Robert Cantor
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Snapshots and Sharpeners

The first 24 of these paintings were first displayed at the Delaplaine Art Center from September 1 through October 21, 2012. During that time, the Frederick News-Post ran an interview with me about the works.

In Snapshots and Sharpeners, family snapshots from my childhood are depicted with toy figures from my pencil sharpener collection replacing me and my brothers in the photographs. By doing so, the snapshots represent not just my own youth but the seemingly innocent early stages of the modern consumer culture which we now live in.

With a few rare exceptions, none of the conflicts or turbulence of the time show up in these family albums. What we see instead is a very limited glimpse of holidays, birthday parties, visits from relatives and trips to such amazing destinations as the Upside-down house and Storyland, all of which makes the collection of snapshots a decidedly wholesome view of that time period.

The presence of the toy figures pushes that view to an extreme which makes it impossible to ignore the artificial nature of these nostalgia-tinged memories. The toys come from around the same time period, so that 1960s tourist spots and suburbia are a natural setting for these odd artifacts of consumerism. The resulting images are a clearly contrived depiction, but they nevertheless bring to life memories in ways which sometimes seem more immediate and real than the original snapshots.

I had been collecting toy pencil sharpeners for years before ever thinking to use them as subjects for paintings. I now have over 800 in my collection. Influenced by botanical illustration and the Index of American Design, I started by painting them as isolated subjects. Treating the inexpensive toys with an exaggerated reverence made the paintings themselves become the precious objects worthy of that reverence. Through these paintings, the figures can finally gaze back at the real world, boldly confronting the viewer with the absurdity of their own existence.

Gallery 3
S.S. Mount Vernon Thornton Hollow First Birthday First Birthday
First Birthday Little League Ball Play Storyland
Lawn Chair 1959 Inside the Upside Down House Thanksgiving - 1960 Clingmans Dome
Pops Back Yard 1964 Worlds Fair Lawn Chair 1963 Thanksgiving 1967
Daytona Beach Atlantic City Waddle in the Snow Autumn Carnival
Kill Devil Hills Mission Chapel Little Brother On the Phone
Storyland 1960 St Augustine Florida 1962 Fort Lauderdale
Mai Kai Gardens Montgomery Street Summer 1968 Pennsylvania
Shoo Fly Pie Enchanted Forest

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Original snapshot


While focusing on the pencil sharpener paintings, I was also experimenting with a very different style of painting based on snapshots, an idea which came to me when I was digitizing old family photo albums. Aesthetically, I very much like the dynamic rule-breaking compositions which are accidentally created when an amateur photographer is trying to document an occasion while working with conditions and equipment that are much less than ideal. Psychologically, I find it fascinating how these faded snapshots play such a significant role in defining our memories and perceptions of those time periods.

Having already started to occasionally place the pencil sharpener figures into stage-like settings, it was inevitable that I would eventually combine the two interests. Painted in a realistic style which makes the figures almost pop off the surface, I often find it easier to imagine myself experiencing my memories through the eyes of the toys than through the flat, grainy images of a child who no longer bears much of a resemblance to my adult self. They may even seem somewhat menacing as these toys invade my memories and turn them into a world where they're the ones who are alive, and where real human children are no longer welcome. This may be a bit disorienting at times, but always in a manner which both entertains and enlightens. Many viewers might recognize aspects of their own childhood in these images and I invite everyone to look through the eyes of these toy figures to get a uniquely distorted perspective of the time and places being depicted.

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Copyright by Robert Cantor
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