Taming the Beast

Years ago, Bob Justin told me that one of the reasons he loved his wife was because she taught him how to live inside. I just loved that line, and by extension I would love to meet his wife. From her I would like to learn to teach my husband — or any man, for that matter — how to live inside.

With the exception of Obama’s victory, 2008 was a pretty sucky year for everyone, but Bob Justin really had a lousy time. He was in and out of hospitals six times, often with extended stays for lungs or heart.   Yet all the while, Mr. Justin continued to produce his junk art people. The Gallery at Plainsboro Public Library  is showing the work through Jan. 31, which is especially fitting because Plainsboro Library Director Jinny Baeckler was one of the very first people to “discover” Mr. Justin. She gave him his first show at the Plainsboro Library.

Many of the works created in the last year are smaller in size — mini masks, created with the same eye toward unexpected detail that is the hallmark of his larger creations.   Some of the most interesting pieces are resurrected “rejects”:  As Mr. Justin explains, these are works he never liked and was going to disassemble.  Following the advice of friend and mentor Isaac Witkin, he ruthlessly discards parts and complete works which simply do not work for him.  In the  process,  some of the sculptures destined for destruction “get reborn, like me.”

At a certain point, Mr. Justin talked seriously with his wife about closing down his workshop for good.  Fortunately, she walloped the idea, knowing that the rustic shore studio was a vital part of his life.   The result of that wise decision, 43 masks and 2 sculptures,  is a fitting tribute to the triumph of human determination and artistic will power.

Here’s what I wrote about Bob Justin in 2002, when he had any earlier exhibit at the Plainsboro Library: Bob Justin got his hat at a flea market several years ago. It was kind of flattened, so he wet it and reshaped it to be the way he liked. It’s like a straw cowboy hat, and when he wears it he looks, with his blue eyes and white hair and beard, just a bit like Paul Newman.

Not too long ago, the self-made artist was walking around Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, wearing his hat. He passed sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr., Grounds founder, pharmaceutical heir and philanthropist. Mr. Johnson owns one of Mr. Justin’s welded metal pieces but didn’t recognize the man in the hat as its maker. Mr. Johnson, too, wears a big straw hat.

“‘I like your hat,'” Mr. Johnson remarked.

“‘Like yours too,'” Mr. Justin responded. With a twinkle he adds, “Bet he didn’t get his for three bucks.”

It’s not just hats the two men have in common. Both came to their art later in life, both had first marriages that ended in divorce, both were thrown out of school and both have mastered the art of making people laugh.

Bob Justin’s work is made from found objects – a Long Island oyster rig, hand-forged pieces from logging operations, calipers, shoe-polish lids, bedpans – that he combines to form figures and faces. The finished pieces are collected by, among others, The Producers cast-album producer Hugh Fordin; stage actor William Hunt; and Princeton attorney Kristina Johnson, a trustee at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York as well as former wife of J. Seward Johnson Jr. Even Mr. Justin’s dentist bought 25 pieces.

Many of what Mr. Justin calls his “critters” make their home at the Plainsboro Public Library.

The 60-year-old Plainsboro resident got started on his art in 1991, three years after his brother killed himself. A short while later, Mr. Justin had his first heart attack. His pieces now enjoy brisk sales at the Lost and Found Gallery in Princeton and the Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell, where Mr. Johnson bought “Prayer,” but it hasn’t been an easy road for the Orange native in the $3 hat.

Mr. Justin was thrown out of school in eighth grade for getting all “F’s”, and then again in high school for hitting his teacher. “He hit me first. That’s because I tried to trip him. I just wanted to be cool… I tried to be a tough guy, but I was a scared little kid.” His father made him put on a white shirt and drove him to every business from Keyport to Red Bank to find a job. He even got into trouble while in the Marine Corps.

“My brother Mike was a successful criminal lawyer. Everyone thought he was happy-go-lucky until he jumped off a bridge into the Raritan River. My brother Gene was in the Air Force, my brother John is a lawyer. ‘Why can’t you be like your brothers,’ my mom wanted to know.”

During his lifetime, Mr. Justin estimates he has worked more than 200 jobs – everything from strawberry picking to factory work, truck driving to real-estate sales – before finding his metier.

“I’ve done everything but get pregnant,” says the former smoker.

“Do you drink Budweiser?” he asks. He takes two small objects out of his pocket, two tiny masks, one made from a tin sugar scoop from the 1800s and another from a Budweiser bottle cap that has been hammered and has holes cut for eyes and a mouth. He calls these his “little guys” and they will be sold as pins at Lost and Found. “I don’t drink Bud either. I woke up in jail one morning when I was 17 and looked out the window and saw a sign that said, ‘Schaefer is the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.’ And that’s what I was in there for – having more than one.”

After his heart attack, Mr. Justin was told he could no longer work, and so he began spending his days at flea markets, a lifelong passion, and putting together old things to make new ones. “I never thought of myself as an artist,” he says. “It’s just something I always did. As a boy I gathered materials to make boats, toy guns and scooters. I’ve always seen faces in things – piles of dirt, sand, clouds.” No wonder he couldn’t focus in school. “To me, all things seem to have another life awaiting discovery. When I look at something, I don’t see what it is, I see what it could become.”

When people ask if he is an artist, he says, “I must be. People send me checks for my work.”

He confesses a tactile fetish. “I love rubbing my hands on the surface of things and hated museums because the guards wouldn’t let me touch anything. They don’t even let me touch my own stuff in museums.”

It turns out both his parents were artists – his mother works in oils and teaches art, and his father dabbled in his mother’s oils. Once his own work took off, Mr. Justin studied welding with noted New Jersey sculptor Isaac Witkin. “He calls himself my mentor and I call him my tormentor. I’d put my pieces together with chewing gum if I could,” says Mr. Justin.

In 1993, the blockage returned and Mr. Justin had angioplasty. In 2001 he had his second angioplasty and had another heart attack on the operating table. The doctors discovered a mass on his lung and thought it was cancer and subsequently removed it. It turned out not to be cancer. Mr. Justin made “Prayer,” the piece bought by J. Seward Johnson Jr., when he thought he was going to die. “It was an intensely personal piece – I wanted to finish it before I left this Earth,” he says.

Today, Mr. Justin is breathing at 95 percent capacity, walks 45 minutes a day and lifts weights.

The heart damage has been reversed with diet, he says.

“Someone offered me 75 bucks for my first piece,” he recalls. “‘You would pay 75 bucks for that?'” he asked his buyer. “‘That’s a lot of money. That’s just my little guy.'”

Now, his work sells for anywhere from $200 to $2,500. He has had one-man shows at the Frank J. Miele Gallery in New York City, the New Jersey State Museum, the Arts Garage in Hopewell and the Arts Council of Princeton, among other venues, and has exhibited in Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis. Twice, he has won first prize for sculpture at the Phillips’ Mill Juried Exhibition in Solebury, Pa.

In 2000, his work was exhibited at the Rockland Art Center in Nyack, N.Y., surrounded by the works of Matisse, Warhol, Weegee, Miro, Rodin and Henry Moore.

Yet Mr. Justin has no Web site and pronounces picture “pitcher.” His “résumé” is a page with an illustration of a stick figure. Inside the head it says “Artist Outsider,” but “Artist” is crossed out and an “s” had been added, so it reads “Them Outsiders.” Scrawled all over the page are statements such as “Put off the pleasures of today for the pleasures of tomorrow,” “I don’t want to grow up,” “Self-made man,” “Walk softly and carry a big stick,” “Your to intense (sic)” and “Robert not working up to his abilities.”

He says he never remembers last names and has no friends – “my critters are the only friends I have” – yet talks extensively about people he cares about and who care about him, using both first and last names.

Plainsboro Public Library director Jinny Baeckler is one. Mr. Justin got his first big break when he brought his work to the Plainsboro Library and showed it to Ms. Baeckler. “Very few people have an eye that tickles the imagination, that creates a line and dazzles the mind,” says Ms. Baeckler, who organized a show of his work at the library in 1993.

Another such close acquaintance is gallery owner Ruth Morpeth, who first discovered his work in a gallery in Plainsboro in the early ’90s. “I always liked the whimsical nature of his welded pieces,” she says. “I have an affinity for the folk artist/outsider who is self-taught.”

Mr. Justin speaks affectionately of Lost and Found owners Louis Coppola and Dorothy Spencer.

“People buy his masks because they speak to them,” says Mr. Coppola. “You can understand why he names them what he does. We were looking at one, and I was totally baffled. He looked at me and asked what I was thinking and I told him I was baffled. ‘That’s the name of the piece,’ he said. Each name inspires ideas and conceptual thoughts.

“There’s one piece called ‘Horatio,’ ” continues Mr. Coppola. “It’s made from a bootjack, a shoe brush and shoe polish. It’s named for Horatio Alger, who started out as a shoeshine boy.”

Although the artist’s formal education is limited, his intelligence shines through in his work. Mr. Justin loves the antique hinges, ice choppers, hay saws and tin speakers he collects, and pays good money for them at flea markets. He goes through periods of disassembling all his critters, then making new works out of the cherished parts in his New Egypt studio.

“Gandy Dancer” was named for his great grandfather, James McCartney, a Gandy dancer for the railroad. It is a figure made of railroad spikes and the body is made from a toolbox. Itinerant workers would drive spikes from the Gandy Tool Co. in Chicago, and to an observer it looked like they were dancing. The word has come to mean itinerant or seasonal worker. “This is my monument to the Irish people,” says Mr. Justin.

What happened, then, besides the heart attack, that turned his life around, transforming him from a drifter to a focused artist?

Mr. Justin says it was meeting his wife, Beverly, in 1984. “I was selling cars and she came in to buy one and I fell hook, line and sinker. She is the only person who ever accepted me the way I am. She’s taught me how to live indoors. She knows it’s the first time in life that I’m happy, just being who I am.”

The Gallery at Plainsboro Public Library, 641 Plainsboro Road, Plainsboro; 609-275-2897;  http://www.lmxac.org/plainsboro.

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4 Responses to Taming the Beast

  1. bobjustin says:

    Hi Ms Dube, Thank You, i am as flattered by your words as i am blessed by your kindness.. bobjustin

  2. Ilene,
    What an incredible tribute to this wonderful man and artist. I loved every word of your colorful in-depth portrait.
    Thanks for bringing Bob Justin to our attention.

  3. Michelle Quigley says:

    Ilene ~ I’ve known Bob and have been following (and collecting) his work since about 1993. You did a great job of summarizing his life and work in your 2002 piece, and it’s wonderful of you to bring him to the attention of your readers once again via your blog. All I would add is that anyone interested in seeing a sampling of the full range of Bob’s work, can visit his web site at bobjustin.com.

  4. Annelies says:

    I have just seen another work by Bob, can’t remember where, did not know it was his until I checked the tag, and was taken by it. So glad he is still making wonderful, heartfelt work. Annelies

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