At 79, nautical artist Bob Dance is 'vital and alive’

CorrespondentNovember 13, 2013 

An early November day with a spitting rain made it a tad gloomy until greeted by Robert B. Dance, a Kinston artist who says he still plays with crayons.

He also has designed and built a radio-controlled hawk that he hopes will be attacked by a real hawk on inaugural flight day – not to mention a 6-foot-long radio-controlled butterfly that he hopes will startle the neighbors and frighten farmers.

As multi-talented at he is, the real Bob Dance is recognized as one of the top nautical artists in the United States. Since graduating from the Philadelphia Museum College of Art in his early 20s, art has provided Dance with his livelihood.

“I’ve never been capable of doing anything else except maybe being a trapper in Alaska,” he said. “I’m no good at business.”

Dance, 79, has traced his ancestors back to England and found that he is a direct descendant of two painters noted for portraits of sea captains James Cook and William Bligh.

“That may be where my artistic talent came from, along from my mother who was somewhat artistic,” he said. “But my father was not at all artistic.”

Dance tells the story about his dad – who bought and sold tobacco worldwide – turning down an opportunity to buy an Andrew Wyeth painting for $4,000.

“I loved Wyeth. He had a big influence on me and I knew he was going to be great some day, but my father said” (he wasn’t interested).

Dance thought about selling his car to buy Wyeth’s “Snow Flurries” but worried about having no transportation. Years later, the painting sold for $4million.

The love of art and model building began when Dance was a youngster. He sees the two as interrelated.

“I feel building models is an art and is very similar to sculpture,” he said. “Since the age of 6 I have painted and built models. In many way they require the same discipline.”

Outdoor pursuits such as hunting and fishing also have influenced Dance’s career.

“I have always liked storms. I like the feel of the rain,” he said. “Nature is the greatest teacher. Art is kind of a study of nature reflecting light, form and color.”

Dance said he was mesmerized by the beauty he found on his first trip to Alaska.

“If I had been a young man, I would have stayed,” he said.

When Dance grew tired of commercial art in his mid-30s, he turned to the outdoors, especially the sea, as subject matter for his paintings.

“I’ve always been interested in water. I used to sail, and I traveled the world on an ocean liner with my parents when I was a youngster,” he said.

Dance spent many happy hours hunting rabbits and quail with his father and brother on his grandfather’s Virginia farm.” I don’t hunt any more but I love guns,” he said. “There’s a certain honesty of design about guns and boats.”

A love of fly fishing was sparked when a friend taught Dance how to use a fly rod.

“I was about 35 or 40 when Frank Willingham taught me in his backyard in Winston-Salem,” he said. “Frank loved my art, so I gave him a painting of him fly fishing. It’s the only one I’ve ever given away.”

Dance does most of his work in Alkyd, which requires artificial resin that dries overnight and builds depth from numerous glazes. He describes his work as realistic. His favorite subjects are working boats made of wood such as a Core Sounder or Maine lobster boat.

Dance works in a home studio above his garage weekdays from 9 to 5. His art is so realistic you can hear the waves breaking, the storm rumbling, the sails flapping. You experience the solitude of a mountain home, the beauty of a Moravian Church covered in snow.

“You have to carry a passion to paint,” Dance said. “Now it takes me longer and longer to complete a painting, and I’m much more critical of my art. I’ve never been totally satisfied with any art I’ve done. You never know whether it will turn out or not. Painting requires a lot of discipline.”

Dance’s years of effort have yielded many awards and honors. His work has been exhibited in numerous galleries across the country. He also writes articles for art and model magazines.

Dance has three sons, each with an artistic leaning. His wife, Coleman, paints still lifes from a sun room in their home.

“I’m saving what I consider my best paintings for my sons,” he said. “I’ve done two, both scenes in Alaska. I’m not sure about the third. It may be a North Carolina coastal scene or Alaska.”

Dance selects his subjects carefully, making sure they fit his interest of boats and birds.

“When you pick a subject, you know you will be working on it for months. It must retain your interest or you will break it over a brick wall,” he said. “I have to pick and choose carefully whether boats or birds. There’s not that much time left. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t do this. It keeps me vital and alive.”

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