Robert Hess

It’s been four years since sculptor Robert Hess died and I’ve been thinking about him this week.  I thought maybe I’d republish this blog post I wrote at the time of his death because I still appreciate him and miss him, I can still here his funny, hearty voice, and I like the thought of keeping his name out there in the universe…

Robert Hess, sculptor, teacher, mentor, friend, died last week. We’ll miss his great eye, his generosity, his fierce interest in the world around him.  Luckily his sculpture is all over town to remind us in the most tangible way of his talent.  I feel like musing on Robert today.

Roger and I came west in 1970 from the mid-west.  Robert and Candace came west in 1972 from the mid-west.  Together Robert and Roger shaped an era in the art department at Willamette University, and each has made a mark on the art and history of their region as well.  Here was the Art Department “back in the day”…painter Carl Hall on the left, art historian Cameron Paulin next, art historian Roger Hull and Robert Hess on the right.  They were examining a Manuel Izquierdo sculpture called “Aladdin’s Lamp” on loan (from Dorothy and Robert Y. Thornton) for an exhibition.

Robert 3


At first I found Robert hearty, talented, a little bit scary.  He was an excellent draftsman, which most people don’t know.  He was a good painter.  But it was sculpture all the way for him and he made several terrific studio spaces in which to teach sculpture at Willamette over the years.  He quickly organized a life drawing group, which I attended.  He suggested I should have a show…I was flabbergasted.  I had no work.  I had a two year old child.  I wasn’t really “an artist” I thought.  In the fall of 1975 Robert sent me a letter offering me a one-person show at the Willamette Gallery in the fall of 1976.  I considered and accepted and by October of 1976 I thought of myself as an artist.  Thank you Robert.  And I’m not the only one who was so encouraged…

Bonnie Hull Drawings

Candace was magical as well…she picked up bird wings from the highway, she hung a beautiful branch from the ceiling by the window and decorated it for Christmas.  She could draw, knit, crochet, she too had an “eye”…

And so on we went…colleagues, friends.  Candace gave us our first night away from parenthood…she came and played with Zach for a couple of days…she was Zach’s day care teacher at the YMCA…Robert taught Zach to paint…Roger wrote reviews of Robert’s work…the years piled up in the way they do.  In 2006 Robert retired from teaching and we somehow managed to squeeze 27 people into our dining room for a sit-down dinner.  Late in the spring that year came a knock at the door and there was Robert with a bronze sculpture…a gift to Roger, “in appreciation” he said.  Here it is, in between Louis Bunce and Harry Widman…lucky lucky us…

the letter c in bronze

letter C detail

A few years after retirement I went and spent an afternoon “interviewing” Robert about his life, his work, artists he liked, his philosophy of work, his daily routine.  We looked at the studio…

Robert 2a

Robert's studio

and at work underway, as well as finished and fully realized pieces…”these are Candace’s” (the church window watercolor is his too…)

Robert pair

Robert's "Drummer

He had come to love a painting of mine (though I don’t think he liked it much at first…) that he and Candace bought…called “Storm Season”

Storm Season

and he told me it dominated the room.  HAH!  We talked and talked, and I meant it to be the first of several such “interviews”…but alas, it stands alone in the university archive.

The last time I saw Robert we shouted each other’s names and hugged extravagantly, and I’m glad for that.  Goodbye friend.

studio shoes





  1. Thank you Bonnie for your loving tribute to Robert. Your words and photos always capture me and take me to a thoughtful place.

  2. What a beautiful tribute Bonnie. He must a been one of the good guys of the world. He created one of my favorite pieces of sculpture in Salem… one the lawn of the Library.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Joyful testimony. He couldn’t want for a better set of recollections.
    I am sad for your loss.
    Oh my, how will a friendship be distilled?!

  4. Robert and Candace were among the “new faculty” at a gathering we attended soon after we moved to Salem, along with Halls, Iltis’s, and others I can’t remember names for in the fall of 1972. Since we knew almost no one in Salem yet, some of the people we met that night made a big impression, and I continued to follow their careers over the years. Am sorry he is gone.

  5. I was anticipating your words about this unique, humane and greatly talented artist–thanks for such a personal and loving view of his friendship and influence. His delightful drummer remains my favorite sculpture–such a joyful image, always calling to mind the creator’s own joy for life.

    1. Though i never met the man, i have greatlly admired his work for many years. Thank you for your touching tribute, i feel i know him now.

  6. thank you, Bonnie. I love hearing how he encouraged you! I can’t imagine you not being an ‘artist’!! My mother and I both took classes from him– speaking for her, we would heartily agree with your picture of him— fierce, hearty, joyful, passionate.

  7. a personal tribute to a man we only hear lovely things about. we met him one or two times and only wish we could have known him better. what great gifts he gave to you, bonnie, artist that you are now, and to his dear colleague and friend roger, a lifetime of friendship and a bronze ‘token’ of his appreciation. thank you for adding to the dialogue about the late sculptor Robert Hess.

  8. Thank you so much, Bonnie, for your musings on our dear friend Robert. Your experience sounds much like mine in that Robert gave me my first gallery show before I had ever allowed myself to think of myself as “artist”. He, along with the late great Carl Hall, gave me courage to think of the possible parallel life that I might be capable of, in & around an increasing number of children & very traditional demands of family life. (Your photo of WU’s art department has 3 of my favorite men…didn’t know Paulin)

  9. Bonnie: Thanks for the generous “fill-in” on Robert. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have him as a long-term friend. I would guess joyous. He left an indelible impression with me after only a day or so. Love, George

  10. I really loved reading this. Thank you. He had something magic in him that made us all feel like an artist at one point or another!

  11. Oh, what an amazing mentor and friend! You in turn have given that same level of encouragement to so many other artists. The world thrives on people who are curious, solution oriented explorers!

  12. I attended Willamette University 20 years ago, and Professor Hess was my teacher and advisor. He taught me many great things about art, including how to be confident as an artist. After college, I went on to teach art myself, and then focus on my art full-time. His passion for art was contagious, as well as his laugh. He will be missed by many.

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