Out of the limelight

Robert Bussabarger prefers his everyday artwork avoid commercialism
Sunday, January 23, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:22 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

Oddly enough, for an artist, Robert Bussabarger would prefer to remain anonymous, to slip beneath the radar of celebrity.

Being famous is a distraction, says Bussabarger, a Columbia painter, potter and sculptor, who has somehow managed to resist creating work aimed at a commercial market.

“Being a celebrity takes away from your creative attitudes toward the art,” Bussabarger says. “I try not to make things that are marketable, but you have to be active or you will forget who you are.”

Bussabarger, 82, has light-gray hair and rounded glasses. He has enjoyed a reputation as a favored MU art professor for four decades. He works at home, in two studios, the largest of which dominates the second floor of his house on Princeton Drive and is reserved for painting, drawing and developing ideas.

Mementos from Bussabarger’s travels fill the airy space. Past projects and current works line the walls. Books, folders and papers are stacked in piles on the staircase leading to a storage area laden with more stuff.

“The amount of work I have around the house is taking over,” he says.

Bussabarger has an unusual collection of trinkets and art objects from around the world. He and his wife, Mary Louise, have traveled to Spain, England, Russia, Scandinavia, Japan, Greece, France, Italy, Moscow, Berlin, Egypt, Lebanon, Mexico and India. As a sailor in the Navy during World War II, Bussabarger has also been to the Philippines and Nagasaki, Japan.

Many tourists look for unusual and strange pieces to bring from far away, but Bussabarger seeks ordinary souvenirs. He collects the art of the everyday that ordinary people make.

“These kinds of pieces are made from sources that come out of history,” he says. “They are made for daily work. Religious art is also a part of this. They were made for people to use in their everyday experiences.”

Bussabarger avoids the term folk art because he says it is too suggestive of high art. In his book “The Everyday Art of India,” he writes that this aversion is a show of resistance to art historians and those who classify art. Village traditions have evolved over 2000 years, but the needs of some societies have not changed much since the turn of the century, nor have their artistic creations, he says.

“They have a kind of energy that I am attracted to,” he says, “and I indirectly try to incorporate that into everything that I do.”

Bussabarger is attracted to late-19th- and early-20th-century crafts because they reflect a sense of reality and creativity and because are authentic inventions, or real art.

Bussabarger has adopted elements for his work, which is likewise rooted in everyday.

“His sculptures reflected the whimsical side, the whirliness of human life,” says Joe Geist, curator of the Ashley Ridge Gallery, which recently displayed “The Splendorous World of Robert Bussabarger: Ceramic Sculptor, Potter and Painter.”

Yet, like life in general, Bussabarger’s work is not thematic. Rather, he enjoys an artistic and intellectual freedom that allows him to pull from his worldly explorations elements that reverberate awareness and humanity.

“I do an array of things, more or less whatever comes along,” he says. “As a college professor, you don’t have the full freedom of setting up a New York studio and making your living like that.”

Mary Louise Bussabarger says her husband works on his art every day by studying the art of the everyday life.

“It’s been an astonishing life,” she says. “He is so prolific. I have said to people that he just can’t not do it. This is what he is.”

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