Artist Laureate of the Mother Road
By Bob Venners
I finally catch up with Robert Waldmire on a miserable winter day (by Southwest standards) at his home just over the state line in Arizona.
We had been trying to hook up for an interview ever since I had discovered his artwork in the Portal (Ariz.) Cafe and bought his large poster depicting the entire state of New Mexico. I was told at the time that he could often be found at an isolated table in the cafe during the winter, doing sketches for his monumental works of art.
Well, in-between a postcard that went awry and an idea he had that I lived in Tennessee, three months passed before our eventual rendezvous.
While my wife and I warm up in front of his wood stove, Waldmire begins to tell about his personal history, his fascination with Route 66, how he came to be a respected member of the art community, and the forces that shaped his early life.
Robert Waldmire was born in 1945 in St. Louis, shortly to relocate to Springfield, Ill., where his parents, Edwin and Virginia, started the Cozy Dog Drive-in, smack dab on Route 66. His father, a former Air Force officer during World War II, invented the "hot dog on a stick" concept while in the service, and that became the main draw at the Cozy Dog.
Waldmire took to paper and pencil early as a youngster. "I always liked to draw, especially small things. I started drawing them as a kid," he recalls, "and I've never stopped."
While in college at Southern Illinois University (one of several brief skirmishes with the establishment and higher education), Waldmire saw a fellow student's "bird's-eye-view" of Carbondale, Ill. It struck a chord. When he returned home, Waldmire started one of his hometown.
"It was pretty amateurish," he admits. "But merchants actually paid me to include their businesses in the poster."
And then it hit him—an idea so wonderful, so amazing, it changed his life forever. "I suddenly realized I could do my drawing for money and never have to work again," he explains, smiling. "I had to live on the cheap, of course, in ways that other people wouldn't or couldn't do. I also had the option of returning home when money ran low or times got tough."
Waldmire eventually did bird's-eye-view posters of 34 cities, many of them college towns. His unique marketing scheme allowed him to prosper in two distinct ways. First, he sold the merchant a space on the poster; then he was able to sell the posters in the merchant's place of business, a never-ending circle of profits.
Then he had another idea, one almost as wonderful and amazing as the first idea. Robert Waldmire realized he could draw anywhere, even in the warm Southwest in winter. Two goals were thus realized: no work, warm all year.
So a pattern began to emerge. In the fall he would head south, down his archhighway, US Route 66, drawing as he traveled.
He drew the icons on 66, motels (like the Wigwam Motel in Rialto, Calif.), restaurants (Steve's Cafe in Chenoa, Ill.), gas stations (Soulsby's Shell Station, Mt. Olive, Ill.), weird places (the Edsel graveyard in Shamrock, Texas), whole towns (Needles, Calif.), even stretches of the "Mother Road" still in existence (in Hydro, Okla.; Halltown, Mo.; Dwight, Ill.).
He started drawing wildlife and inserting the images into his postcards and posters—snakes, mammals, but mostly birds, many of them endangered or close to being so. The inclusion of the natural world into his art allowed it to be more attractive, relieving the rigidity of building, bridge and road.
Waldmire was making friends along the way, too. Those who were involved in the Route 66 resurrection phenomenon, the merchants who ran the small tourist shops all the way from Chicago to Santa Monica, the restaurant and motel owners who were keeping the dream alive, the gas station junkies still pumping gas and cleaning windows—these were the people he interacted with in a meaningful way and they provided information and ideas he later used in his art. Out of this group, many became good friends and provided support and encouragement as the years passed by.
By the time winter arrived, Waldmire was in Arizona, or New Mexico, or California, warm and comfy and pondering future projects.
By 1985, really getting immersed in his love for Route 66 and seeing the need for a vehicle he could live out of, market out of and travel in, Waldmire purchased a 1972 Volkswagen van.
"Twenty years ago I was at the Portal Cafe, reading the Auto Trader magazine. I saw an ad for that '72 Volkswagen and I called the guy from the phone in the parking lot. I ended up buying it sight unseen," Waldmire says. The van is still running some 20 years later, and continues to be his main place of residence on the road.
Waldmire continued to expand his body of art over the years. He completed four large (19-by-25-inch) state posters of California, Illinois, New Mexico and Arizona. These intricate posters were filled with hundreds of drawings of scenic overlooks, the usual Route 66 material, sketches of the wildlife, the plant life. There were historical attractions, short philosophical comments, quotes from great literature and wise men, pleas for peace, non-violence and sound ecological practices. And there were moments of wry humor too, often at Waldmire's own expense.
Elements of rebellion against the establishment also began to creep into his city posters and postcards. Here, from the Arizona poster, 1983: "It is estimated that Lake Mead and Lake Powell evaporate more water per year than the multi-billion dollar central Arizona project will provide annually!"
Anti-nuclear sentiments slipped into his New Mexico poster (1984): "The state has a cradle to grave affair with nuclear technology—the atom bomb was 'born' here, nuclear wastes are buried here."
Then Waldmire really began to roll and reached his highest pitch of anger against hunters and trappers in his controversial Silver City poster of 1985. On the slaughter of animals: "The campaign to 'control' the coyote is more like a war of extermination," and "The mountain lion, through loss of habitat and intensive prosecution, has retreated to the most remote and rugged regions of New Mexico. With the aid of a dog pack that 'trees' the cat until the hunters arrive, it is an easy kill." On trapping Waldmire wrote, "The Steel Jaw-Leghold Trap [is the] Scourge of the Earth."
Because the force of Waldmire's rage was in such small print, many didn't catch the drift until one of his merchant sponsors (a hunting outfitter) took the time to take a close look. The result was a general revolt of his sponsors and a potential lawsuit. A subsequent appeal by Waldmire to the state attorney general for a ruling came out in his favor and a lawsuit was never pursued in court.
"Pretty soon I realized I was fighting for everything that was endangered, whether it was flora, fauna, or a highway," he says. "I was committed to saving anything under siege by man."
Over a warm blueberry cobbler at the Portal Cafe (Waldmire is a dedicated vegetarian), he brings us up to speed on his future plans, the status of his unique homes in Illinois and Arizona, and what he was currently deep into (other than blueberry cobbler).
While living in Arizona, Waldmire is completely "off the grid," as they say. He cooks his meals with a solar oven, collects rainwater when it falls, and is dabbling in solar panels in order to be able to draw at night. His singlewide sits on 40 acres of rocky land in the shadow of the Chiricahua Mountains and provides him with free building materials for his many projects (namely, rocks). Piles of rocks are everywhere, designated to provide walls, dams, channels and foundations for his grand design.
Waldmire calls his 40 acres a "nature sanctuary." His eyes grow bright with pleasure when discussing plans to harbor and protect wildlife and plants on his land. Already many species of birds crowd his feeders, and he fondly recalls a recent visit by a herd of javelina. The visit of a group of illegal aliens a few nights later didn't elicit quite the same friendly response.
While living in Illinois during the few months the sun shines there, he lives in a 1966 Chevy school bus equipped with a second deck, hand-constructed by Waldmire himself. Again, the accouterments include solar panels and that trusty solar oven. Everything currently in Illinois, including the school bus and a stylish Mustang fastback, is scheduled to eventually be moved to Arizona, his future permanent residence.
Some might question the sanity of an artist who shuns the usual trappings of modern life, a man who primarily communicates with the past, someone who lives out of a Volkswagen van for much of the year. But if you had a chance to spend a few hours in the Robert Waldmire universe, it would become quickly apparent that his world is much more sane than ours, yours and mine.
The honors Waldmire has garnered over the years are substantial, but none equals the thrill of being presented the 2004 John Steinbeck Award. The winners are selected from nominations made to the National Historic Route 66 Foundation and the John Steinbeck Foundation. A committee chooses the recipient based on his or her work to preserve, restore and promote the legendary highway. Waldmire accepted the award June 11 of last year during the John Steinbeck Award Banquet, held at the Adam's Mark Hotel in Tulsa.
There's more to the story of this remarkable man and his art and tenacity in defense of historical sites and endangered species in these United States. Be looking for him along the Mother Road.
Bob Venners lives in Deming.