Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Molly's Turn: Robert Kingsbury ~ Wood Sculpture Artist Extrodinare ~

detail of sculpture by Robert Kingsbury
I have come to realize that growing up on Potereo Hill in San Francisco in the late 50's and throughout the 60's was a rather unique place in time--it's only taken me 56 years to understand this.  Potereo Hill was an artist’s enclave in the 50's and 60's. Artists shared the hill with longshoremen, Russians, and the projects, where a very impoverished, mostly African American, population lived in the neglected military housing. The north side of the hill was a blue collar area where one could buy a house with little money down. We first moved to the hill in 1958 when I was a year old. We lived on Kansas street at the corner of 20th, for our first year. Then my parents were able to purchase a home on 20th near the corner of DeHaro, for $10,000, a scarey financial move for my mother! A friend of my parents, Robert Kingsbury, a master wood-sculptor and fine artist, built a beautiful set of bookcases, a library wall if you will, in our livingroom which my mother always regretted leaving behind when we moved to Wisconsin st., just a half block away from Kingsbury.  Kingsbury has been a lifelong friend to our family. He is an artist, sculptor and the first art director for Rolling Stone magazine :

March 10 2014, Bob Kingsbury sitting in his dining room, chatting with me.
I went to visit Robert Kingsbury recently. He’s like an Uncle to me, I have memories of him hiding behind doors of the house on 20th street and jumping out at me to scare me when I was just a toddler. He has had a deep influence on me throughout my life. Kingsbury allowed me to take some photos of his beautiful sculptures which I have posted here.

This is a woman I have been familiar with all my life. 

She is absolutly beautiful!

I asked Kingsbury if I could - kind-of - interview him, get the details of his life. He said "what a concidence! Someone is coming to film me tomorrow!"

Isn't it strange the way the world works! I jotted down notes from our conversation and will relate them here, he's worth knowing about, I am glad someone else is interested in him too. Kingsbury is what you might call a bit of a hermit, in his own way.

Kingsbury was born in Detroit, Michigan, Oct. 19th, 1924. He doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t draw.  His parents were loving and supportive, Dad worked at the Ford plant as a laborer, which meant Kingsbury didn’t see much of him. He does remember going to a movie with him once. Mom did the raising of Kingsbury and his younger (by a year) sister. Kingsbury’s parents looked at raising their children with an “its up to you (the child) – your in charge” type of attitude, which has shaped the way Kingsbury looked and interacted with children. He certaninly was the only adult who played with me while I was growing up. 

This attitude carried over in the way he raised his own daughter Megan as well.

Kingsbury sculpted many horses, this is a small relief.

One of Kingsbury’s memories from the age of 7 or 8 is of emptying his closet, setting all his clothes on his bed, so that he could set up his movie projector - a kid type which used paper film - and projecting images onto white paper he had mounted in the closet so that he could trace the image.  He felt this is what really started his love of art. He loved to trace the comics.

As a teenager Kingsbury discovered he could travel around the country by transporting new cars for the Detroit dealers. He would ask a dealer if they had any cars that needed to be delivered, in this way Kingsbury traveled to both the east and west coasts.

He lived at home until he enlisted for WWII in the Navy at the age of 18.  Kingsbury spent four years in the Navy, never leaving the states. He was sent to several schools and became a special repairmen for a certain type of Navy plane.  He described to me how the Navy had outfitted this hanger with huge white screens where they showed images of fighter jets coming in for the attack. They had an airplane in the hanger with no wings. They used this airplace to train the airmen on what to do when attacked from different directions.

~ During the conversation Kingsbury leans in to me and says he never actually worked on an airplane!  Every time he reported to duty, the duty sarge would look at his qualifications and say "we don’t need a repair person so you’r in charge of the Brig – or the John’s - or ----." ~

Kingsbury's study

Two statues in the study

Talking about Art

When he left the Navy he used the GI Bill to go to the University Of Michigan where he earned the equivalent of today’s BFA.  He states he graduated but “didn’t understand what art is about” – Abstract Expressionism was the “in” style of art. One of his teachers would start his class by turning on music and getting the students to paint with gesture to the music to find their rhythm.  He felt deprived of the classic instruction, and so applied to art schools throughout Europe, rejected by all because they were full of the GI’s whom had stayed in Europe.  The one school which did accept him was the Swedish State School of Art – Konstfackskolan.  In 1950, Kingsbury received his acceptance letter three days before he had to leave by ship for Sweden.  He says he just threw his clothes in a bag, packed in a hurry, and left. He spent four years in Sweden, while there he married Ragnhild who was a ceramist he met in school. Kingsbury graduated school in two years but stayed as Ragnhild had to complete her schooling. While he waited, he worked for the Swedish Broadcasting corporation. He would go to work at midnight and use the short wave radio to broadcast the Swedish news to the US and Canada.

One of the high lights of living in Sweden was the occasion of working with Signe Hasso, a Swedish film star. Kingsbury was asked to do the voice lead in for the film in English. He was also in several small parts in the film, he played a drunk at a bar making eyes at her as she walked by. He really enjoyed this.

Balloon Lady made from wire armature & Paper Mache

She is incredibly detailed but the paper mache is starting to crack.

He and Ragnhild returned to America in 1955 and divorced within five years of returning home.  (I remember visiting Ragnhild with my mother after the divorce, she was living in Sausalito then, doing her ceramics).

When Kingsbury came home from Sweden he made his living by creating “Point of Sale displays” ( You'd call this marketing or advertising now). One such display was a model of an ape on a unicycle circling around with an ad.  He also created wooden sculptures but found they were hard to sell. He ultimately stopped creating large wooden sculptures, a loss for all of us as you can see by these photos.

Here is Kingsbury's workshop and studio, looks the same today as when I was a child.

I remember as a student at San Francisco State University I needed to draw a bird for a class and was having trouble. I walked up to Kingsbury's house and he immediately took down a drawing pad, explaining that you had to draw the bird from the ground up. He started sketching the bone structure of a bird, explaning about the hollow bones of a bird, then went on to apply the muscles over the bird, and in this way continued until he had a completed drawing of a bird. I was blown away at the concept of drawing this way. A very important lesson for me.

On how Kingsbury became Art Director of Rolling Stone magazine in 1968:
(around issue #14 or #16)

Kingsbury walked Potereo Hill a lot, and still does to this day. On one of his walks he met and became friends with a fellow Potereo hillian, Dave Bushman. Kingsbury remembers Dave was seeing Jann Wenner’s mother. Kingsbury attended a party at Dave's where he met Jann, who would have been about 22, Kingsbury was 45. 

Later, while skiing Kingsbury met Jann again and they struck up an acquaintance. When next Kingsbury saw Jann on Potereo Hill, Jann had started his magazine. Kingsbury had been creating these “Handy Little Devices” (joint clips) which Jann appreciated. Jann brought them to be used as premiums for people who subscribed to his new magazinge Rolling Stone.

"Handy Little Devices" created by Kingsbury
In 1968, Jann asked Kingsbury if he could come on board and help in revamping the magazine as it was floundering. (I'm guessing this was because of Kingsbury’s marketing experience.) Kingsbury agreed to help and completely took over the layout of the magazine. It was a hard and stressful position for Kingsbury as he was approximately 20 years older than the rest of the staff, mainly young people in their 20's who were partying hard. Kingsbury related how when he had to do the layout of the magazine, this was the days of pasteup production, he would block in the areas for text and photos. Writers would come to him with articles they'd written, the space alloted being one size and their article another.  Kingsbury would say this is the space you have, you need to edit 150 words from your article. They would say, - I can't!  You have to put it all in.-  He'd say - No, it has to be edited and you don't want me to edit it for you, because if I do (and he would hold the text up and mimic using siccors) I'll cut it right here. The writer, grumbling, would grab his text back and edit it for the alloted space. Kingsbury found that he had to lock and guard the photos of rock stars used in the magazine as the “kids” would just come in and take the pictures they wanted. 

When Kingsbury came on board the magazine was opperating with minimal or no furniture in many of the offices, so he began to haunt the used furniture stores on his way to work to bring in needed items. He was basically the practical side of the begining magazine. Jann did not put Kingsbury’s name on the masthead until the second year that Kingsbury worked for him.  I wish there was more appreciation for the work Kingsbury did for Rolling Stone.

Kingsbury created many sports sculptures.

When Jann moved Rolling Stone magazine to New York City, Kingsbury stayed in San Francisco and created the Rollings Stone's book publishing department. Kingsbury looked through these huge books of clip art and found the image of a Boy Scout, which he used for the logo, and named the book department of Rolling Stone magazine -Straight Arrow Press.  

Kingsbury remembers both he and Jann meeting their future wives at Rolling Stone. Linda, who married Kingsbury, and Janey, who married Jann, were sisters, who both worked there.  Kingsbury remembers this perky young woman who was full of energy and he thought to himself that if she liked skiing, then he would be very lucky indeed. They married and had a daughter, Megan. They were married for about six years and then divorced. But Megan was -and is- the delight of Kingsbury's life, he made sure to have Megan 50% of the time and was a very active figure in her life. This was unusual for a man at that time, especially one of Kingsbury’s generation.

On working with wood on a grand scale:

I asked Kingsbury why he stopped working with wood. I could hear his frustration with the fact there was no place to show his work after 1980, when the San Francisco Art Museums stopped their annual competition shows. The reason being-  it was not a money maker. Kingsbury's work is rather monumental in nature, the annual exhibits were a great place to show the work. With the demise of the competition shows and his work with Rolling Stone - he stopped doing the larger work altogether.

This incrediable horse is life size, living in Kingsbury's basement for the last 40 years. 

I remember when this beautiful lion was on display at a design showroom at the foot of Potereo Hill.

It too now lives in Kingsbury's basement.

Kingsbury and Drawing:

The one thing that has been a constant for Kingsbury is his drawing. In his upstairs living room Kingsbury has drawers full of unfinished drawings dating back to his time spent when he was a member of  Charlie Farr’s Monday drawing group. When I graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute, Kingsbury took me up to his living room and allowed me to go through many of his drawings to pick the one I liked for a graduation gift. Here it is, it has been hanging in my kitchen these many years.

My graduation present  
Charles Griffin Farr was a renowned San Francisco artist, he had a devout following of artists who came to his weekly drawing classes for over 50 years, until Charlie's death. These artists came every Monday to draw from a live model, there was no music, talking was not allowed and there was no socializing.  It was just about drawing. I believe some of the people still get together to draw. 

A gorgeous armadillio amidst other Kingsbury creations.

The Immaculate Investments:

Kingsbury had a dear friend, Charles Michael, with whom he started a business in the late 1970's while still working at Rolling StoneTheir company, Immaculate Investments, would buy, remodel and sell houses in the City. Through this company he and Charles purchased a restaurant at Conneticut and 17th streets, at the foot of Potereo Hill. This restaurant had been family run for a long time. When the head of the family died, they sold the restaurant to Kingsbury and Charles on the condition they change the name. The restaurant became Conneticut Central as a joke, since it was not near any of the other restaurants on the hill. He and Charles gutted it, rebuilt it and ran it for several years. At a certain point Kingsbury and Charles decided to go there separate ways.  The restaurant is still there today, it is now called Conneticut Yankee.

Kingsbury on Health:

One of the constant themes for Kingsbury as long as I have known him is his theories on the subject of health. He is an avid health nut! To keep his brain alert Kingsbury used the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle. Although now that Meliska (Meliska was the writer for the puzzles) has died he believes the puzzles are designed for a different genneration of people. For physical health, Kingsbury loved to play pick up baseball games on weekends. He’d go down to the local park – Jackson’s Park at the foot of the hill – and play baseball as a pitcher.

He took up running in his late 70’s for about four years. When he started to have knee problems he searched for another style of exercise. One evening he was watching TV and saw a show about tap dancing. He noticed that the tap dancers were all old men and thought “That’s it, that’s how I’ll do exercise.” He’s tap danced for a good many years - until recently.  His advice for longevity is to smoke a joint, drink a glass of Merlot and eat chocolate. No meat! 

Kingsbury doing one of the things he loves to do most, reading.

This man has been a part of my life for 56 years now, one of the only people left of my parents generation who has always known me. I am glad he is still here and full of vim and vigor, his sense of humor is great.

I am grateful to have him in my life.


  1. Thank you for writing this article! I am currently writing a thesis on Rolling Stone magazine during the tenure of Mr. Kingsbury, and have been having a hard time finding any information on him. This article really helped me understand his bio and his practice as an artist.

    I was wondering if there was a way to contact Mr. Kingsbury directly? This would be really helpful for my project.

    Thanks again,


    1. Hi Rachel,
      Send me your contact information and I will pass it on to Kingsbury.
      Glad you enjoyed this profile of Kingsbury!

    2. Hi Molly,

      Thanks for getting back to me. I can be reached at


  2. Hello Larry, Molly and Rachael,
    I thoroughly enjoyed this profile on Kingsbury, so thank you very much. Bob hired me at Rolling Stone in 1970, when I was 24. He was a wonderful man to learn from, and although he may not have known at the time how much he influenced my career in magazine design, the things he passed to me, I've passed to others. Like many at RS, I was fired by Jann after a year (he wanted fresh blood every year) but Bob kept asking me back to help do production in the art dept. Eventually I went on to other publications and lost track of him. I would really appreciate some contact information for Bob, as I would like to say hi and a great big thank you to him. Please reach me at With much gratitude, Don McCartney

    1. molly i think i met you once. bob talked about you often. he was a big influence upon me too. i learned about wood from him. he has a sense of woodenness that i seldom see elsewhere. and yes he has a great sense of humor. and i also thought about his daughter who i met long ago when naming my daughter.... megan. you gave such a thorough discription of him. all familiar to me and done so well! something just popped into my head to google his name and you writing came up. i am glad i did.

  3. I know this article is 3 yrs old, but Bob is my uncle, so I loved reading about him. I have a few of his art works and cherish them. Wish we could all get together - it's been a long time. Thanks!

  4. Wow, thank you for sharing his prolific and colorful life! I was friends with Megan in the 70's, and I remembered Robert as the extraordinary woodworker (we'd see his large horses in-progress) - but I never knew his whole story. Megan was always a bright, beautiful creative person, clearly a brilliant reflection of her dad Robert and mom Linda.
    I knew several families living on Potrero Hill in the 70's (incl.Pickle Family Circus), most all artists. It was a wonderland to witness as a kid. So nice to hear one person's first-hand account of growing up in such a unique neighborhood.