Total Freedom: 10 Questions with Abstract Expressionist Painter Rob Middleton

R Middleton, "October 2" [detail] 72x76, Photo used with permission from Rob Middleton and Rachel Henley

Courtesy of our friends at the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville

Cultural Council of greater Jacksonville, EU Jacksonville, Jacksonville, Florida, #moreartculture, #eujacksonville, #eujax
We, as a society, sometimes have an unhealthy, or at the very least an unproductive, response to the success of others. Social media, which certainly has its benefits, is riddled with examples of this type of behavior, which includes destructive criticism, unjustified public shaming, and passive aggressive commentary. Online networks can be a black hole where individuals can lose their sense of time, civility, and the impact of their words.

That isn’t always the case, however, as was recently illustrated through a post made by abstract expressionist painter Rob Middleton. Rob’s entry, which was posted to Facebook on October 5th, was titled “Two Artists Went to Bristol… And I wasn’t Invited.” In his post, Rob congratulates artists Overstreet Ducasse and Mal Jones for being selected to participate in the JAXBRS cultural exchange program.

Photo used with permission from Rob Middleton and Hope McMath

Rob Middleton is not just a voice of reason and celebration, he is also an abstract expressionist painter with 20 years of experience. He works out of his studio in downtown Jacksonville, which is open to the public each month during Art Walk. Rob’s goal as a painter is to create work without an obvious reference to the physical world so that viewers may lose themselves in their own thoughts, feelings, and associations. Work by Rob hangs in the private collection of renowned art collector and Jacksonville resident Preston H. Haskell III, founder and chairman of The Haskell Company. Rob’s work can also be found on the cover of the October Arts Issue of EU Jacksonville.”

On November 12, Rob will transform a portion of the Doro Fixture Co.’s downtown warehouse into his studio for Art Republic‘s Pilot Season Dinner, an event sponsored by Pilot Pen. The dinner is a seasonally-curated culinary experience inspired by creative expression. The evening will consist of off-menu dining and drinks, interactive performances, and live music.

Rob Middleton, Abstract Expressionist Painter, Jacksonville, Florida, Photo credit Ryan Ali, EU Jacksonville, Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville
Rob Middleton preparing to install art inside Jacksonville City Council offices. Photo used with permission from Ryan Ali


What first attracted you to abstract painting versus other forms of painting and art?

I never sought to be an artist or to study art. I connected with painting as an outlet for expressing emotion and thought, in a creative, physical, and nonverbal way. It was eye opening to me how direct that felt. What set me on the road to abstract happened in a weekly activities period when I was in the 8th grade at St. Johns Country Day School in Orange Park. The instructor tried to encourage me to take a painting of flowers in an impressionist direction and to also carry the image all the way to the edges of the canvas.

I responded by saying what she described was not how the original source looked. My teacher told me that artists can take liberties to achieve a pleasing composition. She described a brush technique that she wanted me to try and she then, using a separate piece of paper, showed me how to execute the brush stroke.

Frustrated by my timidity, she grabbed my brush from out of my hand and made a few marks on my painting. I was taken aback by what seemed like some sort of violation. But in that moment I also felt liberated. I got it.

Up to that point I had been afraid of the preciousness of a piece of art, intimidated by reverence, as if source materials were sacred and transformed into art by some ritual instead of by trial and error and the freedom to experiment. It may sound oversimplified, but that one moment broke me from a rigid view of what art is. From there I think it was inevitable that I would end at abstract.

Rob Middleton Art, Jacksonville, Florida, Abstract Expressionist Painter, Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville
R Middleton, “October 2” [detail] 72×76, Photo used with permission from Rob Middleton and Rachel Henley

You attended Princeton University as a psychology major. Is there a connection between your abstract art and what you learned as a student of psychology?

I think it’s more accurate to say that the same impulse, the desire to be at peace with the mind, led me to study psychology AND to be an abstract expressionist painter. The influential middle school art teacher was in my life for only a very short period of time. I transferred schools after the 8th grade and, although my former teacher encouraged me to continue pursuing art, I shifted my focus to academics.

Art didn’t seem essential. I was a troubled adolescent and always questioning everything. Once at Princeton, my quest for understanding landed me in the psychology department. It was not until a few years into college that I granted myself permission to add a painting course to my schedule. I was hooked from the first class. And, while we were instructed in many styles, I felt most myself in abstraction. I work out many emotions on canvas. I have learned lessons through abstract painting that enable me to function in the rest of my life. For me, and the specific lessons I needed to learn, only abstract has been suitable.

Works by you were recently up for auction to benefit Equality Florida. You also previously participated in Love Feast, which benefited the Better Together Fund. What does it mean to you to be able to use your creative skill set as an artist to support your community and the causes that you care about?

That sounds so grand to me! I do what I do, and sometimes people ask me to be a part of an event that supports a cause. When it feels right I accept their offer and I do it.

I’m not so selfless. I choose carefully the events I participate in based not only on the causes but also the people organizing it, and whether as a whole they show respect to art and artists. I choose things that I feel good about and that dovetail with my professional goals. So, it’s as much selfish as selfless. I am honored though that my contributions are valued by others.

Photo used with permission from Rob Middleton and Jennifer Earnest

How do you mentally prepare yourself when you begin a new project? Do you have any patterns, routines, or rituals?

It’s not like that, really.

I try to be self aware and act with intention as much as I can, so I bring that to the act of painting. Sometimes there is a lot of physical preparation, such as the two times I have painted inside The Cummer Museum. In order to feel free in the moment of creation, I planned everything out in advance. When I painted the large 13 x 20 foot canvas during the launch of “The Chef’s Canvas,” I avoided noxious smelling paints because the focal point that evening was an amazing meal. I thoroughly protected the wall and floor where I would be painting and I had three heights of ladders and all my implements and paints ready to go.

That is the kind of preparation I need so that I can fully immerse myself in painting without any practical worries. While I am creating, all I want to think about is color, shape, and emotion… I guess it’s hard to explain. As much as I can, I get into a headspace where what is happening on the canvas is more important than the world. There are many moments throughout the process when I step out of that creative “trance” and reexamine a painting with a critical eye. Then I make decisions about where to go next with it.

Eventually, I come to a peace with what I have created and that may be when the painting is finished. The process is a bit dissociative, where I allow myself to strongly love and hate what I am doing, what I have done, and the choices I may have just made in a creative frenzy. The creative part is total freedom, it is play. The critical part is judgmental and harsh.

All of this is going on simultaneously and it is one of the reasons I say that the act of painting is responsible for my ability to live. I was in therapy and on psychological medications for many years. Now, without any of that, I feel very even-tempered. I credit my life to creative freedom and mental self discipline. Painting is the practice that works for me to balance multiple competing impulses into a coherent and productive path.

rmiddleton-unite-36x24, Rob Middleton, Unite, Jacksonville, Florida, Abstract Expressionist Painter, EU Jacksonville, Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville
R Middleton, “Unite” 36×24. Currently on display at The Blue Fish of Avondale. Photo by the artist


You are native to Jacksonville but you attended college outside of the State of Florida. What brought you back to Florida and Jacksonville? Additionally, what organizations or individuals in Jacksonville involved with art and culture do you feel deserve to have their efforts or programs highlighted?

I moved back to Jacksonville in the late 90s for two main reasons: to be near my grandmother during her remaining years and because I was without direction. I have always felt a person should have a reason to move somewhere and I could never come up with a very good reason to move other than to get away from here. And that’s NOT a good reason.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I know enough about myself that I could come up with good reasons to live several other places, but I have no plans to move. Jacksonville will always be my home, even if I succeed in being able to spend significant time elsewhere. I love our weather about 10 months out of the year, it’s easy, and I know and like a ton of people here.

I ❤️ Jax? That’s my variation on the slogan. It has to end with a question.

I am able to love Jax more by taking part in arts events that help sustain me. The Cummer is like a second home to me. I have enjoyed interacting with artists hosted by MOCA, the Cultural Council, Long Road Projects, and Florida Mining Gallery. I look forward to the energy and artists being brought here by Art Republic.

Don’t Miss A Beat is one local organization I would like to highlight. I went to their “Night at the Cabaret” this past July and was blown away by a most entertaining evening of jazz music, song, and dance.

I get so much nourishment at the special engagements at Sun-Ray Cinema! Film is sometimes overlooked when we talk of “The Arts,” but this artist would be a less complete person without Sun-Ray. Tim and Shana deserve recognition for their important role in Jacksonville culture. There are so many more people working hard to make Jax hum with creativity that I could never name them all.

I’ll end by saying, if I know what you’re doing, good job and keep doing it! If I don’t know you, reach out. I’m always looking for new experiences.

rmiddleton-scribbles, Rob Middleton, Scribbles, Jacksonville, Florida, Abstract Expressionist Painter, EU Jacksonville, Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville
R Middleton, “Scribbles” 11×14. Photo by the artist

You recently posted a very thoughtful entry on Facebook, in which you stated, “I try for some opportunities and not others.” As an artist, how do you filter or select which opportunities you pursue and which opportunities you should let pass?

After years of trying different things, I feel I know what I want. Knowing what we want in life is very difficult. And, contrary to all the popular advice, I do not always share my biggest goals with very many people.

I would say I am a combo public/private person. I do not think I can share my decision process in a way that would mean much to others. I am constantly reevaluating my career goals and whether I am moving towards them.

What I can state clearly is that I know not everything out there is for me. Basically, I make abstract paintings on canvas that are destined to be hung indoors. Each work is an original and I do not enjoy reproducing them to sell prints or other derivative items.

I envision my work in corporate or private collections and not necessarily as part of any public works commissions. I could make changes to my practice in order to try for other goals, but I like what I am already doing, and there are enough other people out there to do the other stuff. In no way am I intending to put down my fellow artists who make different choices, follow other goals, and succeed in ways that I do not pursue.

Another great thing about looking at all the myriad opportunities holistically is that I feel completely happy when someone else receives a grant, commission, or achievement. We are all different, existing within the same soup, but swimming towards different croutons.

R Middleton, “Emerge,” 40×30. Currently on display at The Blue Fish of Avondale. Photo used with permission from Rob Middleton

In your closing paragraph of that entry you stated, “… I have confidence in the value of what I create.” How do you define confidence as an artist, and how have you developed your confidence?

Earlier I described life lessons that abstract painting provided me. Confidence is a big one. As a young man I felt so much anxiety, shame, timidity, depression, and the list goes on and on. I can think of few things showing more confidence than pointing at a nonrepresentational accumulation of paint and saying, “This is good. This is something. This is legit.”

It is during the creation of the work that I go through the panoply of questioning thoughts. In no time I can go from loving something to thinking it’s terrible, and then back again. I wrestle with all those feelings while making every painting.

I still cannot tell anyone exactly what makes me think a certain one is good. After it’s all done, I can talk about the physical properties that I like about a certain piece and my reasoning behind some decisions — but I never think it’s my place to tell someone else what is good. My devotion to abstract includes allowing others to make their own evaluations.

R Middleton, “Gold Arc” 24×36. Photo used with permission from Rob Middleton

I’ll give someone my opinions if they really want them, and believe me I have many, but ultimately I can only say what I like, not what you should like. The confidence I express is in saying that I value what I am making. On some level that is enough. Performing a creative task with self-confidence and self-discipline leads to professional development and success.

I have to add one thing, because my work is insular and I have been working in the same style for 20 years. The self-discipline part is essential. Through that my work avoids becoming stale or repetitive, at least to my eyes.

I am constantly challenging myself to try new techniques, materials, to work in different sizes, and other forms of professional development that may not be apparent. Self-confidence would be pretty unearned and worthless, I think, if an artist never pushes their work to grow. That is more properly called arrogance. I am not simply stating that confidence is all it takes to make something valuable. (I think that line of thought is worth contemplating but would get exhaustingly existential…) Personally, I’m not a fan of the expression, “Fake it till you make it.” I don’t embrace “fake” in a mantra! I would say something like, “The discipline of repetitive practice will elevate your game.” But never “practice makes perfect” for perfect does not exist — another valuable lesson imparted by abstract art.

rmiddleton-invite-30x40, Rob Middleton, Invite, Jacksonville, Florida, Abstract Expressionist Painter, EU Jacksonville, Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville
R Middleton, “Invite” 30×40. Currently on display at The Blue Fish of Avondale. Photo used with permission from Rob Middleton

In an archived newsletter you expressed that 2015 was your best year ever in terms of sales, exposure, and new opportunities. How has 2016 measured up and what expectations do you have for 2017?

2016 has been better than 2015, and I hope 2017 will continue the upward trajectory. I have been selected to display work inside the Haskell Gallery at Jacksonville International Airport from October 2017 until the end of the year. That will be a great thing to look forward to as I push myself to take on more challenges. Those interested in following my progress may wish to subscribe to my quarterly-at-most newsletter.

Rob Middleton, May, Jacksonville, Florida, Abstract Expressionist Painter, EU Jacksonville, Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville
R Middleton, “May 6″ 72×80. Photo used with permission from Rob Middleton

What advice would you give another artist on the topic of being supportive vs competitive of fellow artists?

It is very difficult for me to offer advice to others. I hope it has come across that my art is interwoven with my life philosophy, my psychology, and my existence — that’s why I said my work is insular. Of course, I exist in the world and I am influenced by everything around me including other artists.

I don’t know if I consider myself part of an arts community, though. I know, respect, and love many within that community. We usually share the same values — they’re my people, for sure! But the art I make is first and foremost my psychotherapy.

So… that’s a long way of saying, how can I offer advice to another artist when I do not know what their personal needs are? I will say that I find it generally a good rule in life to embrace others (metaphorically and literally ); to smile a lot; to welcome new people, things, and concepts; to celebrate others’ success; and to comfort others when they suffer. And, since you probably wanted me to be specific instead of hifalutin, I will say that I love to see other artists succeed. Not only am I excited for them, if I’m going to make it about my art career goals, I will say that I believe success begets success. More success here means more attention on the arts being produced in Jacksonville. Eventually, some of that attention will find its way to me. Since I do have confidence in the quality of my work, I believe increased attention will result in some degree of success.

Rob Middleton, “Gold Splash.” 48 inches square. Photo used with permission from Rob Middleton

You believe it is not necessary for one to “decode” abstract art. Can you elaborate on this? Additionally, what would you say to someone who says they don’t “get” abstract art in order to renew how they experience the art form?

Well, again, I see art appreciation as so personal that I think, “Who am I to tell other people what to like?.” But, let’s say I was introducing a young person to abstract art. In that case I would want to know if they ever felt bad when someone criticized them for coloring outside the lines or making something the “wrong” color, or anything like that when they were just scribbling or having fun. I would say that abstract art is a way of looking at creativity beyond following rules. I would also say that some of the most highly valued art in the world is abstract, not that money equals quality but it shows that abstract art is important to many people.

At the same time, the ability to make art that does follow customary patterns, that does look like a real thing, is lovely and something to celebrate. The world is more beautiful because of representational art and all the other styles of art. Just as cars and buses and planes and bicycles all coexist there is plenty of room for hot air balloons and spaceships too. Variety is good in transportation, in food, in people, and in art. Those of us who practice abstract art usually find it to be a shortcut for us to express complicated feelings and ideas.

R Middleton, Untitled, 48×36. Currently on display at The Blue Fish of Avondale.

Finally, I would say that one major challenge of appreciating abstract art is that it goes against the way most people look at life. We are constantly expected to make sense of things. We choose to spend our productive time working towards defined goals and our down time being told stories. It seems we have a bias for meaning. How much time could you spend staring at the ripples on a lake surface? Would you eventually think of nothing? Or would you think about fish, count the waves, or think of what you have to do tomorrow?

Have you ever listened to a piece of classical music that you knew nothing about? Do you think music without words has to mean something? Would you accept that many people enjoy music without attaching meaning to it? Do you ever feel happy without knowing a specific reason why? When I look at abstract art I allow myself to enjoy it, or not, without there having to be reasons.

Adults don’t understand the way kids play because there usually is no goal, logic, or consistency to it. Don’t lose that. I almost lost that playfulness like most do when growing up. But I experience the childlike joy of playing when I make paintings.

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