Husband-and-wife team Robert, who goes by Rob, and Tulisha, nicknamed Tish by Terlingua friends, collectively known as the Dampiers, brought their love of turning found objects into fine art to the Big Bend, with a recent move from Galveston to Terlingua Ranch.
Rob’s art career began on the Texas coast when he worked as an architectural sculptor’s apprentice, with University of Houston Department of Architecture Professor Greg Bruegger, on large-scale public sculptures in steel, stainless and other metals. Rob came to the table with welding skills and a grand curiosity, and soon learned the mechanics of building architectural sculpture. On the side, he tooled around with making his own work. When a prominent Houston art collector showed interest in what he made, Rob thought maybe he was on to something.
He never really considered himself an artist to begin with, but had always been a bit of a collector, beach combing, antiquing, and taking home other people’s discarded treasures.
“When I started, I didn’t even know if I could call it art,” Rob said. He had no formal art education.
But using his newly acquired building skills on his collection of found objects made sense, and his first sale was a confidence booster, so he decided to continue.
As a twenty-something Rob relocated from Houston to Galveston, landing in the lively historic art district called the Strand. There he met Tulisha, co-manager for Hendley Market, a hub for the artistic community. The connection was immediate for them both.
“I’m going to marry her,” was his first thought.
“I thought the same thing,” Tulisha added, though realizing those thoughts would take some time.
Even before their romance came to fruition, Tulisha was taken by Rob’s art and was eager to promote it. As a creative writing graduate of Naropa University in Boulder and a regular in the Texas coastal art scene, Tulisha had a trained and knowledgeable eye. Rob’s self-taught style fell under the umbrella of assemblage art— sculptures assembled from often disparate elements scavenged by the artist.
A couple of Rob’s early influences included stop-motion animators The Brothers Quay, whose films played on repeat in the background of his studio, and one of the pioneers of assemblage art, Joseph Cornell. Rob admires Cornell’s lifestyle, not just his art. Cornell lived a quiet life, whose inner world was expressed in intricate collages. “He was the opposite of (Jackson) Pollock (an art contemporary of Cornell), who wanted to be a rock star. Cornell was known for the quality of his work, not the grandeur of his art lifestyle,” Rob noted.
It would take a few years before Rob and Tulisha would kindle their romance, but once they did, they became an artistic power couple. Rob was the hermit of the two, staying home, working on art projects, or wandering beaches for castaway objects and other finds. To say he was a recluse is a bit of an understatement—Tulisha was often mistaken as the artist herself since Rob rarely went to his own shows. As a social butterfly and a natural networker, Tulisha built a clientele for his work. She became art manager of Robert Dampier Studio, arranging shows and working with collectors. Because of her success in building him up through word of mouth, there was no need for a permanent gallery to house his work.
That kind of mobility would make transitioning the studio to Terlingua easier.
Tish had grown up visiting the Big Bend on camping trips with her parents and it long remained one of her favorite places. She told Rob about Big Bend many times over their almost 20 years together, but it wasn’t until three years ago that Rob would finally experience it firsthand.
After rebuilding their Galveston studio twice due to coastal flooding, the couple began to consider other options. They put their Victorian house on the market, and as soon as it sold they made a celebratory trip to Big Bend. Rob was just as enchanted as Tish with the wide-open spaces and dramatic landscapes. On that visit, Rob’s first, they found a 15-acre property for sale and bought it outright.
It took a couple of years to untether their lives from the Texas coast and prepare for the move, but they finally became full-time Terlingua residents at the beginning of 2020. Starting with a couple of shipping containers plopped onto their property, the two set to work creating a captivating off-grid studio and home space.
Rob’s knack for fabricating trompe l’oeils in his art was put to work in personalizing their container home. The interior walls were fitted with stained wood from scavenged pallets to resemble antique board and batten siding, like the inside of a late 1800s saloon.
It’s important for the couple to incorporate as many scavenged, recycled, and natural items into the design as possible, bearing an undeniable resemblance to Rob’s art aesthetic.
Rob is drawn to the assemblage lifestyle as much as he is to assemblage art. “You’re not having to rely on new materials or an art supply store. There’s no end to junk,” he said.
There’s an inherent history in found objects. “It’s a great way to create a narrative; to put thoughts and intentions into careful arrangements. Everything has a story— pieces of wood, bottle caps have their own life that gave them character. It’s hard to get that quality in painting. The age and character are real (in found objects),” he continued.
Entering the dimly-lit interior of the Dampier’s Terlingua abode provides a stark contrast to the bright, harsh desert surroundings outside, a slightly disorienting yet fitting introduction to the surreal assemblages adorning the space.
A row of vintage wooden brick molds is displayed along one wall. They function as shadow boxes for vignettes assembled from Rob’s desert finds. A delicate upraised hand wears a sun-bleached cow vertebra in place of a shirt cuff that looks more like a bow than a bone, and sharp cactus spines protrude from its fingers as graphic reminders of the unforgiving realities of desert life. Rusty springs, bits of driftwood, a nest and little figurines— a skeleton and a priest—take the stage of these small wooden boxes, called “Reflections of living in the Chihuahuan desert.”
The passage of time is palpable in his work, as are the four elements—air, water, earth and fire—either in abundance or scarcity in day-to-day desert life.
Starry night skies, angels, crowns, eyes, skulls, and ancient texts are repeating motifs imbuing a sense of the mystical.
“In my work, I try to lead people to contemplating spirituality or God, but not in any specific religious context,” he said.
He hopes the symbols will speak to someone. He considers his art a trail of breadcrumbs of life lessons, a way for the shy artist to be known by others.
Yet the former city recluse has found a sense of liberating openness in the desert. Since making the move to Terlingua, Rob has been more social than ever. He attributes the change to the feeling of freedom that comes with living in the midst of vast wilderness. There are many acres between the Dampiers and their neighbors; he can revel in privacy at his home studio, surrounded by resplendent vistas of Nine Point Mesa and all-encompassing sunsets. He spends more time socializing at The Little Burro than he ever did anywhere in Galveston. The Little Burro is a general store where Tish works part-time, and the hub of social life for the remote dwellers and societal outcasts of the desert flats.
It’s a growing community of people not unlike Rob and Tish: people drawn to the elemental, raw lifestyle of winging it in an often inhospitable environment. People looking to escape overcrowded cities, with a penchant for nostalgia and building things in this modern day in a way they wish things were. People willing to work together and give one another space to be individuals. Rob’s art is at home here.
Rob and Tish are both active members of this defiant desert community, participating in art shows and, in general, helping to grow a defining culture of big city refugees. The Dampier’s long-term plans include creating earth bag structures on their property to support struggling artists with artist-in-residency programs.
This summer, one of Rob’s sculptures, entitled Zaphod, was shown in a Texas Sculpture Group exhibit at San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibit, entitled The State of Sculpture: an All-Member Exhibition, was a collection of sculptures from some of the most talented artists across Texas at this time. But true to form, only Tulisha attended the art opening, bringing a car full of Terlingua friends with her.
A collection of Rob’s work, dating from the present to 2003, can be viewed online at RobertDampier.com.