Up Close with Bob Dilworth: “Telling Without Words”

BD in his Studio (self-portrait, 2008), painting by Bob Dilworth

BD in his Studio (self-portrait, 2008)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind.
—Ovid, Metamorphoses

Professor and painter Bob Dilworth often tackles issues of race, culture, ethnicity, family, heritage, and xenophobia through metaphor and allegory in his paintings. He says that his portraits gesture towards moments in art history that run parallel to current events, reflecting the tenuous experiences of people of color in America.

“In a new era of heightened anxiety and uncertainty every identity is unstable. No one is free from him/herself or from others,” he explains. Thus, his paintings within the last three years center on constructing and portraying a new world charged with the ironies of life.

Dilworth’s latest project, “Telling Without Words: A Journey From Oral to Visual Narrative Within the African American Community,” combines the African American oral tradition of story telling with visual formats from within African American art that translate the oral tradition. He interviews subjects for his portraits. He started with African Americans in the South Virginia community of his birth, but has expanded to other Americans of color in Rhode Island, where he now lives. Through this project he asks:

He Who Sees Himself Going, a painting by Bob Dilworth

He Who Sees Himself Going

“What are the stories Americans of color tell today?”

“How have they changed since the last century to construct a new American narrative for this century?”

This project has been received enthusiastically in recent exhibitions.

The featured portraits and self-portraits in The River this week show the energy of his subjects, an energy coming from beneath the skin, boiling underneath, even while the bodies of the figures rest or sleep. Color and shape combine to show how time has written its stories on the bodies of the men and women he paints. Their stories do not necessarily come through as direct narrative, but rather as a moment that reveals a long tortured path to its time, the twists and turns mirrored in the faces and bodies.

Head Study 2, 2007, a painting by Bob Dilworth

Head Study 2, 2007

The emotional strength of these paintings thus translates and transforms the spoken words of the story the person in the painting has to tell into a condensed image of strength, sorrow, and anger that speaks forcefully: “we are here” the subjects of these painting assert, even without words.

Watch Bob Dilworth at work in his studio as he discusses his painting.

Bob Dilworth studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is Chair of the University of Rhode Island Department of Art and Art History. The Rhode Island Foundation, the University of Rhode Island Research Council, the URI Center for the Humanities, and the Davis Foundation Grand Challenge Teaching Fellows, among others, have recognized the significant contributions of his work. His art has been exhibited, especially in Rhode Island, but also in Florida, New York, Virginia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Texas, in both solo and group shows. His work has been collected privately and in museums. You can see more of Bob Dilworth’s work on his website.