When you're on your own, you can either be the tiger or the rabbit — the opportunist or the victim. A long time ago, Robert Standlee chose to be the tiger. He would mold life the way he wanted; he would make the most of the fortune that came his way.
And if fortune skipped his address as it came calling, Standlee made damn sure he got its attention.
“If you see yourself as a victim in any way, you're saying you don't have control. But if you have power over your life, you can forgive people and move on,” he said. “It helps them, too, because they can move on and not feel guilt.”
Today, the Burbank artist has his own studio tucked into a warehouse off San Fernando Boulevard. He has a home in Burbank, and when his 24-year-old son comes by the shop, he tries to hand down the sculpting techniques for which he's known throughout Hollywood. His son wants to learn, the elder Standlee says, but he doesn't have the patience.
Neither did Robert Standlee. At age 16 he sought out master sculptor Richard H. Ellis, who taught him the basics of straight lines and spheres. He didn't last long in the lessons — just enough to begin learning for himself. But he had practice in being his own teacher.
When he and his three siblings were younger, their mother was sent to Camarillo State Hospital for the mentally ill. Their father had left long before, so the children became wards of the foster system.
By Standlee's reckoning, they bounced to 12 different homes in several states. Only one couple kept the titles “mom and dad” — Jim and Louise Brown of Seattle.
Jim Brown's first lesson to his new foster son still resonates: “Do yourself a favor, Bob, and don't quote numbers. And keep your mouth closed.”
Apparently, Standlee would often stand with his mouth agape.
“No one ever told me that before,” Standlee recalled. “He was the kind of dad you hugged before bed.”
He lost touch with the Browns, but in the following years reconnected with his biological father. They talk every day.
While in Seattle, Standlee discovered his sculpting talents also applied to hairstyles. He opened the Follicle, which was a salon in front and a sculpting workshop in back.
“Hair pays really well,” he said.
As people saw his artwork in the salon, word spread of the sculpting stylist. Microsoft called Standlee for a freelance project, and soon he was designing the action figures for the popular Halo video game series.
Eventually, he followed more sculpting gigs to Los Angeles and set up shop in Burbank. Here he occupies a warehouse corner — two large rooms where he concocts his special mixes of clay and wax to make movie and television props. Shelves are lined with blenders full of dried red sludge; a rice steamer that may once have made dinner now serves as a heated container for wax pellets mixed with cornstarch.
“This looks like part of my lunch or something, but it's actually work,” he said.
To demonstrate his craft, he takes a clay ball and scours it with several implements he makes himself. He scrapes, shapes and rubs it smooth. In less than five minutes, the clay looks like weathered, dry skin.
At a nearby monitor screen bigger than most televisions, Standlee sculpts in 3D using a high-powered computer he built himself. At each step, he is asked how he knows what to do to infuse his creations with life.
It's practice, he says, and patience. And lots of reading.
“There's no school, exactly, for this. You have to see it in your mind before it's done.”
Standlee then points to his head.
“I want to take what's there and make it real.”
With his work on a horror movie franchise ending, Standlee plans to create some fine art sculptures and host a show. He already has an idea for a subject: a transparent suit of armor with a child inside.
“Now that I'm trying to do [fine] art, I'm trying to express myself. That's hard, looking inside yourself when you spend your whole life not.”