Artist Robert E. Gilbert (REG)

13 Jul

 

Alien landscape by REG

Robert E. Gilbert, who signed his work REG, was arguably the most prolific and popular illustrator of SF fanzines in the 1960s. His covers and interior illos were nearly ubiquitous, particularly in midwestern and southern zines. They appeared everywhere from popular regional zines like IscariotMaelstrom, and Double Bill to Hugo-nominated zines like Yandro and Amra. And he regularly won “Best Fan Artist” in the egoboo polls of the Southern Fandom Press Alliance.

With their generally bold simple lines, his drawings were perfect for the

An REG fanzine illo from the Sixties.

zines of the day, most of which were mimeographed. The mimeograph has gone the way of the VCR, but it was the way most zines were done in the 1960s, and art had to be traced laboriously onto a mimeograph stencil with a metal stylus. So the relative simplicity of REG’s drawings was a plus, but his work was hardly crude; it was well-designed and frequently hinted at some story.

A few years ago I rejoined the Southern Fandom Press Alliance (SFPA), after having been away a mere four decades, and as SFPA’s 50th anniversary approached, some discussion arose about how to commemorate it. I suggested to the group’s official archivist, Ned Brooks, that a portfolio of REG

cover from, Amra, a Sixties Sword & Sorcery fanzine

covers would be an excellent thing to include in the 50th anniversary mailing of SFPA. He demurred–perhaps shrinking from the prospect of rummaging through his 12,000 fanzine archive for REG covers. He did, however, dig up two REG covers and printed them in his zine, The Newport News, using one for the cover of issue.

Having thought of Robert E. Gilbert for the first time in years, I Googled him. I didn’t find a lot, but I did get two surprises. One was that REG had made three professional sales of SF stories. (These can be found at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/34313) Another was that a gallery had purchased over 400 of his drawings and paintings. Paintings? I never knew REG painted. I found all that interesting but soon forgot about it.

November, 1952 issue of Galaxy, in which REG's story, "A Thought for Tomorrow," appeared.

That’s because, unlike my old friend, Bill Plott, I’m not a seasoned professional journalist. Back when he was in his teens and early twenties, Bill Plott edited a couple of now legendary zines, Maelstrom and Sporadic, before he left SF fandom behind for a distinguished career as a journalist. Much like myself, he was recently drawn back into publishing through SFPA, after four decades away, and resurrected his zine, Sporadic. As he relates in the latest issue (#18) of that zine, this eventually prompted him to delve into his boxes of old fannish material, where he discovered a trove of some 20 unpublished REG illos.

Once he stopped doing backflips around the neighborhood, he got curious: Maybe Robert E. Gilbert was still around. So he Googled him, as I had done, and found the site with all of REG’s paintings at http://www.folkartisans.com. Unlike me, though, he didn’t think, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and shrug it off; he eventually contacted Folk Artisans, a gallery in Mentone, Alabama. First, he went to their website, where he saw that REG, a Tennessean, had died in 1993. Bill sent that information to his friend, genealogist and fellow SFPA member, Larry Montgomery. Larry got back to him with the information that REG was born May 26, 1924 in Sullivan County, Tennessee and died April 4, 1993, seemingly in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Further REG had served in the US ARmy from January 31, 1943 to August 9, 1944.

That was pretty much all they had, until Bill reached one of the gallery owners, Matt Lippa, by phone. In Sporadic 18, Bill writes:

 

Another strange landscape by REG, 1964

He [Matt Lippa] said that they bought the paintings sight-unseen via auction.

“It was very last minute. We got a call from a friend who was going to the auction. We literally had our topcoats and hats on and were heading out the door for a trip when the phone rang. I answered and was told about the art. It was not catalogued, put on at the end and never advertised. I told my friend to bid up to a certain amount–sight unseen. Got a call from him the next night that we got the bid and he would bring it to us.

“We did finally speak with the auctioneer who could give us NO info, and said he tried to get it. He said the family was very uncooperative with information about Gilbert. He was something of an outcast, apparently, and they wanted nothing to do with him. Our Friend took one of them to dinner and a bar and was not able to break through that,” Matt related.

The gallery acquired the collection in 2003.

Later in Sporadic 18, Bill writes:

I have speculated a lot on the estrangement from his [Gilbert’s} estrangement from his family. Living in that mountainous region, I wondered if his family was very fundamentalist and found pictures of scantily clad women sinful. I wonder if it was science fiction, being something just too weird for them to relate to. Or some behavioral situation totally unrelated to his art. We will likely never know.

Like Bill, I’m curious about REG’s black sheep status. I’m also intrigued by the picture of REG that emerges. Estranged from his family, living in a small town in the rural South, creating hundreds of illos for fanzines, writing the occasional SF short story, and painting hundreds of unearthly paintings, few of which, it would seem, ever sold. It’s an archetypical image of the lonely artist, toiling in obscurity.10reg_big

What parts of the picture are we missing though? Does anyone have any more information on Robert E. Gilbert?

To view more of REG’s artwork, go tohttp://www.folkartisans.com.

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