Reflecting on his brother’s childhood here in Penticton, Philip Costain recalls, “Robin enjoyed the company of many friends’. He loved to hang out with people. Anyone who knew him well, knew that he would show up and hang out…..and would usually have a bag lunch with him…..and a sketch pad… Sometimes I would join him on these outings. It was a chance to meet his friends and spend time talking and sharing our Big Ideas.”
Robin studied at Okanagan College in Kelowna receiving a diploma in Fine Arts before moving to Vancouver where he received a diploma in Art in Merchandising from Langara College and a diploma in Graphic Design from Capilano College. On an old copy of his resume he writes under related skills and volunteer work, “Apart from my training in design, I am also an accomplished visual artist with numerous shows to my credit, both locally and internationally. It enables me to interact with people of all ages, cultures, races, genders as equals. Art has a wonderful way of breaking down barriers and opening discussion. It is a reality in today’s world that numerous organizations and agencies would not function without volunteers. I volunteer for the most part when I have the time to give, working with such organizations as Children’s Hospital, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Spartacus Books, Arts in Action Society and the Grunt Gallery.” It also notes that he worked for the Penticton Art Gallery in 1981 as the assistant curator, creating an exhibition that celebrated the 100th anniversary of Picasso’s birth.
Upon graduation Robin began taking on a number of small graphic design contracts for various companies, and all the while his real passion lay in the creation and exploration of his own works which explored themes of spiritually and the human struggle. Robin’s girlfriend at the time Janice Hall remembers, “Robin was the polar opposite and seemed determined to take the “starving artist” road in life. He treated any commercial work he obtained as something extremely distasteful that he must endure to support his art. We lived in completely different worlds and recognizing this, we parted fondly.” Janice also recalls attending his first solo exhibitions entitled Rebar at the East Van Cultural Centre, “I went with another classmate, Brian Aske. Together the three of us had been the 3 amigos back in our college days. I was impressed with the show and blown away by the volume of work heʼd amassed. Of course the showʼs theme was a statement on the effects of mass development. He saw our quaint, quirky Vancouverʼs rapid change in the name of the almighty dollar and felt compelled to put it all on canvas.”
In going through his papers I found an undated copy of one of Robin’s artist statements which may have been for the exhibition mentioned previously and in his own words he described his own motivation, process and interests as follows…
“I think this note is for those of you who don’t know me rather than those that do. I have lived in this city for almost 12 years now but I was originally raised in the Okanagan. I think the thing I’ve noticed most is the constant amount of change this city goes through, a city with such a short history. It’s this type of change that consistently keeps me creating the work which you are now viewing. There is another world altogether out there. It is abstract in its rhythm; it does not have the same rules as the rest of the city. It is a world that is of a past existence but a past existence here in your city, your time passed. Documented ruthlessly, no doubt, by some carefully guided archivist. I know these structures histories but I think the pleasure comes from freeing the mind from what is known to a higher liberation of thought. A bit of magic for the hurried world, so slow down, it won’t stop.
If I have noticed anything about the work that is evolving, it is that sense of rhythm, that abstract language of symbol and colour, a relationship which is translation becomes a code, an urban code. I used to think it strange that I grew up in a more natural environment yet I seemed to be fascinated with an urban world. My statements over time have become more reflective, spontaneous, triggering strong sensory reactions from the audiences to their colour and the language of their forms. I think the strongest of all being memory. Many people tell me of their personal accounts due to strong symbolic connections to my work. Most of you who live or work in the city pass through these spaces on a daily, if not sometimes regular basis. The next time you are walking through the city, take some time to notice the changes, the contrasts in style, look down an alleyway, see the graffiti, the marks which time inflicts, see the boarded up windows, the tar lines, the bricked-in doorways. That’s my world, that’s what turns me on whether it be dawn or the wee twilight hours you can bet to see me out there in it.”
Underlying it all Robin struggled with depression a roller-coaster ride careening from moment to moment between the amazing highs to those impossible lows it was a ghost that haunted him and lurks within the dark recesses of his paintings. Looking back on his struggles with depression Philip states, “His was a silent struggle. Even those closest to him will remember Robin as being the encourager, the one who would have the right words at the right time…The gentle soul giving big hugs. Much of his art reflects and reveals this struggle. I think that anyone who has battled with mental illness will be able to identify with these themes.”
Tragically Robin lost his battle with depression in April of 1994, taking his own life in his art studio, an old warehouse in East Vancouver. As with anyone confronted with a tragedy of this magnitude, hindsight illuminates the warning signs pointing to the fact that something was wrong, yet nothing could stop the train as it left the station and you helplessly watch those you love slip away out of reach, leaving behind those who loved them the most trying to pick up the pieces.
Bringing these works back into the light for the first time in over 20 years allows a new generation of individuals an insight into his world and for those who knew him perhaps the chance to revisit an old friend and in doing so find some closure. For Philip and his family “This show is our opportunity to honor him. The work you see around you tonight is but a fraction of what Robin created in his 32 years on this planet. You will find that as you look at these paintings….each of them tells a story…and the story changes each time you look at them, depending on the time of day…the amount of light…and your own focus. Many hours spent…layer upon layer… colour... texture… meaning… look long… look deeper…”
In closing Janice states, “if any good should come from the loss of such a wonderful human being, it’s that his work will go on to support such a prevalent cause as mental illness. I know Robin would have loved that.”