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Howard Stern, The Artist, An Interview

Posted by Geoff Edgers  February 7, 2008 06:16 AM

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As some of you know, I'm a big Howard Stern guy. I also cover the arts. So Robyn O'Neil's recent appearance on the Stern show was, at least for me, hard to ignore. She's a real, living artist. See. That's not why she got on the show. Last week, Stern welcomed O'Neil, who is from Texas, into the studio because of her professed love (through e-mails) for Benjy Bronk, the show's mercilously-mocked head writer.

It was a fascinating appearance, not only to hear Stern praise her for her beauty, and question her motivation, but to hear his surprise when she explained that she made good money making art. There was some fallout, though, namely due to a photograph of O'Neil lifting up her shirt (though leaving on her bra) that went up on the Stern show website - and then spread through the Tubes. O'Neil realized the photo made her uncomfortable and it has since been removed. And then there's the matter of Benjy. Will anything come out of her approach?

Because I care, and I do, I spent a couple days tracking O'Neil down and asked her a series of questions. She offered to shorten her answers. I said no, and I'm glad she didn't.

What made you decide to contact Stern, and how did you go about getting on
the show?

I have been writing to the show since before I knew about email. I've been a listener since Howard hit the Dallas airwaves. I was fourteen, living in a conservative suburb. I was a tame, sexually frightened Catholic kid, but somehow The Stern Show appealed to me.

I am simply the type of person who loves writing to tv shows, radio shows, grocery stores, J. Crew... anything I am interested in. I have a need to communicate. Whether I want to say, "Thank you for carrying my favorite tank tops, J. Crew." or, "Sally the sacker is the sweetest thing in your lovely grocery store", I just need to respond.

So, regarding Stern, I listen Monday through Thursday in my studio religiously. My laptop is next to me as I draw and if something strikes me, I send an email to the show. All huge fans tend to do that. It's a thrill when you hear Howard read your email the next day. I've heard him read my emails every once in a while. Names are never mentioned, so it's not that kind of thrill. It's just great to know that your thoughts are heard.

To explain how important this "writing in" is, I probably send an average of 6 email to the show a week. I also write fan letters to John Goodman, Anthony Bourdain, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, and Samm Levine of Freaks and Geeks. Howard is huge to me, but trust me......I'm all over the place with my obsessions.

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There are some folks who speculate that this was some form of performance art. I get the sense you would refute that.

I make large scale graphite drawings. They are somber. They are about the end of the world. They are man vs. nature. Nature wins. How anyone could think that someone who makes the work I make would also consider a time in the Stern studio "art" completely baffles me.

Did you talk to your gallerist, or art advisors or even fellow artists before doing this?

No, because I honestly didn't know my art life would be discussed on the Stern Show. After one of my emails describing how much I loved Benjy, I got my first response. After years of writing to the show. They said it was rare that anyone appreciated Benjy.

So, they asked me to be a guest. I thought, "This is my one and only chance to meet Benjy and everyone else on the Stern Show and I want to meet them." I accepted. They found out, after researching me on the internet, like they do all guests, that I was an artist. They have never had a visual artist on the show and got oddly very interested in this part of me. I tried playing it down because I know, as an avid fan, that I don't tune into this show for art reasons. So, they asked if I wanted to have them put up any of the websites I'm associated with and I said no. They weren't used to that as most people go on there for plugs and publicity alone. I think I really threw them for a loop.

Long story short, during the appearance, Howard simply asks what I do for a living. I tell him I'm an artist and figure they'll make fun of that and move on. But, they were interested in hearing more about it. So, I talked about what I did a bit, tried to keep it simple, brief. And they kept pushing. The producers in the back then flash images up on all the cast's computers of my work from the internet. So, they start asking me about dead owls, and sweat suits, and pencils. As uncanny as it sounds, it turned into a full-on art lecture for 3 million Howard Stern fans. In my 16 years of listening, I can honestly say that nothing like that has ever happened on that show. And it went very well. To hear Howard make a joke about my dead owl drawing was completely unexpected and funny. That dead owl represents the most sensitive and personal experience of my life, the death of my grandmother, my hero. Howard found out how much money one of my drawings go for, which he was impressed with, and said, "Shoot me an owl, I'm going to paint one!" For someone working with this symbol of death and love and wisdom in such a serious way for 7 years to hear HOWARD STERN turn it into a joke was just plain incredible. I loved it.

Moving on, here's where the problem with the excitement over me being an artist started. Fans who come on the show never get their last name mentioned and that's why I was comfortable going on. Last names are for celebrities and other people plugging things. I just assumed I would be "Robyn" period. I think Howard thought, since I already had a public persona, so to speak (I'm google-able), that he would do me a favor by saying my full name. So, at the very end, he summed me up by saying, "OK, this is Robyn O'Neil, she's a famous artist, and I wish her luck with Benjy".....within the first two hours of Howard saying my full name, I was the 3rd most searched "phrase" on google. All day, because of this show, I was in the top 20 of all things searched on google. It was a slow news day, but still. It just made me sick. It's been so weird. I thought I'd go on the Stern show and that no one in the art world would ever find out. But, things really blew up. Not in my face, because I still don't regret a thing. Except making my parents upset, it was all a great experience. I had the greatest time, but I just don't like people thinking this is somehow entwined with my art life. The only way it is, is that I somehow managed to get Howard Stern and the gang to talk art for 15 minutes, which, I must say, is quite an accomplishment.

Do you think the art world types understand your going on the show?

I think half of them are excited and amused by it and the other half I don't care about. They are no fun. Look, I have dealt with depression my whole life, I understand "seriousness." I make very serious work, I read serious literature and watch serious films, but I can still laugh at life and the world. I watch dumb tv shows so that I can laugh. There is nothing wrong with this variety, but I find alot of art world types tend to view everything through ART, and that is truly troubling to me. I actually find it really really sad.

What has been the best thing about going on Stern?

Meeting Artie Lange. He's one of the most complicated, interesting, kind hearted and misunderstood people. I find him to be absolutely incredible.

What has been the worst thing about going on Stern?

My parents getting upset. They were excited, then upset, and are now just happy that I am happy. But I never wanted to hurt them. We're Irish Catholic and from Nebraska. That sums it up.

I got a sense that the reaction you've received from folks back in Texas has not been so supportive. Is that true? Can you go more into it?

I've been sick to my stomach for the past few days over it because I'm such a private person. I'm not used to being talked about. In fact, most artists in Houston never even realize I live here because I stay at home and in my studio all the time. I'm a hermit.

So, some people are disgusted I guess, but I think they were more confused than anything. The great part is that the "right" people really get it. I've gotten emails from the people I respect the most in the Texas art world and they love that I went on the show. And these are people I don't know personally, so I know they truly mean it. I guess, like Howard himself, this isn't for everyone. I have to be comfortable with that. The people who don't get it are just not my kind of people.

I find this shirt-lifting photo situation confusing. What happened to the photo on the Stern site, and then the photos put in other places? Do you regret lifting your shirt? Were there other things the Stern folks wanted you to do but you turned down?

Yes, Bababooey asked me to masturbate on air and they asked me to show my breasts. I said, "No", and they didn't push it. I did show the crew my bra, and it was no big deal to me until these art obsessed bloggers decided THAT was the biggest thing to happen in the Texas art world. That's why I got the images removed. The funniest part of that is that the Stern folks were MORE than happy to oblige when I asked to remove the picture from their site even though they legally had every right to keep the photos up, but artists with blogs almost refused. Why? I have NO CLUE. It's bizarre.

Also, I wanted to remove the image so that my parents wouldn't be as mad at me. It helped.

What is the plan from here? Will you date Benjy? Artie?

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Benjy and I are in contact and have been talking. I plan on seeing him next time I'm in NYC. I wish to God Artie and I could spend some time together, but that's up to him. We have each other's contact information, so we'll see. I'm not pushing it. I'm just happy I met him and gave him presents. He mentioned how much he loved the gifts on the show on Monday. He apparently already read the book I gave him, "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" by Nathaniel Philbrick. And he said it was great, which it is.

Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?

I have a great life romantically.

How would you describe your art?

Very simply, I would say I make large scale graphite drawings. They are narrative landscapes. They are melancholy and every once in a while, hopeful.

When did you start drawing?

I started oil painting with my grandma when I was five years old. From that moment on, I wanted to be an artist. I did a bit of everything until about seven years ago. I decided that graphite drawing was the perfect medium for the stories I wanted to tell and I've been dedicated to my pencil ever since.

Who are your favorite artists?

Hieronymus Bosch
Pieter Brueghel
George Stubbs
Francisco Goya
Mark Rothko
Vincent van Gogh
Alex Katz
Henry Darger
Ed Ruscha
Caspar David Friedrich

Are there any artists you look to as role models or people who look up to?

Oddly enough, no. My creative role model is Werner Herzog.

Some artists are very reclusive. Others are more outgoing. Is there an artist whose style - not artistically, but personality-wise - you look to emulate?

I don't emulate the life of any visual artist. I just operate naturally. As I mentioned earlier, I'm extremely reclusive...most of the time! I guess when I step out, I REALLY step out.

Has this Stern appearance actually had any impact on your art sales?

No, I don't think it will affect my actual art life or sales at all. (Artie wants a drawing, though!) The only way it has effected my art life is that bloggers are all over it. And now that I write that, that doesn't actually effect ME at all. I thought it did until I wrote this. Sure, it may affect how some art bloggers think of me, but that doesn't change a thing about my life in my studio or my life within the gallery or museum context.

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About Exhibitionist Geoff Edgers covers arts news for The Boston Globe..
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