Robert Hess

It’s been four years since the 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 hear 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 such a touching reminder of our friend. He is missed by so many of us. Nancy

  2. He was a regular visitor in the Willamette library– always so genial. I’m so glad that the library acquired some of his pieces, and feel lucky to be able to see them whenever I’m working.

  3. I let out a long sigh as I finished reading this very nice piece. A sigh of longing for just one more conversation with him about almost any topic. I had the honor and the pleasure of knowing and working with Robert. Every day his spirit is around me as I enjoy his presence through his work. Thank you for bringing him back for a few moments in the reflection of your writing.

  4. Hi Bonnie, I’ve been researching Robert Hess and came across your heartfelt personal tribute. I sense your great loss when he passed. The reason I was looking is because I have a 7×8″ tile with minimal bold, deep, deft strokes modelling a Bird held in hand central, and then a face. It is marked HESS on the back. I call it Bird in Hand, it resembles Abstract Expressionism in the Picasso-style. From my research Mr Hess was influenced by Picasso, which this work strongly resembles. I have owned and loved this tile for more than 30 years. Do you know whether Robert Hess signed his clay works HESS and could you perhaps verify whether this is representative of his works and signature? I see no manner to attach a picture here, which I would be happy to do. Please send me an email and I will respond with pictures. Thank you for your assistance. Kind regards, Mary

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