Three-Man Graphics Team Thrives On Art's Playful Side

Members of the group 'Charba' bring a gleefully zany approach to paintings, found objects, even their own collective work habits

Mention the word "Charba," and what comes to mind? A hot Latin dance as in "Let's do the Charba"? A new brand of charcoal briquette? Maybe Cher's cousin?

In fact, and in fun, Rob Logan, Aaron Weissblum, and Paul Swigart are Charba. This historic, seafaring town of Gloucester, Mass., knows Charba as the name of a three-man art and design collaborative doing nutty, zany artwork in bold colors.

The Charba style is part cartoon, part graffiti, part doodles. Making regular appearances are odd, lovable creatures, geometric shapes, dogfish, and Tiny, a little, big-eyed man with no hair who assumes different identities.

Charba first gained attention when it created an underwater "temple" in an ad hoc, guerrilla fashion in l993. The installation brought thousands of people to an abandoned waterfront building here at low tide to see the temple of brightly painted wood figures and objects.

The place could be visited only when the tide went out. Word spread quickly, and people came from as far away as New York. But when the building's owner saw hundreds of people gathering, he shut it down. "Insurance," says Mr. Logan. "He was worried about liabilities."

Since then, Charba has also created other public works of art and transformed lobbies and nightclubs in greater Boston, and also worked with Gloucester schoolchildren in creating mazes, murals, and word games. In New Orleans, Charba designed an installation for the Nature and Science Center.

But behind all the fun, and growing recognition, Charba has a serious kinship with a kind of nascent cultural shift slowly bubbling in the United States. Many of today's artists, designers, architects, and craftspeople are uninterested in the vaunted star system. For them, process, collaboration, and contribution are the guiding principles.

"A lot of artists think this is heretical," says Mr. Swigart about Charba, "but over the years, we like the process, and we are part of a community." The three artists jointly work on paintings. One starts, another finishes. "Sometimes it's hard to remember who did what," Logan says.

For him, collaboration is both a haven and a steamroller. "A lot of artists are seeking to get away from hard work, just being one with the painting," he says. "We don't get caught up in that. We always have stuff coming out, lots of volume. We have arguments, but with volume you can always make another one."

This kind of artist tends to value involvement, say the three men of Charba. Moving or staying with a project, or studio, is not done for personal advancement. Continuing with a project because it is important or satisfying is the point, an attitude that sometimes prevails in animation studios or among teams creating new software.

More than likely, these are artists who adopt adaptation. They often use unconventional materials and techniques and thrive on a workshop or "out-of-the-garage" way of operating.

"I like the way we scavenge and recycle," says Logan, moving around Charba's large, chaotically ordered studio in an old building on pillars overlooking the harbor. "We collect stuff on the beaches." He points to "Shin Dozer," a dog-shaped, recycled, and painted board. "Thirty years ago that was part of a boat," he says.

Since the underwater "temple" launched Charba, the three men - two with art backgrounds and Mr. Weissblum with a mathematics degree - have refined the Charba style of fun in art and life. (Charba is an invented word, the product of a hoax played on Logan who was told he said the word over and over in his sleep.)

There have been a few rough spots for Charba despite its popularity. A local fundamentalist church reported from the pulpit that Charba was a cult, and warned members to stay away. "Probably because they never asked us what we do," says Logan.

One of Charba's public creations, a nearly three-story-tall wooden maze built on a vacant lot, was burned down at night. "Gloucester has had art renegades before," says Swigart, mentioning painter Edward Hopper. "Now if they don't like your work, they burn it down."

Undaunted, Charba is fed by the combined enthusiasm and playfulness of the three men. "Mess with Charba," says Logan with a grin, "and we get stronger." On their Web site - - Charba offers a little history, visits with the various personalities of Tiny, and peeks into the Charba illustrated books.

Outside the studio door is a "trading shelf," an example of their playful invention. On the shelf Charba places odd little trinkets and found objects. A sign above the shelf says, "Please trade this for something." To date Charba has three drawers full of traded "stuff" from passersby like golf balls, bubble blowers, key chains, and cigars, all destined to be used someday in a big artwork.

Events and questions that pop up in Charba's life are illustrated by the artists in a brilliant daily journal or book - one in a series - kept on a table in the studio. The first book was called "The Book." Number two was "Next Book," and three became "The One After That." Four was called "Last Book," and the current one is named "Just Kidding."

To those who say Charba's art remains "cartoonish" and easily done, Weissblum laughs. "Go ahead, do it," he says. "Cartoon art is some of the greatest art ever done, irreverent and funny. It makes people laugh."

In their dreams, the men of Charba see a day when they can quit their part-time jobs. They see a big, old warehouse somewhere, and two years to make it into a "puzzle-house maze," a sort of Charba House in Charba Land. Weissblum says, "It would be terrific. People would go in and never be seen again."

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