Rob Nilsson was born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin and went to Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, California. At Harvard University he studied art with Lux Feininger and Morton Sacks and exhibited in galleries in the Cambridge/Boston area.
He lived in Africa in the middle sixties and had a painting studio on the island of Fernando Po, off the coast of West Africa. He has been painting in the Bay Area since the early 70s.
A published poet and a painter, Nilsson is better known as a filmmaker. Nilsson's feature movies have won major prizes throughout the world including the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 for NORTHERN LIGHTS and Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1988 for HEAT AND SUNLIGHT. Other feature films include ON THE EDGE, featuring Bruce Dern, SIGNAL 7 presented by Francis Coppola and WORDS FOR THE DYING, featuring Brian Eno and John Cale, and the 9 @ Night Film Cycle, 9 inter-connected dramatic feature films cast from The Tenderloin Ygroup, his acting workshop for ex-homeless people, professional actors, inner city residents and all comers. The 9 @ Night Film Cycle won the 2008 San Francisco Film Critics Circle Marlon Riggs Award.
Recent films include PRESQUE ISLE, produced by the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking, IMBUED, featuring Stacy Keach and Citizen Cinema workshop featuresA LEAP TO TAKE, COLLAPSE and a BRIDGE TO A BORDER, all available on Fandor, a video on demand company. He has had recent retrospective and life achievement awards and conducted cinema workshops and made feature film on three continents.
Nilsson's work reflects a belief in emotion and intuition as the well springs of expression and a faith in the artist as a signal giver and a passionate witness. The subject of his paintings is always the struggle between contradictory impulses... pacific, empathetic, ecstatic and communal on the one hand …solitary, aggressive, and death- bred on the other.
Recent shows have included Turn of the Century Fine Arts, Berkeley, John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, the Windows Exhibit, San Francisco, the Cine Vivant Roppongi Gallery in Tokyo and Robert Dana Gallery, San Francisco.
The language of painting survives the language of the intellect, the narrow politics of special interests, the cheerful cant of the critics. A painter stands in front of the work as a living rorschach, an unknown link umbilical to the canvas in front of him.
I love Nolde, Munch, Kokoschka, Lovis Corinth, the Fauves, Kandinsky, Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning. They turned me towards this job with opening veins and judicious blood letting.
America succeeds in transforming all pure impulse into market niches. This makes monetary gain the false jury of expressivity. America favors inner sterility and outer violence. This leaves the people weak because they lack valued experience of the mythic, mystic, sensual, passionate, obstinate, cruel, decadent. They can mount an army which kills thousands of enemies, but they can't believe their own animal impulses.
I am an American and grew up this way. This is one of the reasons I search the dark alleys of impulse, desire, hunch, improvisation, searching to enter the energy streams which link me with the trapped universe of energy.
I want to be a part of a new revolution in the arts which seeks out and liberates. Where will it come from? From new technologies, lasers, fiber optics and great, carved lenses in outer space? From a new plunging and wondering to the wild surmises beyond? Or from deeper delving into the mysteries of the organism?
In front of my canvas I follow an impulse first, a subject second, love of materials third. I enter into the picture and lose myself in its flow. If I emerge with a painting it’s the record of what I did in finding it. I hope that it possesses the inner power of its inspiration and the outer tensions that strain towards the next picture, the next encounter.
ROB NILSSON: POET, PAINTER, FILM DIRECTOR
Auden says of Yeats, “mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.” Nilsson was born the year Yeats died and says that his affinity for this great poet’s work influenced him in all the mediums he has mastered. While gaining recognition as a filmmaker (winner of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for NORTHERN LIGHTS and the Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for HEAT AND SUNLIGHT) Nilsson has continued to pursue his first love. “Hurt into poetry” as a graduate of Tamalpais High School, an undergraduate at Harvard, and later a resident of Fernando Po, an island off the coast of the Cameroon , his poetry continues to flow as a mediation between inner and outer worlds.
FROM A REFUGEE OF TRISTAN DA CUNHA is a collection of poems taken from all phases of his life. Nilsson says: “The People of Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited archipelago on earth, left their island in 1961 when a long dormant volcano exploded and buried their land in a paroxysm of molten lava. Exiled in Britain, speaking an archaic version of English, they were unable to adjust, and eventually returned to their barren island in the South Atlantic. Their exodus, out and back, serves as the starting point for this exploration of a life in song. It if is useful to you, all it asks in return is a farewell embrace, a wave down at the end in the road, and headlights disappearing into the unknown.”