Portrait of a Portraitist
North East artist plans to donate year of paintings for wounded vets
— When you walk into Cameron John Robbins’s house, it’s just about impossible to miss the framed paintings and pictures on the walls — most noticeably, several portraits.
To the left, there’s one of his mother holding a violin and of his father as a young man in his Navy uniform. To the right, there’s another of his father, this time an older man, seeming to look past the younger self almost directly across from him.
Robbins painted these, and it makes sense that he would have them hanging in the entryway. They immediately set a mood in the home — one that’s dignified and a bit somber — and he’s a firm believer that environment plays a crucial role in how a person views him or herself. He, for one, sees himself as an artist, specifically as a portraitist and a figurative sculptor.
Now a 40-year-old man, that self-identity has led him down trying roads in the past. Since graduating from the University of Utah in 2003 with a Bachelors of Fine Arts, he’s had difficulty securing gainful employment and at times been homeless. As he said jokingly, he’s lived the life of a starving artist.
But he’s trying to change his luck. In 2017, he’ll embark on a year-long project called “Stronger Because of You,” for which he’ll paint 20 portraits of wounded vet-
erans, with all the proceeds going to the Purple Heart Foundation. He hopes it will turn out mutually beneficial, both raising money and awareness for veterans and helping him to establish his name as a portraitist.
Robbins comes from a long line of military men. As noted, his father served in the Navy, and he grew up in a military household that moved from place to place. At least three in his family have been wounded in American battles dating back to the Civil War.
And even today, Robbins said, there is precious little appreciation for the unique challenges that emerge after those who have served return to the states.
“Even if a veteran is not wounded, most of what you learn in the military is not transferable to the civilian job market, despite what the recruiters tell you,” Robbins said. “When you add wounds on top of that, the challenges compound. They need help, and they deserve help. In my opinion, they are entitled to our support.”
Robbins views his art methodically and, he said, in a way that some artists might say is heretical. To him, each piece of art he creates is a product like any other you would pay money for. Over the years, he began to wonder why more artists didn’t treat their vocation as a business person would. He decided he should try.
In his studio, where he works on several portraits at a time, he explained his process, which includes grid work and, of course, acute attention to detail. He has to be aware of his mood before he begins to paint, he said, since that can affect the end result.
Lately he’s been painting rich and powerful men, both because they’re the people he looks to as role models and because they make up a large part of the group most likely to buy his portraits down the road. He also believes that most people don’t care about the process of the artist; that the end result is all that matters. So he pitches his completed work as having a potentially transformative effect.
“A painted portrait is not only a reflection of you as you are; it can be a reflection of you as you wish to be, in a much more deliberate way than a photograph,” Robbins said. “Imagine how you’d feel, or what you would think was possible, if you had a painted portrait around everyday that was a reflection of the life you want to be living. Would that impact the decisions you make? Would that impact the way you feel about yourself? Would that influence what you think is possible?”
When he was a younger man, Robbins chose to forego military enlistment, because he felt called in other directions. He idolized his father, but he didn’t think his personality would make for a good soldier.
He still wants to help where he can. A press release he sent to the Whig on Sept. 15 stated that he hoped the donations would top $100,000 over the course of the next year. In early 2018, he’d like to display all 20 portraits in a gallery, though he hasn’t secured a location yet.
He plans to launch a Kick- starter page sometime this month in order to raise money for materials for the project.
“I also recognize the opportunity to set an encouraging example for people like me, who want to help, but don’t have the personal resources to help as much as they want to,” Robbins said. “But what if you think outside the box a bit? What can you contribute that can be translated into more money than you can write a check for? Do you have a talent or a gift? Do you have a network?
“This is hopefully going to inspire people to stop and think, ‘Oh maybe there is more I can do if I’m just a little more creative about it.’”
Cameron John Robbins, a North East painter who plans to donate the proceeds from 20 portraits to the Purple Heart Foundation, stands in his studio among several works-in-progress.
Robbins discusses his portraits of business magnate Warren Buffet and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. Perhaps contrary to the artist stereotype, Robbins considers these men role models.