FORWARD: A Conversation with Robert M. Girsh

For the Forward exhibition, Kelsey sent our participating artists a list of questions so that we can get to know them all a little better. We’re delighted to present our interview with Robert M. Girsh, who has been a fixture at our gallery nights for years. He is always ready to lend a hand with a cheerful word and a smile, and he’s a wonderful painter! Scroll down to read the interview.

Photograph of the artist Robert M. Girsh, a tall middle-aged white man in a black jacket and beret with round glasses and white hair.
Robert M. Girsh

Kelsey: The title of the exhibition, “Forward,” is taken from the Wisconsin state motto. How does this word relate to your art practice?

Robert M. Girsh: In some ways, ‘Forward’ relates to my travels, which directly influences my painting. The real driving force in the work, though, is exploring my own memories of both invented and experienced landscapes. I don’t predetermine very much when I start a painting, so the very process is transformative and goes through many unexpected changes along the way.

K: How did you get your start in painting?

R: I’ve always loved making and restoring things. I work with a wide range of building materials and spent time doing restoration of architectural elements for historical homes. When I earned my art degree at UW-Milwaukee, I concentrated at first on photography, ceramics, and printmaking. Although I painted as well, my deeper connection to that came later. I am also interested in art conservation and have worked on both artwork and frames. Over time, my research into the history and characteristics of paint and color was a natural path to making more paintings of my own.

K: Do you have any artists you look to as inspiration?

R: Going back in time, I loved Giotto’s frescoes. I have traveled a fair amount through Europe and the art museums were always a major inspiration. There are many artists that have inspired me, but I respond to painters that reveal an emotional quality while exploring color in their work. The landscape paintings of Gauguin and Klimt are two my favorites.

"Lamentation" by Giotto, a fresco from 1305 showing a traditional scene of Christ's disciples mourning his death after he's been taken down from the cross.
Lamentation, 1305 | Giotto | 79 x 73″
Fresco | Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
"Garden Under Snow" by Paul Gauguin, showing a backyard in winter with bare trees and snow-covered buildings and grass.
Garden Under Snow, 1879 | Paul Gauguin
24 x 32″ | Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
"Tranquil Pond" by Gustav Klimt, an oil painting of a brown and blue pond. The pond takes up the lower 75% of the painting.
Tranquil Pond, 1899 | Gustav Klimt
30 x 30″ | Oil on canvas
Leopold Museum, Vienna

K: What do you enjoy most about your work? Are there parts you enjoy less? What do you find most challenging?

R: For me, all paintings are all a challenge is some ways. I love working with color and approach it in a very intuitive manner. I am often drawn to bodies of water because of the constant change, movement, and its reflective qualities. There is usually an image or memory I start with as a jumping off place with and from there I work from memory and invention responding to the painting as I go.

K: Can you describe your process for creating a work of art for us?

R: My work originates from my memories more than anything. Nature is a huge inspiration. I like to paint in thinner layers and to build them over time. I usually paint quickly and then leave it for a few days. After coming back – it becomes clear to me what the painting needs. I enjoy both water base and oil mediums. I love experimenting with new mediums and watching how things start to happen while building the painting.

K: What is your favorite artwork, of yours or someone else’s?

R: I look at lots of art done in the past and throughout time. I especially love work from the Renaissance as well as many landscape painters. It would be hard to choose one artwork or artist – as I am also drawn to the history and how art marks that time.

K: Do you have any recurring themes in your work?

R: I’m drawn to landscape paintings that are softer-edged and atmospheric. Skies and water feature in strongly in my work. I lean towards quieter subtle shifts with colors that are close in value. I want my work to feel both familiar but also more suggestive than specific to a particular place.

K: Is there anything in your personal life that influences your work?

R: It’s moments of everyday experiences seen out in nature, walking, and traveling that most often lead to the images I am after. These memories can be from years ago or current, but I have strong visual recollections of certain qualities in the landscape, and they stay with me over even decades later.

K: What kind of changes have you seen in your artwork in the time you’ve been painting?

R: I think I’m messier in the studio than ever! With time, I’m probably more intuitive and lean towards painting from feelings more than specific source material. There may be something in a photograph that sparks an idea, but I don’t stick with that for long. Once I am painting, full-on intuition takes over. Although I used to do this more, I don’t make many studies or planning sketches. I like to get right into the act of painting itself, not replicating a scene. That is at the heart of what I do.

K: Are there techniques or subjects you’d like to tackle in the future?

R: My interests in art conservation have led to research about glazing, layering and mixing color. So, I see exploring this more fully in the future. I am also in interested in pushing the painting towards an even more abstract language and extending the atmospheric effects possible in paint.

K: A silly question: what color do you run out of most often?

R: Blue.

K: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given (artistically or otherwise)?

R: I connect with this quote by the artist Eva Hesse, and it is good advice for me: “Don’t ask what the work is, see what the work does.”

Robert M. Girsh’s work will be on view in “Forward” at Lily Pad | West through August 27, 2023. Other exhibiting artists include Marc AndersonAllison B. Cooke, Steve GerhartzBruce NiemiKen Schneider, and Diane Washa, as well as newly invited artists Antwan Ramar and John Waite.