By Carol McLaughlin
Artist Rob Pelletier, a multiple-time Marblehead Festival of Arts’ People’s Choice Award winner, lives in Salem in a house filled with whimsical cabinets, clocks, cupboards and boxes. Each of these pieces is unique and designed and built by the artist. Today we’d say that his work repurposes found objects. He calls his work functional and his business cards describes his work as “originals”, with the tag line that reads, “an original is hard to find, but easy to recognize.”
Looking around at your work the first question that comes to mind is were you artistic as a kid, and have you always done some form of art work?
No, I was pretty bad at art. I grew up in Salem and my dad was a cabinet maker. I guess you could say that I was his ‘gopher’. He’d take me along on weekends to help with jobs he was doing. He’d let me do some sawing and I learned how to use tools, but for the most part I was his schlepper; as in “get me this and get me that”. I was a typical kid and I resented not getting to hang out with my buddies and play ball on those weekends but I can see that I learned more than I realized. My art teachers would probably be surprised at what I do today. I know my family was very surprised that I had this in me. They really like my work but never would have expected it from me. I only really began building things when I retired from the Salem Fire Department.
So how long ago was that, and why did you start creating these objects?
I was with the Salem Fire Department for 32 years and I found out that I had cancer and decided to retire. That was 21 years ago. Once I retired I began to wonder what I could do with all the free time I had and decided to do some work on an old whiskey box I had to see if I could turn it into a small cabinet. Faux finishes were very popular then and I thought I’d try my hand at that process on that first piece. When people saw the finished product they were surprised and liked the results and before I knew it neighbors were bringing over old furniture for me to paint. The furniture was usually something that they were either going to paint or throw out. In the beginning I learned a lot about how to do the special finishes by reading books and watching videos.
You use a lot of odd materials. How do you find things to use in your pieces?
In the beginning my buddies from the Fire Department would bring me interesting things that they salvaged from buildings. Like I might come home and find an old column in the driveway with a note taped to it asking if I wanted it to use in my work. I also enjoy going to barn sales, antique shops and yard sales, especially in the summer. Now I travel up to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to find items. I also began incorporating clocks into many of my pieces since I felt that the pieces should be functional as well as interesting to look at. Friends still drop off all kinds of odd things for me to use.
What’s your favorite piece and why?
I love the piece I own [behind you] where I’ve used an antique phonograph’s horn-shaped speaker as a lamp shade. When I first saw the speaker I picked it up and looked at it from many different angles. I knew I could do something with it and suddenly it looked like a lamp shade. Some of the odder items I’ve used were half of an old street light, lightning rods and eel spears. The more I create the more I know how thing can be used or how they can come together, so that part of the work has gotten easier. I often put a bunch of pieces on the floor and just start moving them around. It’s an intuitive process like a big puzzle and I get a lot of satisfaction out of figuring it all out.
Is there any art that you think influenced you?
As a fireman I went into a lot of homes in Salem. I was always interested in the furniture in the older homes, like up on Chestnut Street. I’ve also seen some good examples of fine furniture making at the Peabody Essex Museum too. It’s all very different from what I do but I enjoy seeing interesting furniture.
Do you usually work alone and where do you do the work?
I used to say that I work out in the garage but then I was interviewed by a woman from the Boston Globe. She asked me where I work and I told her that I work out in the garage. She said to me ‘Robert, this is not a garage anymore this is a studio.’ I still don’t call the garage a studio, but now I call it my shop. I usually work alone but I recently had a commission for a very large piece for a residential kitchen. I didn’t have enough room to work on it here so I went up to an old friend’s barn and shop in New Hampshire and we worked on the piece together.
Is it hard for you to part with things you create since you make such unusual pieces? Also is there a part of this work that’s difficult?
I don’t have problems parting with pieces and am happy to make some money doing something I enjoy. My wife on the other hand has certain pieces that she wants us to keep. She’s clear on that and so we have some of her favorites here in the house. The hardest part is that the pieces can be very heavy to move to shows, especially as I get older. I can see a time when I’ll begin to scale back the size of what I’m creating.
What does art give you?
I get a lot of satisfaction out of a finished piece and knowing I’ve accomplished something. It’s really rewarding to me. Without art I think life would be kind of dull.
How do people get in touch with you and see your work?
I currently have pieces at Brushstrokes Gallery in Marblehead and I always have at least one piece in the Marblehead Festival of Arts over the 4th of July holiday. I also do pieces by commission. I don’t have a web site but I am available by appointment. My phone number is in the Salem phone directory. I like that this is a hobby for me and not a job but I also am happy to make a sale.