Robert Gillespie: Auto Racing Artist

Pivotal moments early in a life have a strong influence on the direction that that life later takes.  For Robert Gillespie, Penn Yan artist, that pivotal moment was his first visit to Watkins Glen International Racetrack in 1960 when he was 11 years old.  Even after 40 years, he is transfixed by the memories of his first encounter with the machines that would eventually become the subject of his best artwork.

“I can still hear and see in my mind a car at speed, going down the back straightaway, with this long exhaust pipe running along close to the cockpit, and resonating in the most magnificent way. The sunlight sparkling off that exhaust pipe and the slippery shape of the car was just hypnotic for me.”

Robert’s father, hearing that Stirling Moss would be racing at the Glen, took Robert and his brothers to the race, mostly, Robert suspects, to instill in the boys an appreciation of the engineering that went into producing these wonders of speed and endurance. That appreciation transpired, but for Robert, the physical beauty of the racecars combined with the natural setting of the road racing circuit, touched a deeper chord.

In high school, Robert made his first attempts to paint racecars. He took a correspondence course from an art school that included Peter Helk as an adjunct faculty member, a recognized master of auto racing art, and made his first racecar paintings, a Formula 1 car, at 14 and a Porsche 906, at 18.

After high school, Robert studied engineering at Clarkson College in order to be an auto designer, but found it to be unsatisfying. In his junior year, he attended a drawing class at Potsdam State University to offset the dry curriculum he was immersed in. “Once I did,” he says, “I knew that was it.” He transferred to Potsdam State and majored in art and photography.

In 1972, he started teaching art in the Penn Yan public school system and began to explore various media and styles of art on his own. Photo realism was big in painting then and his air-brushed works of famous auto racing greats garnered his first show at Keuka College in 1974.

Also in ‘74, Robert enrolled in graduate school. Again he majored in art and photography. During this time he produced paintings, using air-brush and traditional methods, of space-themed subjects. The style, however, was still photo-realistic. Occasionally he would paint a foreground on masonite and afterwards attach a map of the earth, at the proper scale, to represent the earth’s surface. While he enjoyed these exercises, he still felt he was just dabbling with painting techniques and had not yet found his niche.

Immediately following grad school, his brother-in-law, who owned a printing press, approached him with the suggestion that Robert do a series of 12 pen-and-ink sketches having a regional theme that they could self-publish as a calendar. He agreed, and for the next 21 years they published calendars, which they sold in local gift shops and museums. For most of those years they concentrated on scenery, vineyards, and items relating to local history.

Since Glenn Curtiss, an early pioneer in aviation, had lived and worked in Hammondsport, New York, Robert did a series of sketches of his aircraft for one year’s calendar. In his teen years he had drawn a World War II era P-51 Mustang fighter for his father, who immediately, and much to Robert’s surprise, counted the rivets on the side of the fuselage and announced that the number he had included was incorrect. “I think it demonstrates how I came to realize the importance of details on the machines I paint. The engineering training helps here too.”

Further on in the calendar series, the subject matter began to evolve along different lines.  “I was interested in aging technology and what happens to a car when you leave it out in the environment. I was very interested in ecology and care for the earth and also, because I’m interested in geology, I have an understanding of time and how nature recycles. It will continue to recycle anything we have done or will do in the future. If we destroy the earth, we’re really destroying just ourselves and the earth will keep chugging along. It will have to make some adjustments and shake us off like fleas.”

With this philosophy in mind, he started sketching autos in junkyards that showed the effects of “how nature recycles.” They depict cars with vines, bushes, and small trees gently consuming them and the effects of the environment on them after years in the elements.

A natural outgrowth of the junkyard sketches came in the last few years of the calendar series. Robert started searching for the “ultimate junkyard” and concluded it would be an abandoned airfield. Using photos of fighter planes and the birds of prey many of them were named after, he launched a new study that illustrates the power of nature to outlast the artifacts of man. While the first year’s sketches featured more planes than birds, this ratio was reversed by the following year, until eventually the planes disappeared entirely from the images.

One fan of Gillespie’s calendars was Doug Akin, a resident of Michigan. Robert noticed a sketch of a racecar on a check Akin had sent in payment for the “Birds of Prey” series. His curiosity aroused, he called Akin to enquire about the check. Akin told him he was a Formula Ford race driver and had competed at Watkins Glen since the early seventies.  They hit if off immediately and Akin commissioned a painting of his automobile. Robert Gillespie’s art had come full circle.

Doug Akin was so pleased with the commissioned work that he felt Robert should start painting auto racing scenes and selling prints to the public. According to Gillespie, “That was all the encouragement I needed.” He had movies and stills of many races he had attended to draw from. However, the approaching 50th anniversary of post-war road racing in America, which started in Watkins Glen, sent him in search of archival material that would celebrate the early days of the sport.

His search led him to Bill Green, the course historian for Watkins Glen. “During our first meeting, Bill brought the old circuit to life with detailed accounts and a wealth of photos. I can’t claim a sudden inspiration but my brain quickly reached ‘circuit’ overload. It was as if a spotlight was shining into the local King Tut’s tomb of racing history.” In addition to the incredible resource Robert had found in Bill Green, he was informed that Watkins Glen would be the home of a racing history research center that would be gathering archival materials from all over the world.

Drawing on his father’s influence, his own engineering studies, the vintage materials at the research library, early race paintings by Gordon Crosby and Peter Helk and the work of photographers such as Louis Klemantaski and Rainer Schlegelmilch, Gillespie began a series of paintings to sell as limited edition prints. Most are of the early street course in and around Watkins, but a few are from book covers he was commissioned to create for several books on auto racing history. He tackles the problem of how to include a sense of speed in his work, a rarity in motor sport art, but an essential element to Gillespie’s vision. There is another essential element. “The setting is just as important as the car and driver. To me it’s a total package. It’s the whole feeling you get watching these cars in such a picturesque setting. It’s just a bombardment of all the senses.”

When he needs a critical eye to keep his perspective on a new piece, he doesn’t have to go further than his wife, Char, who “provides expert advice at key periods in the creative process. Sometimes I get carried away with enthusiasm and the color in the road or landscape just gets too wild. Her fresh viewpoint and honesty has brought me back to a more realistic color balance on many occasions…a good reason to paint at the kitchen table.”

In addition to the fresh viewpoint he gets from his wife, he draws on his family in a more whimsical manner for his paintings. “In the Watkins Glen series, I have done three paintings that are races that my family and I actually attended. In all those paintings, I have painted family members into the crowd. I appear in two of those paintings, my wife and kids are in one, and my father is in one. We are not obvious, but can be seen if pointed out.”

The time spent creating vintage motor sport art has been an education. “I thought I knew something about the races and the history, but five years into this I have a completely different awareness of what it’s all about.”

The latest phase in Gillespie’s career is a mural project in Watkins Glen. In 2001, using donated materials, he recreated his work, “Bill Milliken, Watkins Glen, 1948,” on the exterior of Salt of the Earth Gallery. For many, it was their first exposure to Robert Gillespie’s work. For locals, it captures a nostalgic moment just before Milliken crashed, an event that led to renaming the spot, Milliken’s Corner. He survived the crash and was present at the dedication of the mural.

This year, Robert Gillespie will paint his second mural in Watkins Glen. It depicts a story that driver Phil Walters told the artist regarding a specific moment in the 1954 Grand Prix race. Walters, who had been trying, for three laps, to get Bill Spear’s attention at the top of a particularly dangerous downhill stretch, makes eye contact and from the look in his eye says, “You’d better back off.” It’s this kind of inside information that inspires Gillespie’s race art, which he loves to make, when possible, from the original sources.

“In doing race art, I have been able to do what I felt like doing, which is work on my own translations of events I choose. My artwork has been just myself and wherever my imagination wants to go. It’s interesting how it started out with cars when I was 11 years old, has gone all over the place and has gravitated right back to the cars in a way that I never would have imagined. It wasn’t planned. It just all fell together with key people being very helpful and encouraging along the way.”


by Roger Soule
Roger Soule is a freelance photographer and owner of Soule Photography in Watkins Glen, New York.