Lawton artist brings larger-than-life work to Paseo 

click to enlarge Robert Peterson hangs his art at JRB Gallery in Oklahoma City, Thursday, April 2, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Robert Peterson hangs his art at JRB Gallery in Oklahoma City, Thursday, April 2, 2015.

“There is no passion to be found in playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

Nelson Mandela’s words are painted there, floating behind his face, behind the weary, wrinkled eyes colored in subtle shades of blues and greens. It’s his eyes that stop you first. They’re simultaneously wounded and defiant, as deep and fixed as canyon pools. The pain on his face hangs there unapologetically, but the eyes bore into the viewer like his words are a dare.

Inspiration, drive

Robert Peterson stands in front of his work and returns the gaze. Burly, tattooed and bearded, more Prince Fielder than Picasso, he repeats Mandela’s words again, perhaps for the thousandth time. His eyes stare through Mandela, fixed on a future he has just started to imagine.

“In the next five years, I’d like to have an exhibit at a museum,” said Peterson, the 33-year-old Lawton painter who has been blowing up the art world for the past three years. “I’d love to show more here in Oklahoma City, because this is home. I want to be able to have freedom, to do what I want to do, to paint what I want to paint. I want to make sure that when somebody invests in my work, it’s a wise investment. I want to be mentioned in the same breath as Kehinde Wiley. I want to be a legend.”

They’re lofty goals, to be sure. But given the extraordinary past three years of Peterson’s life, one might think twice before betting against him. A Denver native, Peterson moved to Lawton in 1992. Employed nearly full-time since 13, married at 19 and a father to three children, the trajectory of his workaday life seemed more or less mapped out. A serious injury in the summer of 2012 changed all that.

“I was told my right hip would have to be completely replaced,” Peterson said. “The surgery was only supposed to be a couple of hours, but due to some complications, it ended up taking five or six. I had to have three blood transfusions after the surgery. Definitely a scary moment.”

That health scare inspired Peterson to leave something for his family, should a bad situation someday turn worse. He left the doctor’s office and spent $13 on paint and canvas. He had never painted before; only sketched.

“Never even considered it,” he said. “I’d been selling marker drawings for 40 and 50 bucks once in awhile but had never painted anything.”

Jesus, Tyson

His first painting that summer was a commission, “a Jesus piece,” he said. Shortly thereafter, his first sale was a painting of Mike Tyson. What has happened to him since then is hard for him to describe. He had a debut show in New York City one year later, where renowned art dealer Robert Sparks bought several of his paintings. He showed at Art Basel in Miami Beach, Florida, that same year, where celebs Gabrielle Union and Tyson Beckford came out to support him. His work has been bought and collected worldwide by people like Floyd Mayweather, Lil Wayne, Amar’e Stoudemire and Kevin Durant. He has been featured on The Huffington Post and MTV.

Stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen to guys who work in the Goodyear plant in Lawton.

“It’s an unbelievable blessing,” Peterson said, shaking his head. “Three years ago, there was no Robert Peterson the artist. There was only Robert Peterson the forklift operator. ... The day before my one-year mark, a Sony Records exec bought one of my paintings for $20,000. It’s been amazing.”

So is his work, especially for someone who not only had never painted but knew next to nothing about art.

“I learned about art mostly through hip-hop. Lots of rappers drop artists’ names in their songs,” Peterson said of his discovery of artists who influence and inspire his distinctive painting technique. “I didn’t know who [John-Michel] Basquiat was. I remember thinking, ‘Is that a shoe, a shirt, a piece of jewelry?’”

Since then, Basquiat has gone from mystery to subject matter. Peterson stands in front of his enormous painting of Basquiat — now hanging at JRB Art at the Elms in the Paseo — and talks about discovering his work, learning to admire the artist’s use of color.

There’s his portrait of Picasso, a shock of blues and purples, piercing eyes and raw talent. The background color bleeds and runs over the master’s shoulders, a transitory effect that offsets that deep, unyielding stare.

“I want to paint people who are relevant, people who’ve done something amazing,” he said. “I want to paint legends.”

Peterson’s OKC solo debut is scheduled for June at JRB, and he says the thrill of showing at home outweighs anything he has experienced so far.

“Lawton doesn’t have much of an art scene,” Peterson said. “When I first started out as an artist, I was disappointed because I felt like I wasn’t getting any love from my Oklahoma people. I was working with O Gallery in Los Angeles and showing at Art Basel in Miami, but I couldn’t get any love here at home. That’s why I’m so thankful to Joy (Joy Reed Belt, owner/operator of JRB) for having me here. This is the kind of gallery I used to imagine showing in when I first started painting ... I’m really thankful to be showing here.”

There are five paintings in all hanging at JRB right now. They are large-scale, vibrantly hued, pop art-inspired pieces, work made to hang in the gallery’s gently lit front window. All of the paintings are several thousand dollars apiece, but despite the level of financial and critical success he has attained, he said his goal is to remain focused on the work.

“I work at least five to six hours a day every day,” he said. “It’s just about making it a discipline. I’ll work on one painting for an hour or so, then take a break and work on something else, then go back to it. I’ve just learned what my process is.”

Peterson’s paintings will be on display at JRB through April. See his work at

Print headline: Raw legends, Despite his short time as an artist, Robert Peterson’s work is larger than life.

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