Bones, bikes and styrofoam

The art of being bad-ass: Robin Peck shows off his favorite things. His motorcycle, his on-campus studio, and his art work. (Tom Bateman/AQ)
The art of being bad-ass: Robin Peck shows off his favorite things. His motorcycle, his on-campus studio, and his art work. (Tom Bateman/AQ)

Fine arts prof Robin Peck talks art, women, bikes and history

It all started with dinosaurs.

Little fingers twisting and moulding Plasticine into dinosaur toys to impress the girls. Somewhere between Red Deer and Drumheller, on a chicken farm smack in the middle of the badlands.

This is where Robin Peck, associate professor of fine arts and sculptor, learned to tell rocks from petrified oysters. He grew up in a giant sandbox, where he could dig his fingers deep into the earth and pull out femurs, jaws, teeth.

Here, in rural Alberta sculpture was living. It came right out of the earth.

Peck’s grandfather settled the farm in 1890. He was a Cambridge educated man. He could read ancient Greek, and speak Latin, but he just wanted to be a cowboy.

“He’s famous for riding his horse in the various saloons in Alberta,” says Peck. “He was kind of a wild guy.”

Peck’s grandfather was a rancher, not a farmer, and he was careful to make the distinction. He called farmers “moss-backs”. They were so settled in their ways they grew moss on their backs.

Peck, who turned 60 this summer, has lived from coast to coast. He is of the nomadic nature like his grandfather.

“I have Alberta plates on my car and on my bike. And I’ve been here five years. I’m not real good at settling anywhere.”

***

At 18 Peck fled his farm and travelled west over the Rocky Mountains. He studied sculpture at the Kootenay School of Art, and later at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

In his first year of art school Peck sculpted a Scythian style horse, 18’ high and made of cast concrete. His professor told him one day he would be a great sculptor.

But Peck never sculpted another horse. Instead he traded his marble and concrete for Plexiglas, Plasticine and burlap.

Peck likes American art from the late sixties. His minimalist style is shown in galleries from New York City to Iceland.

When Peck’s first wife left him he headed back to the badlands. He locked himself away for a few years, eating only what he could hunt and writing his book, Sculpture, A Journey to the Circumference of the Earth.

Peck stumbled upon the job at St. Thomas University while he was touring the countryside in the dead of winter trying to get his book published.

But Peck has his issues with Fredericton.

“There are way too many smug bourgeois couples with 1.5 children holding hands walking around looking at their restored Victorian house,” he says.

***

(Tom Bateman/AQ)

Standing in his studio tucked behind Brian Mulroney Hall, Peck is dressed in monotone. He doesn’t look like your typical artist. He’s broad shouldered, tough.

Peck’s office is a mishmash of dinosaur bones, sculpted Styrofoam and motorcycle memorabilia. But what he’s most proud of is tucked away where no one can see. His computer is a library of photographs. Him and his wife in P.E.I for their anniversary, a fishing trip with his son.

The studio is entirely covered in white. Coveralls hang in the corner, also white. Dried plaster crumbles as you step on it, and the heat isn’t working well.

Everywhere there’s one simple image; three boxes stacked on top of one another, like pyramids. Boxes covered in burlap covered in plaster. The pink dye from the burlap shows through in places.

Peck is working on a series of sculptures for a show in Toronto at the end of November. He doesn’t have a name for varying sized towers yet. It’s something about distance though.

Peck has never had trouble coming up with sculptural concepts. In sculpture it’s not about the ideas, he says, it’s about getting it done. It’s about having the money and the material and the time and the space.

“It’s very real,” says Peck. “And it makes you stop and get quite real about things.”

***

Peck can’t really remember how many years he’s been teaching at STU, and has trouble recalling his new grandson’s name. But he does know 1964: the year he first rode a motorcycle.

He now owns four bikes. One he traded for a case of beer, and another he’s reconstructing in his basement.

It’s all about the high performance motorcycles for Peck. The kind that disappear beneath you as you spin around a corner at 240 km, and where there’s just enough room for a hot Jamaican wife.

Peck got married again three years ago. He’s going to Jamaica for the first time this Christmas to visit his wife’s family.

Students will tell you his bikes say something about Peck. He’s a man who takes a heart attack and makes it to class the next morning. He’s not afraid to pick up his life and ride off in to the sun set, chasing another life, another adventure.

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