Kansas artist remains prolific despite handicaps

Robert Pearson's first exposure to the arts moved him so much he moved right out of his hometown.

An elementary school teacher took Pearson and his classmates to a symphony concert at Concordia High School. He'd never seen anything like it.


Special to the Journal-World

This painting by Clay Center artist Robert Pearson is part of a new exhibition at ad astra galleria. The artist lived in Hollywood most of his life and was in more than 100 films before resettling in his native Kansas to write and paint.

"A man walked out with a little stick in his hand, and I figured he was going to point out something on a blackboard and teach something," Pearson recalls. "When he raised that thing and brought it down, it was so great."

Pearson was only 10 years old. Two years later, determined to see the greater world, he hopped a train and headed west to Hollywood.

Or so he thought.

"It took me a year to get there," says Pearson, an artist and entertainer who now lives in Clay Center. "Every freight train I got on went the wrong way. ... I wanted to be a movie star."

When he finally arrived on the West Coast, he had his freedom. What he lacked was money and a place to stay. He posed as an 18-year-old and wormed his way into the army, serving at Camp Roberts, Calif., until falling ill with spinal meningitis. Discharged in 1945, Pearson spent time recuperating in veteran's hospitals and later took odd jobs to make ends meet.

Drawing on a talent he'd possessed since childhood, Pearson began creating characters based on imitation. He could do a German, a Frenchman, an Aussie, a Bulgarian, an old man, an old woman, children -- basically anything he heard.

His first big break came in 1950, when he met Norman Rice, host of the weekly CBS radio show, "This Is Our America." He got $75 for playing seven characters, a gig that led to minor roles in dozens of movies, including Russ Meyer's "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens," "The Godchildren" (which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in) and "The Devil and Leroy Bassett," which he also wrote and directed. It premiered in 1974 as the last picture show at the Brown Grand Theatre in Concordia.

Pearson also served as official videographer for stars receiving the Golden Palm Awards, including Mickey Rooney, James Earl Jones and Robert Stack.

Throughout his film and television career, Pearson wrote poetry and created art in his spare time. Now that he's back in Kansas -- he's been here since the late '90s -- he paints oils and acrylics nearly every day.

"I've done 50 paintings in the last 10 days," he says.

What: "Vires Fati," Latin for "The Forces of Destiny," featuring new paintings and a 33-year multimedia retrospective of films and artwork by Clay Center artist Robert Pearson.When: through March 31.Where: ad astra galleria, 205 W. Eighth St.Hours: 1 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

And that's no small feat considering Pearson's list of potential handicaps. He's had Parkinson's disease for nearly a decade. He takes 39 pills a day to keep his symptoms in check. He's blind in his right eye and legally blind in his left and has always been color blind.

It's apparent early in a conversation with Pearson, though, that he tries to take a light-hearted view of life. He's constantly cracking puns and occasionally refers to himself as "Perfecto Roberto."

He even jokes about his blindness.

"How do I differentiate color? I put it to my tongue and lick it and see what it tastes like," he says. "No, really, I can differentiate by the shades and blends and the darkness and putting them next to each other. I get around pretty good."

He paints desert landscapes with silhouetted figures, funky portraits of blacks and American Indians and, most recently, a series that depict multiple personalities in a single face.

Pearson's artwork, as well as a 30-year multimedia retrospective of his films, drawings, paintings and pottery, will be on view at ad astra galleria through March 31.


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