World premiere of ‘House In The Clouds: The Artistic Life of Robert Singleton’ set for Sept. 17 at the Clay Center

By Matthew Young, RealWV

The artistic life of Robert Singleton is an enigma…

“The lifelong story of my artistic approach is to question creativity itself and where it comes from,” Singleton writes on his website. “Is it really about the artist/creator as the author of metaphors; the biographer of illusions? Or is it more about life and the influence of life’s connected events which result in the measured evolution of the imaginative act?”

His West Virginia story began on a remote hilltop in the Eastern Panhandle in 1978. The story of his life, however, began long before that. From a traumatic childhood and his “gay purge” expulsion from a Richmond art school, to the emotional scarring endured during the height of the AIDS crisis – from the eventual rediscovery of his paintbrush after a self-imposed decades-long artistic exile, to being named a West Virginia “Master Artist” by the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts – Robert Singleton’s story is that of a life well lived.

In the new AMP Media Project documentary, “House In The Clouds: The Artistic Life of Robert Singleton,” filmmakers Douglas John Imbrogno and Bobby Lee Messer look to tell that story.

“It’s not Robert Singleton’s autobiography – it’s chapters from the book of his life,” Imbrogno said, while speaking with RealWV ahead of the film’s Sept. 17 world premiere on the main stage of the Clay Center in Charleston, W.Va. “It’s been quite an amazing and remarkable life.”

Telling West Virginia’s stories is nothing new for Imbrogno. A fixture of Mountain State journalism for 35 years, Imbrogno served the Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail for three decades as writer, feature editor, and videographer before partnering with Messer to form AmpMediaProject.com. It was during his time with the newspaper that Imbrogno first became familiar with the life of Robert Singleton.

“I was always looking out across West Virginia for interesting cultural and artistic stories,” Imbrogno said. “I got an email about a new (art) exhibit at a tiny little gallery in Wardensville, W.Va. – the Grasshopper Gallery at the Lost River Trading Post.”

The email, which told of an artist holding his first exhibit after a 20-year hiatus from painting, served as Imbrogno’s introduction to the life and works of the artist. Imbrogno wasted little time in contacting him.

“The show, in its own way, made a bit of a splash in that community because his work is just stunning,” Imbrogno said. “So Robert, when we spoke, said that he had been slated to do a big installation at the Huntington Museum of Art. They took over this huge room, and built a lighting system for that show.”

That exhibit, which Imbrogno beautifully documented in the Aug. 12, 2017 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, was a collaboration between Singleton and German musician and composer Dan Morro, called “For the Joy of Light.” The exhibit was installed at the museum for more than six months.

“You walked in and the room was dark,” Imbrogno said. “The lights came up, and this ethereal music that Dan had made began – it was just amazing. That was a show in 2017 and 2018. By then I had quite a body of short-form documentary work – I’ve had work in small film festivals around the world – but I’d never done a longer-form piece. So […] I decided, ‘Well let’s do a documentary on this guy.’”

“My partner and I started interviewing Robert (for the film) in the fall of 2021 – making trips back and forth to his place on a mountain top in the Eastern Panhandle,” Imbrogno continued. “Now we’re coming to the last laps of trying to, in an hour’s time, give some of the highlights of this remarkable human being’s story.”

What the men learned during their interviews with the 85-year-old Singleton was what life was like for a young gay man growing up in the middle of the 20th century. An abusive father, separation from his family, and several suicide attempts led to Singleton’s diagnosis of “sociopathic personality disorder with sexual deviation.” 

The filmmakers also learned of the “spiritual devastation” Singleton endured throughout the 1990s as a result of the AIDS epidemic, and how those experiences left him thinking, “I will never return to creating.” 

Finally, they learned how,  in 2012 – after the better part of 20 years – Singleton picked his paintbrush back up.

“You know that thing where you hang out with a story for a really long time, and it’s a complicated or ambitious story?” Imbrogno asked. “At some point, if it goes on too long, you get sick of it. Well I never reached that point with this story with Robert.”

“More than 10 years later now, and we’re coming around the bend – trying to pull off a documentary about him,” Imbrogno added.

In addition to making the transition from feature writing to script writing, Imbrogno estimates the film’s final production cost to be in the neighborhood of $50,000 – most of which has been paid by the filmmakers themselves, with the exception of a generous seed grant from a well-off longtime friend.

“House In The Clouds” was created through “guerilla filmmaking,” which, according to Imbrogno, means, “bootstrapping a film out of almost nothing.”

“When you do a five or 10 minute video, you can pull those off for a couple-thousand bucks,” Imbrogno said. “Once you get [upwards of an hour], especially when you’re doing field interviews and field production as we did – it isn’t cheap.”

“It’s like being at a gambling table and pushing a bunch of my household’s chips onto the table and hoping that we’ll figure out some way to get some of that back,” Imbrogno added.

One way in which the filmmakers hope to recover a small portion of their production expenses is through a crowdfunding campaign. As of the time of writing, the campaign has raised more than $10,000 of a $12,000 goal. Those wishing to contribute may do so by visiting seedandspark.com/fund/house-in-the-clouds. The campaign is scheduled to close at 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 31. Additional donations will enable the documentary to be screened and promoted elsewhere. Already, two days of screenings have been added in Mid-October at Gradient Projects, an artist-run project and event space in Thomas, W.Va. For updates on other screenings, free subscribe to houseintheclouds.movie.

“I hope to live the rest of my life never having to crowdfund again,” Imbrogno added with a laugh.

In addition to being produced by West Virginians, and filmed on location in the Northern Panhandle, “House In The Clouds” also features an impressive soundtrack populated by some noteworthy West Virginia-based musicians. Robin Kessinger, James Townsend, Spencer Elliot and Jim Probst and each contribute tracks to the film, as does 2023 WV Music Hall of Fame inductee Barbara Nissman.

The film’s world premiere, a presentation of the West Virginia International Film Festival, takes place at Charleston’s Clay Center on Sunday, Sept. 17 beginning at 7 p.m. An interactive question-and-answer session featuring the artist and filmmakers will follow the on-stage screening. The event will be preceded by a 6 p.m. catered reception in the Juliet Art, with music by Spencer Elliott.

“I want to invite questions from the audience,” Imbrogno said. “I will have had my say by then, so people won’t need to hear anymore from me. What I have to say about Robert Singleton will be up on the screen. Any questions or observations that arise in the audience’s mind – I really want them to have that opportunity after they’ve sat there with Robert’s spirit and his life.”

Tickets for the premiere can be purchased by visiting theclaycenter.org

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this will be one of the most interesting and inspirational nights in the capital city of West Virginia that week,” Imbrogno said.

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