MENTONE — A scruffy, barely-trimmed beard and bow-legged swagger work in concert with the raspy voice of a cowboy to create a persona that seems more likely to arm wrestle a grizzly bear than delicately paint the individual wisps of hair on a medieval hero’s portrait.
It is this contrast — this paradox — that makes Mentone artist Robert A. Hudson a study in extremes. When he’s not taking on projects like re-creating England’s Stonehenge in his front yard or pumping iron in his home gym, he’s trying to encapsulate each and every definition of the word “artist” known to man.
Most humans, when they think of the word “artist,” might picture a mustachioed Italian with palette in hand, carefully brush-stroking the portrait of an aristocrat. They might imagine a sweaty, eccentric sculptor chiseling granite in his hot Venetian studio to create a life-sized sculpture of a Greek god. But “artist” has also been used to describe musicians like Paul McCartney, or master wordsmiths like Ernest Hemingway.
Hudson wants to do it all.
The man known for years in Kosciusko County and beyond as the artist with a gift for painting Western scenes, portraits of mountain men and building-sized murals has begun to explore many other avenues to exercise his brain’s talent-laden right hemisphere.
More than a decade ago, Hudson, 65, picked up the cello and began working on his musical chops. This week he announced the impending release of his first novel, “The Chronicles of Thalos: The Road Beneath Bajor.”
Hudson has announced a book-signing and open house at his studio home on June 23. The event will run from 1 to 7 p.m. at the former Mentone library at 306 N. Broadway St., Mentone.
Hudson was inspired to write the 246,000-word fantasy novel after painting what was essentially a self-portrait.
Two additional books to the trilogy are forthcoming — “The Chronicles of Thalos: The Ascension of Bajor,” and “The Island Between Tomorrow’s (sic).”
Several years ago, Hudson said he was working on a portrait of an old warrior. As he often does with many of his male characters, he used his own face as a blueprint and drew what would eventually become a battle ax-wielding character in Hudson’s fantasy series.
Ironically, the art medium in which the fledgling author has spent the least amount of time is the same form that first attracted him to pursue all things creative.
“The first piece of artwork I ever saw that, I said ‘ooh, I want to do that’ was in an Encyclopedia Britannica when I was like five or six years old and it was ‘Pietà’ by Michelangelo,” Hudson remembered. “I wanted to be a sculptor like him, but never had the opportunities or materials to pursue that.”
A 180-pound stone piece depicting the human form from approximately the belly button to the upper thigh greets visitors in the foyer of the home Hudson shares with wife Linda. “I’ve done a few stone sculptures and it’s heavy, hard work,” he said.
After graduating high school, Hudson said he spent several years in the U.S. Army and returned to Indiana where he had his first bad taste of working for someone else. For years, he had heard stories from his truck-driving father about the grandeur of northern Idaho. When he said he’d had enough of his boss at work, he packed up a vehicle and headed west in 1979.
“I ran out of gas in a town of Lewiston, Idaho and got me a job printing at a print shop,” he said. “I was a press man at the time.”
The owner of the print shop told the quick-tempered Hoosier that it was in creating art where his future rested.
The boss gave Hudson three months pay and kept his unemployment benefits active for about a year in order to help him launch a career drawing and painting.
“I then had time to develop skills and I started selling portraits,” he said. When his stake ran low, he returned to printing periodically before quitting for good in 1986 “and I haven’t had a clock-punching job since then. But, being an artist is rough times.”
While living in the West, Hudson developed his signature style that can be seen in local towns as murals or in his studio with rustic settings. The Claypool native has one of his most treasured works hanging in his house, which he says he may never sell.
The painting, which depicts a herd of wild horses crossing a river, led by cowboys on horseback, is set at the continental divide between Idaho and Montana. The framed painting is four feet wide and eight feet long.
“It took me three years from start to finish,” said Hudson. “It took me three years to make and probably, in hours, a year’s worth of labor. I had to work on it every day because it drove me nuts, all those rocks.”
When he returned to Indiana in 1998, he still found a high demand for Western-related art, but his passion began to wane as his interest in fantasy grew.
Regardless of whether his subjects wear spurs, or swing a 13th-Century sword, Hudson learned years ago he was going to need to overcome a handicap far more debilitating than the most severe case of writer’s block he hoped to get his subjects’ skin tone correct.
“When I was living out in Idaho, I was working just in pencil and the reason being is that I’m color blind and every time I tried to paint, I’d screw up something,” he said. “It’s not that I’m color blind, I’m color confused. I see colors wrong.”
Hudson said he would try to paint something and an observer would point out inconsistencies in his colors.
“So, I decided I would become the best pencil artist I could become because God has a sense of humor and he deemed that I have talent, but I can’t paint.”
One day Hudson discussed the issue with a fellow artist and learned that maybe he could develop a style that would allow him to use primarily the colors that didn’t play tricks on his eyes. “He taught me how to mix a palette of paint within my spectrum,” Hudson said. The earthy colors in his western paintings fell right into his wheelhouse. He steered clear of colors that his eyes couldn’t see. From there, the colleague taught him how to use math to develop a way to create colors that his eye had issues processing. When he learned the proper mix of colors to create a desired hue, he wrote down the ratios and tacked it to the wall of his studio. Using formulas, he overcame what he thought was a limiting, and ironic, disability.
This all changed years later in Winona Lake when Hudson was talking to a customer in his former studio in the Village of Winona.
“I happened to rub my eye,” he said. It was then he realized that the color blindness he discovered only affected his right eye. “My palette grew simply by my ability to cover my eye as I looked at stuff,” he said.
Hudson’s new creative outlet that involves keystroking rather than brush strokes has the cowboy-turned-author’s excitement reaching a boiling point. And, with his penchant for pen and ink and oil paint, illustrating his fantasy novels won’t have to be outsourced.
For at least the first two offerings of Hudson’s trilogy, supporting artwork is already done.
For a man who hasn’t punched a time clock in more than three decades, Hudson lets no moss grow under his feet. When he’s not painting, drawing, sculpting, writing or running the horsehair bow across his cello, he’s finding new and creative ways to enhance his former library residence.
In his front yard, Hudson said he knew he wanted to re-create the timeless ruins of Stonehenge. However, when he was able to secure access to blocks of stone from a construction site, he found the blocks lacking in the proper size. Not to be deterred, Hudson created forms and poured concrete in place to mimic the stone pillars of the English archeological site. When the pseudo stones were created, he used chisels and paint to make the blocks of cement look like weathered stone.
For Hudson, creating is his life. But, it comes at a price.
“I’ve talked to budding artists and asked how many of them want to be an artist and about 80 percent of the hands go up,” he said. “Then I ask how many of them would like to have a new car. Forget the new car. If you want to be an artist, you don’t get a new car.”
If Hudson wants a new car, it will have to remain a fantasy, which plays right into his most recent wheelhouse.