Interview with Paul Roussoby Ohger
First off, thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Paul.
Let's start at the beginning. Give me some background on your family.
Did you have brothers and sisters? If so where did you fit in that mix?
I am the yougest of four boys. Steven, David,and Harold. My Grand father Solomon Rousso came to America from the island of Rhodes with his wife Sultana (Toronto) and had 2 children,Morris and Rachel. In 1920 Sultana died. Uncle Morris was the first born of my family in America.
My widowed grandfather wired the sephardic match maker back in the old country for a new wife. The matchmaker responded with a picture of my grandmother Ida, He looked at it and responded, "Send her"!
And they had 4 more children Suzanna,Rosalie,my dad Albert and the youngest Victor.
That's a fascinating story. Were there other artists in your family?
Not on my fathers side. My Mother's only sister Mimi (Hersh) Lewitt is an Artist, along with my oldest brother Steven.
Let's talk school, starting as far back as you can recall up to your college years. If any teachers were an influence, who were they?
It all started in the first week of first grade when my teacher, Miss Betsy Whitman, handed out a fresh new box of crayons to all of her students along with a blank piece of paper and said," Today children, we will draw a drawing of ourselves". My classmates were drawing what you would imagine six year olds to be drawing. I was drawing football shaped eyes with an actual iris and pubil, the proporations were correct. She caught me looking at my reflection in the window glass. It was early and it was still dark outside and I could see my reflection very well. I was attempting to copy it. Miss Whitman proclaimed that "we have an artist in the class". From that day forward, I craved the attention she gave me. Afterward, I was known in every class I was in as "the artist".
By the time I got to the end of Junior High I was in a private school and leared that the neighbootrhood we were moving into at that time was in the district for the public school, Myers Park High School. I'd just read an article about the award winning teacher who was there, Dean Barber. I told my parents that I would be attending that school. My mother would have none of it, she told me I would graduate from Carmel Academy. This may be the most pivitol moment in my young life. I did not argue with my mother, instead I took my future into my hands and took a volley ball into class the next day. I didn't know what I was going to do with the ball at the time, but I did know that this ball and I were somehow going to get thrown out of Carmel Academy. We're all sitting at our desks and I began bouncing the ball. Mrs. Modsi demanded that I stop and for me to give her the ball. I stood up and said "Are you sure you want me to give you the ball?" and she held her hand out and said, "please", Like my older brothers did to me, I bounced the balll off her chest and caught it. Outraged, Mrs. Kotsi ran from the classroom and brought in the assistant principal, Mr. Tims, who proceeded to escort me to the head master, Mr. Aldrich, who sat me down and asked me where I planned to go to school next year. I proudly proclaimed I'd be atttending Myers Park High School, to which he replaied, "Well, why don't you go there now?" I was lucky enough that they allowed me to come back two weeks later to take my final exams, so I could graduate the ninth grade.
The three years at Myers Park High School under the instruction of Dean Barber prepared me for a life as an artist. He provided me with so much, perhaps determination and a self-critical eye were the most important things he drilled into me.
After high school, I entered the five year BFA program at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the fall of 1977, which was famous at the time for it's two year foundation program and it's industrial design program, which I believed all the students there were being groomed for. It was at Cleveland that my foundation in design, composition and color were established, and which served me well in every art related endevour up until the time that I would become a full-time artist. It's worthy to note that while at Cleveland, my instructor Juilan Stanczak taught me a valuable lesson, which was that I wasn't nearly as good as I thought I was. He humbled me and that was a valuable thing. Prior to that my skills had been better than my piers, and under Stanczak's instruction I was shown that I'd need to buckle down and get much better. Working on a design project in the woodshop, I inadvertantly got my right thumb stuck in a tablesaw and nearly severed the thumb off. As luck would have it a specialist from Canada was leacturing at Case Western Medical School and his speciality was reattaching severed limbs. He brought his entire class into the operating room and proceeded to use me as a case study in how to reattach all the dorsal extenders in my thumb. In a cast up to my elbow and not being able to draw or paint, I returned to Charlotte. My father decided to sue the school, but I was able to talk him out of it. However, my Clevland days were over.
I decided to enroll the following year at the Atlanta College of Art. I moved to Atlanta and prepared for the fall semester. A high school friend of mine, Robert Zimmerman had spent the previous year at the Atlanta College of Art and told me that I should not go to that school, and then drove from Oakland to Atlanta to essentially rescue me from Atlanta and take me out to the school he was attending, the California College of Arts and Crafts, which is where I would receive my BFA three years later in 1981.
That's quite a story so far. Let's get beyond the education and into the real world. I read an article that said you did design work for Robert DeNiro, and also worked as a scenic artist for Warner Brothers. How did these opportunities present themselves and what were the outcomes?
DeNiro came first, and the opportunity to work for him came after my second year at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in 1979. I was traveling back to Charlotte and had a stop-over in New York, where I decided to visit my fiend David Levine. I had my best work with me from the preceeding year, and David introduced me to his friend Melonie who was married to Jan Stanbury, who owned Corniche Design, a design firm that working on the re-design of DeNiros 110 Hudson Street loft.Stanbury showed me blueprints he was working on and I made some suggestions. Amazingly he hired me on the spot. I was 20 years old. For the next four months, I partied at Studio 54 at night, and designed for DeNiro during the day.
After graduation, I moved to Los Angeles, imagining I could survive as a commercial illustrator. Having little success at that and upset with myself, I wasn't getting much sleep and would take walks late at night in my neighborhood. One night while walking I heard a compressor go off which was a familar sound to me, having learned air brush and spray gun in college. I followed the sound and found a man in his garage working on a very large painting. He was having a great deal of difficulty with his airbrush and I offered him my own airbrush which was a block away. It helped him finish the piece which was due the following day. In thanks, he got me an appointment with his boss Ron Strang, the head of the scenic arts department at Burbank Studios, the old Warner Brothers lot in Studio City California. Mr Strang sat patiently while I showed him my college work. When I was finished he pulled out a Devilbis spray gun and the spray guns wrench. He put these in front and me and asked if I could take the spray gun apart and put it back togteher. He seemed astonished when I did what he asked. I was lucky enough to have had a teacher in college that was something of a spray gun fanatic who had taught me how to handle and maintain the tool. Strang hired me on the spot and I would work for Warner Brothers for about half a year. I learned more about making art during that time than I had during my entire college education. It taught me to be fearless with scale.
Kaishik Patowary wrote an article on you in which he describes you working as a freelance designer for Revlon and Bloomingdales. It seems you may have also been on staff as an art director at an ad agency. Care to fill in the details?
While still in Los Angeles, I started photographing women and making drawings from the photographs. I developed a nice portfolio of these and thought I might be able to make it as fashion illustrator. That sort of work was all in New York, so I moved to Manhatten in 1982 and stayed with my college friend, Peter Thorpe. Peter introduced me to Geraldine Onorato who was one of the staff art directors at Bloomingdales. As a freelancer under her direction, I did a series of Bloomingdale ads that would appear in the New York Times. But there was very little left of the world of fashion illustration as it had been usurped by photography, so once again I found myself as a failure in the world of commercial illustration. Geraldine moved to Grey Advertising and she started hiring me to draw her ideas for upcoming ads. Eventually Grey Advertsing put me on staff to turn everyones ideas into composite drawings. Geraldine left Grey and I assumed her position as art director in 1984. For several years following I produced national and international ads for Revlon. One of the more memorable campaigns during that time was a 1985 Revlon ad featuring Joan Collins with the tagline "Never met a scoundrel I didn't like", written by Alice Ericsson. The photograph by Matthew Rolston was black and white and the ad in black and white with the Scoundrel Musk Perfume product shot in color became something of a trend setter, I suppose because after my ad ran I saw similar ads with black and white photography and the product in color popping up all over the place.
So, how did it happen that you went from art director to full-time artist? What motivated the switch and how did it come about?
In 1987 Grey Advertising lost the Revlon account and even though I thought I was doing well in the advertsing world I was let go. This put a bad taste in my mouth for the advertising world, but I continued to work as a freelancer, creating ads for Coty Cosmetics, as well as Clairol and others. In the summer of 1987, I was invited by a girl friend Kimberly to visit her in Paris, so I went and it was in Paris that I got to visit some of the great works of art. While visiting the Musee d'Orsay, I was standing in front of the painting The Feif Player, by Edouard Manet and somehow it dawned on me that I could be an artist, in fact that I must be an artist. Returning to New York, I fell into something of a depression because I wasn't fullfilling my dream of creating art for a living. In May of 1988 I returned to my home town of Charlotte, thinking that my mother could feed me and my friend Daniel Levine could find studio space for me to work in. For my thirtieth birthday, I asked for and received paint and canvas. I've made my living as an artist since then.
Finally, let's focus a bit on the work that you're currently well known for, the large scale works in bent plastic sheets. The first works that got recogination in this wide-ranging body of work were US currency. It would be interesting to know how that work was first created, then seen and put on exhibit.
In 2010, I was trying desperately to create a large crumpled piece of paper and I finally figured out how to do it. The first ones I made were not currency, in fact the crumpled currency was made strictly for myself and it sat on the floor of the studio for months. A friend saw the currency and suggested that if I could figure out how to get it on the wall, I might have something. Having yet to imagine the work as a wall piece, I had to set about figuring out how that might be possible. Once I got it on the wall, I took a picture of it and my wife posted it on Facbook commenting, "look my husband finally learned how to make big money". An artist aquaintance of mine, Cecil Touchon saw it and called up his gallerist in Miami, Robert Fontaine and said, "look at that". Fontaine called me and told me that if I could get him a couple of those by the end of the week, he'd show them at Basil. That was no easy task, but I delivered five currency pieces to Fontaine in Miami. As I was driving back to Charlotte, the same day, Fontaine called me to let me know he'd sold two.