Columbus, Ohio USA
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Corkwell: A Portrait of the Artist
By Jory Farr
November/December 2012 Issue

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Bob Corkwell draws caricatures of pets and their owners at Posh Pets
during the October 2012 Gallery Hop. Photo © Gus Brunsman III

Bob Corkwell’s default expression – a mischievous glint in his hazel eyes, a wry, ready smile – says that something funny may be in the offing. Sure enough, entering Tasi for an espresso, he encounters a friend and they both break out in peals of laughter at some private joke, gales of merriment that echo through the small cafe. Corkwell’s laughter is noteworthy: It tends to accelerate and rumble and then roll into a vast, grainy reservoir of amusement.

On a wind-kissed, mid-September day with more than a hint of fall in it, Corkwell, 48, is telling me about the large mural and caricatures he’ll soon be doing in the Short North. There’s something childlike and mischievous and seductive when he talks about his upcoming art season. But he also takes it with deadly seriousness, knowing that he – and the venues – have a reputation to uphold.

First up are the caricatures at Posh Pets come the October Gallery Hop. Caricatures of mongrels and perhaps bulldogs and whippets and surprise breeds. And of course, caricatures of their owners. Because of the expected popularity of this event, the store’s owner is asking for reservations.

“Let’s face it, the pets in this community are pretty funny,” says Corkwell. “It’s a great way to make money for foundations like Peace for Paws.”

Following Posh Pets will be Corkwell’s piece de resistance, a large mural of the Grinch Stealing Christmas, commissioned by the Short North Tavern and scheduled to be started the Friday after Thanksgiving and up in time for the December Gallery Hop. This is a longstanding tradition at the bar and one greatly admired by patrons and those curious enough to see what’s going on in the season.

“I do a rough draft and show it to the owners of the Tavern for approval. They know what they’re getting before I paint it on the wall. The Grinch mural will be immense and have caricatures of all the employees of the bar,” says Corkwell, who has done the Grinch mural the previous two years.

His compensation?

“I give my payment to my favorite charities – those groups need it more,” he says. “But I’ll have a tip jar out.” Corkwell smiles. And his generosity radiates.

Why did the Short North Tavern pick Corkwell?

“Bob is sensational at creating murals,” says Helen Zapol, the manager of the tavern. “He has more than a sense of the absurd. He has a sense of whimsy. You have to have a childlike sense of life to pull off a large mural like this. You have to appeal to the children inside adults.”

Corkwell’s whimsy is on display in many settings these days. He paints sassy logos on motorcycles, adorns guitars with memorable designs, covers human bodies for a day with lustrous junglelike fauna, paints scenic backdrops for live shows, designs T-shirts and lends his talents to whatever project he’s asked to create. He has no highbrow pretensions of what art is. He’s not academy trained. He doesn’t have a theoretical structure informing his work. If it pleases him and his client, it’s art and it creates a sense of wonder or, at the very least, a smile.

“I just love to draw,” he says. “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid.”

He started drawing in Defiance, Ohio, where he grew up in the ‘60s, the son of a General Motors worker and a housewife. Both his parents were hard workers, but they divorced when Corkwell was 10.

Six years later something fateful happened.

“I came out when I was 16. My parents were divorced by then, and I told my father’s girlfriend because I was scared to tell my father. She immediately told my father and he disowned me,” Corkwell says, still shaken by the memory. “I was going to vocational school and living with my father then. Well, my father called my mother – this was the summer of my 16th birthday – and he told her to pick me up because he wanted nothing to do with me. I was blown away. It pissed me off. I was ashamed of myself.”

Corkwell’s mother, who worked at Metal Forge in Stryker, Ohio, took him under her wing. A strong woman, resolute and fair-minded, she educated her son, protecting him in a working class town not used to homosexuality. She told him it was perfectly all right to be gay – to be oriented in a different sexual way from the mainstream. She nurtured his creative side and worked to undo the wound his father’s stunning rejection had created.

“My mom always told me, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re different from anyone else.’ She accepted me for who I was. My mother brought me up to be independent, because she was that way.”

Corkwell didn’t go to college. He worked various jobs, at a country club in Defiance and in Denver for years as a manager of a fast food restaurant. But he wanted to move to Columbus, and did so when he was 28 – in 1993. Previous visits had convinced him that it was the right fit. Columbus had a large, diverse gay community and was the right size for a city, he recalls.

He worked for Arby’s Roast Beef in Columbus and then did some work in the custom framing business. But he knew he needed time for his art. So in 2001 he decided to see if he could cut it freelancing. He got clients, but it turned out to be, not surprisingly, an erratic way to make a living. Corkwell wanted more solidity, more dependability. So he looked for a part-time job.

“One day, I walked into Europia for a pack of cigarettes, and the owner then, Pia Hiotis, asked what I was doing. I told her I was looking for a job, and she said she needed some help. I told her I could sell ice to an Eskimo. And Pia hired me.”

A year later, Corkwell was managing the store. The job put him on solid footing emotionally and financially. It also made him a strong friend.

“Bob is one of the most naturally talented persons I’ve ever met. I couldn’t decide what he was better at – painting, playing the guitar by ear, hair cutting or framing art,” says Hiotis, who now lives in Florida. “Over the eight years we worked together, there was not a day we did not laugh our asses off. We had so much fun running Europia. We made a great team, we took care of each other like family.

“Bob’s family situation was heartbreaking for me to see him deal with. He always put on a strong face, but I knew he hurt a lot. We did not have the typical boss-employee relationship. I wanted to protect him as much as possible, and both of us would go to extremes to stand up for each other or be there in challenging times. On the occasions that I was upset at work for some reason or another, Bob would do something crazy and outrageous to get me to laugh and it would change my day.”

* * *

Performing with the band McCallister is another creative outlet for Corkwell.
Photo © Rick Borgia

Corkwell isn’t one to toot his own horn, but his “street” art and fundraising work are a central part of who he is. It’s part of his sense of the world around him. His art makes him feel linked to the Short North community, connected and deepened in that connection. Meanwhile, his art work has raised money for Mid Ohio Food bank, the AIDS Foundation, PAWS (animal rights), the Red Cross and Children’s Hospital, to name a few. And he is also an unofficial mentor to troubled youths whom he meets in one place or another.

“I like to give to the community. You always get something back when you give. I’ve met youths who have been disowned because they are gay, and I’ve given them advice. People spill their guts to me. I’ve told disowned kids that they have to build a second family. If they’re genuine and true, that will happen. I believe in karma. What comes around goes around.”

Corkwell saw that happen firsthand in his own life. When he moved to Columbus he found a second family in the Goodsons, a biracial couple who treated him as one of their own.

“Leroy and Evelyn Goodson – she was German and he was black – they instantly accepted me into their family. They were beautiful people. Leroy was a doctor, and Evelyn was a nurse. Both of their sons became my best friends. And I needed that acceptance on a deep level because I had been disowned not all that long ago.”

Maybe because he’s known suffering, Corkwell knows how to suss people out and make them feel good about themselves.

“Bob is exceptional relating to people. People come into Europia just to see him,” says Angela Fowler, who plays drums with Corkwell in the rock band McCallister and has known him for 11 years. “They want to be near him and laugh at life because he’s such a prankster.”

This brings up another dimension of Corkwell, his other life as a musician. Every week he rehearses with McCallister, a group which performs periodically at places like the Ravari Room and Park Street Tavern.

“I play guitar and it’s such a release,” he says. “I get lost in the music.”

“In the band, Bob is the rock star. He plays wild leads. He’s the front of the band,” says Fowler.

In Western society, it’s assumed that being rich is what everyone should aspire to. But people who do that often lose out on what riches really mean. To be rich in life is to be loved and have friends, to be in touch with your genius, and in that regard Corkwell excels.

Sparkling, witty, flirtatious and relentlessly friendly, he courts people and finds their special inner thread that’s woven through them.

“I never pass up an opportunity to know someone,” says Corkwell. “I know lawyers, doctors, drag queens, business people, bartenders, nurses, delivery guys. I count them as friends.” His hazel eyes brighten and then turn mischievous.

“I’ve become an artist in the community. And a musician of some renown. But I’m also a little bit of a socialite. I love being spontaneous and meeting people all the time under surprising circumstances. And I love that. I especially love making people laugh.”

© 2012 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

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