By Autumn Shelton, RealWV
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Portrayed through the lens of West Virginia filmmakers Douglas John Imbrogno and Bobby Lee Messer, the life of master artist Robert Singleton is that of a person always standing on the horizon, awaiting the beauty of life’s final calling card.
On Sept. 17, Imbrogno and Messer, of AMP Media Project, unveiled their documentary “House in the Clouds: The Artistic Life of Robert Singleton,” before a large audience at the Clay Center located in downtown Charleston.
“I saw this film for the first time three days ago and it left me floored,” Singleton said during a question and answer session following the film. “Thank you.”
Singleton explained that Imbrogno and Messer have been working with him for two years to tell his life’s story, which is a beautiful mix of gut-wrenching heartbreak and serene moments of breaking through the clouds.
For over forty years, Singleton, 85, has lived on a remote mountain top in the beautiful Potomac Highlands of eastern West Virginia. Here, he has been surrounded by friends, comforted them in their time of need and has found the inspiration to put paintbrush to canvas, creating ethereal masterpieces often showcasing the light from an unknown source filtering down from the heavens.
Imbrogno said he was first acquainted with Singleton while working as the features editor for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
“I felt my job as a feature editor was to lift-up stories about why it’s amazing to live in West Virginia and the remarkable human beings here,” Imbrogno said, adding that about six years ago, he decided to write an article about Singleton, who was exhibiting new artwork at a tiny gallery in Wardensville, WV, after a 20 year hiatus. Since that first phone interview, Imbrogno has been determined to tell as much as he can of Singleton’s story.
It is an amazing story.
As the film shows, Singleton suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse as a child, struggled with the stigma of being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, experienced depression and suicidal ideation, lost loved ones to the AIDS epidemic of late 20th century, and ultimately emerged from those struggles as an inspiration to many.
His friendship with Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, author of the international bestselling book “On Death and Dying,” fostered a change in Singleton’s view on life and the idea of unconditional love.
Singleton was 50 years old before he completely accepted his identity as a gay man, he discusses in the film. Soon after, one of his first loves, Steven, was diagnosed with AIDS.
During this time of fear and uncertainty that surrounded AIDS, Singleton provided Steven with care and love until his passing in 1993. Then, Singleton provided that care and love to others who had also been diagnosed with AIDS.
There is a small cemetery under a Hickory tree on Singleton’s property where loved ones who passed during the AIDS epidemic are buried. The film shows Singleton lovingly tending to the headstones.
As for Singleton’s artwork, Messer described it as “mystical.”
“In the process of getting to know Robert . . . he was, in my opinion, a bit like the character Sheldon Cooper on the “Big Bang Theory,” Messer explained. “I don’t mean that in any kind of bad way. I just mean that he seemed to have been a curious, intelligent, thoughtful, just brain on fire kind of guy, and you can see that through his life.”
When asked how he learned to paint, Singleton explained that artist Theresa Pollack, Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts founder, was his first and only art teacher.
“There was a purge at that school and I was expelled in the middle of my freshman year,” Singleton said, noting that although he only studied under her for six months he didn’t give up on art. Instead, he used it as his “salvation” and a way to “get away from the trauma.”
Over the years, Singleton said that he was able to find his own artistic style, which evolved as he did.
In response to a question about advice for those seeking to overcome their own trauma, Singleton responded, “If you can find someone that you can trust that you can talk to . . . or even writing it down, which I did, tell your story in writing. It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating for you to do that because you are going to say things you’ve been trying to hide. It’s really a tough call, but if you can do it. You can get through this.”
For those who didn’t get the chance to see “House in the Clouds: The Artistic Life of Robert Singleton,” at the Clay Center, Imbrogno stated that there are plans to show the documentary at various locations in October.
The world premiere of “House in the Clouds: The Artistic Life of Robert Singleton” was presented by the West Virginia International Film Festival.
To learn more about Singleton, or to view his artwork visit rsingleton.net.
To learn more about the documentary, or to see dates/times for future viewings, visit houseintheclouds.movie.