become an artist.'”

Stackhouse also recalled the atmosphere at USF during those first years. With the art program still sorting itself out, the professors and administrators were forced to play it by ear, which created an environment that had a profound effect on Stackhouse’s work ethic.

“Everything was all about ‘let’s get this thing to work,’ and that stayed with me the rest of my life. I think that’s a good reason for my success as an artist.”

This “make it work” philosophy formed the core of Stackhouse’s artistic ethos later.

“After I got out of graduate school, I was teaching at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. I was primarily a painter, but I didn’t feel like my paintings were mine, they were influenced by so many other people.”

Stackhouse’s solution? Move on to something completely different.

“The reason I became a sculptor is that I didn’t know much about it,” he said. “I knew how to make art; I didn’t know anything about making sculpture.”

One of the earliest examples of Stackhouse’s sculpture was his 1973 work “Sleeping King Ascending,” a 40-foot-long, 20-foot-tall triangle of wooden boards that was installed in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Like much of his work, the installation was a symbol for the human spiritual journey, with both the title and the shape referencing Egyptian pyramids, structures built to ensure that the souls of dead kings would reach the afterlife. Stackhouse originally planned for the work to be dismantled and stored so that it could be shown again, but he found that the piece was too large to be properly stored and transported.

“So I had to destroy it,” he said matter-of-factly.

This setback did not deter Stackhouse from returning to the form a few months later. Using old photographs of the piece as references, he began a series of drawings and watercolor paintings, translating the once 3-D installation into a 2-D medium. Changing these recovered works into limited-edition prints now forms the financial bulk of his sales.

“Even though I’m known mostly as a sculptor, I’ve made my living through art by making paintings and prints.”

With its return to two dimensions and its return to USF, it seems that the art of Robert Stackhouse has come full circle. While it may not have arrived at its exact starting place, perhaps that misses the point.

In this case, the journey may be more important than the destination.

The Robert Stackhouse: Edition Archives exhibit will be at the CAM through Feb. 23.