“The Art of Robert Villamagna” showcases artist’s life experiences, narratives through metalwork

“The Art of Robert Villamagna” is on display in the Strohl Art Center’s Bellowe Family Gallery through July 18.
Dave Munch / photo editor
“The Art of Robert Villamagna” is on display in the Strohl Art Center’s Bellowe Family Gallery through July 18.

Robert Villamagna’s first experience making art began with a trip to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh with his mother and future step-father when he was a small child.

Dave Munch / photo editor
Robert Villamagna’s “Boom!”

“Now, we didn’t visit the art portion of the museum. I wouldn’t see that, actually, believe it or not, until I was 18 years old, but we visited (the) natural history (wing), and the room that really blew my mind as a 5 year old was these knights in armor,” he said.

He recalled seeing the armor and finding himself completely captivated. Villamagna returned home and borrowed graph paper from his grandfather, who worked at a power plant.

“I laid on the living room floor and I started drawing these knights in armor as I recalled them from our day’s visit and my eventual, to-be step-father looked down over my shoulder and said ‘Those look exactly like what we saw today,’ ” Villamagna said. “Well, I really believe that that little line of support stirred something in me, because I never stopped drawing from that point on.”

Years later, the West Virginia-based artist works primarily with metal. His art, dreamlike and vibrant, adorns the walls of the second floor Bellowe Family Gallery in the Strohl Art Center. 

Curated by Judy Barie, the Susan and John Turben Director of CVA Galleries, “The Art of Robert Villamagna” is open through July 18.

Robert Villamagna's “Class Clown.”
Dave Munch / photo editor
Robert Villamagna’s “Class Clown.”

Villamagna’s art employs found imagery and materials, often collaged and pieced together to craft visual narratives about his life and experiences living in the Rust Belt. His pieces conjure stories and invite the viewer into the piece as an active participant.

Growing up, Villamagna didn’t know many artists. The majority of what Villamagna knew about art came from glimpses of a neighbor’s abstract paintings through the window, what he saw on the Disney Channel, and magazine illustrators.

Most of the people he knew worked in mills, and for a long time, he did, too. Much of his art work comes from his firsthand experiences working in a mill and living in Appalachia. He recalled his boss, during a particularly hard day, suggesting that he make art about working in the mill.

“He said, ‘You realize you’re working in the belly of a dinosaur, and someday you’re going to be able to tell your grandchildren about this place?’,” Villamagna said.

Robert Villamagna's “American Industry.”
Dave Munch / photo editor
Robert Villamagna’s “American Industry.”

Villamagna said although he didn’t believe he would heed that advice at the time, he took it to heart, and now finds himself making a portion of his work about his experiences.

When they view the exhibition, he hopes Chautauquans will find a sense of joy, and that they will engage with the works and craft their own narratives. He said he most enjoys when people actively spend time with the art he’s created.

“If somebody would come and look at my work and spend some time with it, that’s absolutely the best, and I still get excited about that,” he said. “I still get excited that somebody could look at my work — something that I created that didn’t exist before — and somebody cares about it.” 

Villamagna also stressed that anybody who has a drive to create should do everything in their power to make it happen, even if it isn’t in a full-time capacity. He said he hopes his work will inspire others to pursue their own artistic endeavors, no matter what they might be.

“I just think it’s really important, if you have some kind of creative side, that you get involved with that,” he said. “I think that’s life changing.”

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The author Julia Weber

Julia Weber is a rising junior in Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College where she is majoring in journalism and minoring in art history. Originally from Athens, Ohio, this is her first summer in Chautauqua and she is thrilled to cover the theater and dance performances. She serves as the features editor for Ohio University’s All-Campus Radio Network, a student-run radio station and media hub, and she is a former intern for Pittsburgh Magazine. Outside of her professional life, Julia has a newly adopted cat, Griffin, and she is an avid fan of live music and a dedicated ceramicist.