Painter Craig Rubadoux takes out a photo encased in plastic for protection and explains to his friend and fellow painter, Robert Baxter, that he once spilled India ink on it. The ink remained until recently when he cleaned it off to uncover a yellowed photo of his peers and him on the steps outside of Ringling College. He tells Baxter that in the photo he is 17, but he thinks he looks much younger. Rubadoux’s younger face looks strikingly familiar, but the 75-year-old’s hair is now salt-and-pepper.
In 1950, when he was just an elementary student beginning to put his ideas on paper, Sarasota Art Association hosted Rubadoux’s first show. The then 12-year-old’s work was displayed in the front window of the association’s building. Money was tight for Rubadoux’s family. He’d salvage small frames then paint landscapes or circus animals on paper to fit inside them.
When his parents took his brother and him to Myakka State Park, they couldn’t afford to rent oars, so they paddled with palm fronds, instead. But, he didn’t mind; he loved Florida nature — it’s part of what inspires him today. Rubadoux often sketched landscapes as a little boy.
“My mom said I was always drawing,” he says. “Because I (could control a pencil) and make straight, decent (letters), I decided to be a painter — that’s all I could do and wanted to do.”
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performers entertained on the weekends with free, open rehearsals, and Rubadoux’s mother, Jeanine Constantin, frequently took her son. Rubadoux sketched the performers and exotic animals.
“Clowns and strange figures turn up in my work sometimes,” he says of the influential experience.
Once he got a little older, he melded his favorite hobby with real experience. In high school, he joined Sarasota Art Association, now known as Arts Center Sarasota. Rubadoux took four community watercolor lessons; a few periods of art classes as a senior at Sarasota High School; and drew illustrations for the school newspaper.
“I guess I was self-taught with a little training,” he says. “Mostly, I just worked really hard.”
His Sarasota High School art teacher, Margaret Clements, thought Rubadoux showed promise, so, at age 17, she introduced him to his mentor, fellow Sarasota master Ben A. Stahl, with whom he apprenticed.
Around the same time he met Stahl toward the end of high school, he won a yearlong scholarship to Ringling College of Art and Design and studied figure drawing at age 17. He made his sketches look as realistic as possible.
“I didn’t have the money to go anywhere else,” he says, explaining why he couldn’t afford additional schooling following his year at Ringling.
After Ringling, Rubadoux learned from travel and new experiences.
In the late ’50s, Stahl took him to Italy, France and Spain. Rubadoux lived in the sleepy little town of Torremolinos, Spain, for three years.
“It’s a lot different now,” he says.
Rubadoux points to another torn black-and-white photo hanging on his refrigerator with a handmade shell magnet — it’s of the group that traveled with him to Spain, consisting of Stahl’s family and even a cook.
Rubadoux’s art took him on adventures all around the world, from Peru to Mexico to his seasonal home in Nova Scotia, where he still spends the summers. During his travels, he immersed himself in each country’s culture. He made visiting each country’s museums a priority. He also sketched people on the streets.
He recalls a work by Caravaggio he saw in a cathedral. He doesn’t remember what it was called, but it was of a man under a horse — most likely “The Conversion on the Way to Damascus.” Just as he was looking at it, big, thunderous organ music started playing suddenly.
He also remembers seeing Masaccio’s “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” in Italy, for which tourists had to pay 100 liras for the lights to be illuminated. They were on a timer, so when they went out, Rubadoux had to pay 100 more liras to keep viewing. He chuckles to Baxter, as he shares these memories.
Rubadoux and Baxter have been best friends for almost 50 years. They met while working in the early ’60s as professors at a correspondence-based art school in Westport, Conn. Baxter has a favorite memory of Rubadoux.
Every day at 4 p.m. following work, Rubadoux headed to the beach (he’s always lived by the water, and says it’s a requirement). He sketched every evening and then showed it to Baxter the following morning. By the end of the summer, he had a full portfolio of work. When Rubadoux returned in 1970, from Connecticut to Sarasota, he had a “portfolio sale” and sold almost every sketch.
Baxter and Rubadoux lived in different states for about 40 years. But, around 2000, Baxter moved to Siesta Key and immediately looked up his friend, Rubadoux, who had been teaching in France. Now, Baxter and Rubadoux walk to the beach together once a week, and often while there, they’ll both sketch.
Luckily, it’s much easier for Rubadoux to afford the perfect frame for his Sarasota-inspired work than it was when he was 12. No longer is his work in a little window display. Now it’s featured in many public and private collections, such as The John and Ringling Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum, in New York. Currently, his work is on display alongside Baxter’s at Dabbert Gallery, where the duo has a two-man show.
Rubadoux calls his work a journal of his life and what he sees — dogs, people or whatever is going on in his life at the time. He usually mills around slowly in the morning, then works late morning to late afternoon. These days, his work is becoming more abstract — he’s forcing himself to learn new methods.
“You can’t see any references (to real life),” he says. “It’s difficult (work) for me, but it’s more fun to struggle.”
If You Go
‘Old Friends, New Paintings’ featuring Craig Rubadoux and Robert Baxter
When: Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 6 to 9 p.m. first Fridays
Where: Dabbert Gallery, 76 S. Palm Ave.
Info: Call 955-1315