by Kim Bergeron, photos by Candra George
WHEN HE WAS A CHILD, Robert Santopadre colored outside the lines. But it wasn’t until adulthood that he discovered what he believes he was born to do: paint.
The New Orleans native learned at a young age the value of rising early and working hard, ethics that were instilled by his parents, Robert Sr. and Suzanne. The family owned and operated the Tip-Top Shoe Repair shops founded by his great-grandfather, an immigrant from the village of Santopadre, just north of Rome, Italy.
It was in the shops that Robert learned a skill that later would serve him well—that of blending colors. The young lad was tasked with mixing shoe dyes. Those lessons in color were preceded by what his kindergarten teacher evidently deemed less successful efforts. “I was constantly berated for coloring hard, outside the lines and in different directions,” he says. “I couldn’t understand why that mattered so much. I spent a lot of time studying shapes, colors and people. And I daydreamed a lot.”
That creativity was put to the test by his Cub Scout leader, who presented his den with a 30-second sculpting challenge. Utilizing the given media—a toothpick and gum—Robert fashioned a small snail. He says that though he thought little of his artwork, the den mother was quite impressed. The event marked the first time that he recognized that he might have a bit of creative talent.
When he was 12, his family made the move from New Orleans to what was at the time the family’s summer home, just outside of Independence, Louisiana. It was here that one of his teachers, Sr. Mary Joel, recognized his talent for painting. She introduced him to the art of murals, an effort he believes was intended to inspire him to paint more. “But at the time, I was more interested in girls and recess,” he muses.
Those interests broadened shortly afterwards, when the family moved to what Robert calls “sixty of the most beautiful acres north of Lake Pontchartrain” in Folsom. “We enjoyed hunting and fishing and had horses, cows, chickens and pigs,” he says. “Sometimes, I would venture into the woods and lie at the base of the towering pine trees just to breathe in the air and to study the way that God’s beautiful sculptures waved in the wind and grew in so many different ways.”
To this day, Robert recalls those experiences and attempts to capture in his work what he fondly calls the melodies of nature, even with “the earthly limitations of color and brush strokes.”
While attending St. Paul’s School in Covington, the teen delved into another creative endeavor—music. He joined the school band and learned to play the baritone, valve trombone and tuba. The passion that he developed for classical music and musicians also would later carry over to his artwork.
After he graduated from high school and attended college, he returned to his roots in New Orleans to take over the family business. It was here that he met and married Lisa Shames, and the couple bought his grandparents’ old house. Their family grew with the birth of their son, Thomas, and daughter, Caroline. In 1994, the Santopadres sold their Tip-Top Shoe Repair location and moved back to the northshore, where Robert established and continues to flourish in a career in real estate.
It was just a little over four years ago, after Caroline left home for college, that Robert began to explore painting on a more serious basis. Initially, his works were quite precise and photographic in nature. Over time, he has loosened his technique, “letting the brushes work their magic.” He is enthralled by the translation of imagery that appears one way when viewed up close, then transforms into a more discernable image when stepping back. “During this translation from eye to mind is where the magic happens, when your emotions become involved in the painting,” he says. “That is what I want to capture in my works.”
Though he favors working with oils on linen, he also enjoys working with charcoal on paper. The artist draws inspiration from his favorite Old Master, Toulouse Lautrec, whom Santopadre says had a great sense of humor and loved drawing and painting people having fun. Robert adds that Lautrec spent time in New Orleans. Additional influences are Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Vincent van Gogh—in that order, he says.
Of all Robert’s creations, his favorite is Reflection Parlor at Preservation Hall, which recently was selected for inclusion in the Louisiana Contemporary exhibition at the Ogden Museum. The artist says that he felt there was something special about the work even before its completion, a belief that was validated when the work was juried into the show.
Robert derives his greatest enjoyment from the conversations he has with those who are viewing his work, taking the time to explain his chosen subject matter and how and why he composed the painting the way he did. This often includes a focus on the math and science of art, and the process of composing a painting in a way that captivates viewers. One such equation is that of the Golden Ratio, a mathematical measurement that is naturally very pleasing to the eye. Robert says that no one knows who truly discovered the equation, which dates as far back as the ancient Sumerian civilization.
He is also clear on his beliefs of the timeless role of art as an essential part of life. “I feel that throughout the history of the world, people have needed to surround themselves with art,” he says. “Art keeps us from becoming truly lonely.” Whether created centuries ago or in modern times, there are elements of art that remain universal.
“Every original work of art comes from the mind and the soul of an artist,” he says. “Each work is a compilation of life experiences transformed into something beautiful and meaningful. Artists are observers of life. They take the time to notice special things about a subject and shine a light on what they feel is its true essence and purpose. Even after death, artists have the power to speak to us and engage us through their works.”
While one will find the influences of nature, music, people and their emotions in Robert’s works, what viewers will not find are political or racial views, the incorporation of which the artist says is one of his pet peeves.
“Though I know this has been done throughout history, when I look at art, I want to see an individual’s skill of sifting through life’s beauty and creating something that makes me feel good,” he says. “When I create, I want the viewer to look at what is going on in the painting and to be entertained by how simple and seemingly accidental brushstrokes can make them feel like they are participants within the painting.”
His works are enhanced by the very medium used to create them. The artist makes his own paint, utilizing pigments from an old French company. What results, he says, are hues richer than those found in traditionally packaged paint tubes.
In the same way that he colored in different directions as a child, Robert continues to color his life in many directions. He has earned a private pilot’s license, owns and races sailboats, is an avid cyclist, runs marathons, and even has secured the title of Iron Man. He is also a Master Gardner, which undoubtedly influences his paintings. Or perhaps his paintings influence his gardening. Or a little of both.
“My paintings are derived from the beautiful things from my life’s events,” he says. “Quite possibly, the purpose of my earlier years was to gather my experiences of the senses and keep them safe, only to let them out now in a beautiful harmony.”
The artist currently is working on a number of oil paintings to be exhibited at Armbruster Artworks in Covington during the April 14 Spring for Art festival. The works will feature New Orleans bistros and eateries, and they will be known as the Green Fairy series. For artist Robert Santopadre, it’s a fitting title for a life that has been a fairy tale in its own right. And with each stroke of the brush, he continues to paint his very own “happily ever after.”