At first glance, Robert Bissell’s art suggests the struggles and triumphs of animals through a narrative painting style reminiscent of illustrative children’s books. But within Bissell’s work lies a more profound message. Familiar animals from our collective childhood, including bears and rabbits, are purposefully set in magical yet realistic landscapes to disarm viewers and draw them in. Once inside Bissell’s art, viewers discover that the quizzical, contemplative, menacing, or exultant animals actually represent us. Bissell then takes us on an unexpected journey, where in the end we realize that we are not separate from nature, but rather are part of it. Bissell’s initially disarming style is just the first layer of his intent, beyond which his art poses challenging and essential questions of what we are. His message is that we are ultimately part of nature, something we may have forgotten.
Art that is rooted in and focuses on nature is a theme that reaches back to Bissell’s childhood. Bissell, now living and working in San Francisco, grew up on a farm in the English countryside outside the small village of West Quantoxhead in Somerset, England.
Bissell remembers children’s stories from an early age with animals as the main characters such as The Tales of Peter Rabbit, Winnie-the-Pooh and A Bear Called Paddington. He also remembers the rabbits, frogs, owls and other animals in the surrounding countryside that became his childhood friends, bringing to life the stories that Bissell read and heard as he spent his days wandering the fields of his family’s farm.
“For me, there was very little difference between the children’s literature I was exposed to inside our house and the childhood I experienced outdoors on the farm,” Bissell recalls. “It was these first experiences with animals in their natural setting that gave me a special perspective on nature. I felt connected to what was around me, and felt kinship and belonging. I was part of it, part of them, and it became part of me. I was nature. I did not feel separate from it.”
These formative childhood experiences became an integral part of Bissell’s world-view that have never left him. Bissell has consistently worked to connect nature with people through his art, starting in his early days as a photography student at the Manchester College of Art and later at the Royal College of Art in London. Nearly 18 years ago, after a career as a photographer, graphic designer and eventual corporate executive, Bissell decided to explore a new form of art that took him beyond the mediums of print and photography: he taught himself how to paint. Today, his repertoire of paintings includes more than 500 originals.
“I wanted to promote the idea of looking at ourselves using animals or creatures as mirrors for us and the human condition. I wanted to give people the opportunity to question our place in nature, where we came from, and where we are going,” explains Bissell. “The only meaningful answers are personal ones. If I can help people find answers through my art, then I’m grateful.”