Mike Slobot is an American artist who has been sculpting and painting for most of his life. He started making art in the 3rd grade when an art teacher saw that Mike was really interested. Enjoy reading the interview with Mike Slobot, and we hope his fascinating story will bring you a lot of inspiration and motivation.
The First Steps in Art
AP: Mike, thank you so much for finding the time to give us the interview. This is a great pleasure for us. Could you please tell us how it all got started?
Mike: I’ve been an artist for most of my life. I started making art in the 3rd grade when an art teacher saw that I was really interested. He spent some extra time getting me started creating. I kept painting mostly abstract works through high school and into college, with a small amount of sculpting. My art teachers were always kind of annoyed that I didn’t like to draw and sketch in detail, I would make haphazard scribbles in my sketchbooks that were more like shorthand code for what I wanted to paint.
I still work that way too. I have always preferred to go straight to canvas and just start painting, and I do that with the Slobot sculptures as well. From the end of college until I started my Slobot work in 2004 – I didn’t paint very often. I have always enjoyed music and would love to be able to compose songs. My wife and I spent several years as DJs before I returned to making art. Once I started the Slobots though, I felt like I had finally found my voice and have been making them and painting them ever since. Ironically, I was never into comic books, video games, etc. and I am not really sure I would want a walking computer following me around recording everything I say and do, so making robots is a little strange but just feels right. I still make other work too, but I keep coming back to the Slobots.
AP: What a great start! What did your first sculptures look like?
Mike: Since most of my prior art was in the area of painting, the very first Slobot was really rudimentary. I made it with a combination of paper mache, 3 balloons that I used as foundations to hold the paper mache to make the head and the hands, a canister from a package of oatmeal, and some other found objects. I ended up doing 4 or 5 pieces in that style. I destroyed most of them after a bit because they weren’t really fulfilling the vision I had in my head. Looking back, I think a lot of the core of what would become a Slobot was there – use of basic shapes – cubes, spheres, cylinders, and found objects were all present. I have always been more of an additive or assemblage sculptor, so even in those first few Slobots, I was using items that I found in my daily life as the base of inspiration. What I would call the first of the “real” Slobot was “SloMunny Seeker” from late 2005.
AP: The SloMunny Seeker looks very adorable! We love it. Do you have any formal education in sculpture design, or were you self-taught?
Mike: In high school, I took two advanced placement classes in the art that focused on painting and drawing and a couple of college-level painting classes at the local community college while I was still in high school. I began to develop a portfolio of drawings and paintings, and I considered going to art school. In the end, I got a degree in communication, and still took a few art courses. Most of those classes focused on painting and drawing. I did make some non-objective and abstract sculptures out of typical art materials like yarn and clay, but as for the Slobots, its really been all self-taught by personal study and trial and error.
AP: What does the SLOBOT stand for? What’s the story behind it?
Mike: The word “Slobot” is a combination of the words “Slow” and “Robot.” My first robot sculptures were so basic, that I imagined them to be first-generation robots that had been replaced by newer models that were faster and had been upgraded, so my robots became “Slobots” because they were older and slower than the newer models. I imagined there to be all of these robots in the future that don’t have jobs or are looking for meaning in their lives because they have been replaced by newer, faster models. The way I view it, the Slobots are robots from the future that are already “old.”
The Pop Art Genre
AP: What genre are your robot sculptures?
Mike: I see the Slobots as Pop Art for the most part, with some inspiration from Mid-Century and Space Age Design as well as art from the art of the 1950s and 60s. I really admire people like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Ed Ruscha, and Robert Indiana. That whole generation of artists broke open the idea of what can be art – Andy even said: “Art is what you can get away with.” I think they proved it when they used such bright colors and bold statements and then juxtaposed them with everyday ideals, objects, and brands. When I make a Slobot, I re-use a lot of stuff that might have ended up going into the garbage. I like the idea of creative re-use of especially plastic and plastic as we know it really got started in the 50s and 60s.
AP: We like this idea very much. How would you describe your sculptures?
Mike: Someone once said that my Slobots are both unique and familiar at the same time. For me, that was one of the highest forms of compliment. I want to make objects that make people feel nostalgic, happy, creative, and thoughtful all at the same time. Sometimes I look at a sculpture when it’s done, and it looks so hopeful and full of purpose – “Brncl Bll” looks that way to me, but then other pieces like “Bot 1 and Bot 2” look like they are contemplating life and might be a little sad by the way they are looking downward. I don’t put full faces on them, usually, it’s just one eye or a solid faceplate, yet somehow people feel the emotion from them.
Equipment and Techniques
AP: What kind of equipment and techniques do you use to create such robot sculptures?
Mike: I am really enamored with plastic. There is something about the shape and the sheen of a piece of plastic that I find really appealing. I re-use a lot of post-consumer plastics like shampoo bottles, drink containers, plastic cups, etc. in the work because I like the idea of taking things that were designed for single or short-time use and finding a second life for it. A lot of the time, a specific item will be the linchpin that starts the process rolling. For instance, I finished a new sculpture earlier this year called “Mr. Blue.” His base is an old acrylic display box that I picked up at a second-hand store a few years ago. One day I looked at that acrylic box and saw the rest of the robot in my mind. Then I started sorting through several large bins full of plastic pieces and parts that I have collected over the years to find just the right pieces to bring out the rest of the design. All told, he has about 14 pieces of plastic that would have ended up in the landfill re-purposed into a sculpture.
Over the years, I have been making the Slobots, I have developed some methods that I use in my work via study and practice. It is surprisingly hard to get different kinds of plastic to stick together, and it took a lot of trial and error to get them to this point. There are several types of glue marketed as made for plastic – but the fine print on the bottles will tell you that it won’t work on some kinds but will on other varieties. There are so many different kinds of plastic. I picked up an old textbook on eBay from the 1960s called “Industrial Arts Plastic” that had tons of useful info about the different kinds and has helped inform my process.
Another issue with working with so much plastic is getting the paint to stick to it. When painting on canvas or wood, you can use gesso to prime the canvas or wood, but you can also paint right on the substrate, but with plastics, it tends to be much harder to get the paint to adhere to the surface. Like the glues, there are some newer spray paints that are formulated to work on plastic, but I have seen mixed results with them. When I first started out, I remember painting and assembling a whole Slobot out of a variety of plastic pieces. I was really pleased with the result until I accidentally scraped a part of it while finishing it. I watched a whole side of the paint pull off in one piece.
As far as tools – I use hand drills, a Dremel, X-Acto type knives, pliers, sandpaper, and cutters, and then some more traditional art supplies like acrylic paint, clay, canvas, etc. For the sculptures, I would say that more than 50% of the tools I use to make them come from hardware stores rather than art supply stores.
AP: Mike, thank you so much for sharing such detailed information about the equipment and techniques. We are sure our readers will find it useful. What is your latest project you’ve worked on so far? What inspired you to start working on it?
Mike: I’ve always got several pieces going at one time – some paintings, a few sculptures, and some prints as well. Some will sit in my studio for years between getting worked on as inspiration occurs. The most recently finished large piece is “Mr. Blue,” which is the Slobot I mentioned earlier that is made out of the acrylic box. He is about 22” (56 cm) tall and is installed with four other Slobots until June 2020 at PTI International Airport in Greensboro, NC. In November 2018, I had a solo show at the Louise Jones Brown Gallery at Duke University. That was my largest solo show to date with about 50 pieces installed – which included paintings, sculptures, and prints spread across a two-room gallery.
The Formula for Success
AP: That is so cool! Such events must be very inspiring. What is the formula for success in your activity?
Mike: I think with any artistic pursuit – be it music, dance, or visual art, it is tenacity and a love for what you do. You have to be willing to make art for yourself and only because you love it. You have to hone your skills even if it feels like no one is paying attention. I’ve been making Slobots since 2004. In my first group show, I won “Best in Show” – which was a great accolade because there was some really great work in that show, but just as often as that has happened, there are times when all of it feels like it is at a standstill.
AP: Who is one person you would like to see interviewed on Astrum People?
Mike: I would say, Jasper Johns. He is hands-down my favorite artist. He is 89 years old and still making art. His work is really interesting to me because he was just before the Pop Artists and at the end of Abstract Expressionism. He made work that wasn’t like anyone else’s.
AP: We will do our best to reach out to Jasper Johns or art agents and take an interview with him. Is there someone who supports you in your creativity?
Mike: My muse is absolutely my wife, and she is also my biggest fan. She suggested that I paint her a robot one day as I was staring at a canvas trying to think of something to paint. That one suggestion has affected my creative output for 15 years, and her constant support has been invaluable. The painting I made after that suggestion is called “Slobot and the Moon” which is oil on canvas on a recycled canvas in an upcycled frame. I made the very first Slobot sculpture as a result of that painting in an attempt to make a sculpture of the robot that I had painted.
Golden Tips for Artists
AP: That is so great that your wife is so supportive. Tell us three lessons you believe are really important for every sculptor?
Mike: I think these lessons probably apply to any creative pursuit – and maybe life in general. First, study and hone your talent. There are tons of talented people in the world, but success is a mix of time, chance, and preparation. Second, practice, practice, practice, and be tenacious. Third, find your own voice. It’s great to be inspired by others, but seek and make your own work. There is really no truly new idea in the world, but the opportunity is to take your creative area and then use your uniqueness to make it special.
Mike, it has been a great pleasure for us to take the interview with you. Thank you very much for sharing such an inspirational story with us. We wish you continued success, great achievements, and many more creative projects. To learn more about Mike Slobot robot sculptures feel free to visit his website.
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