With one semester left, Robert “Bob” Foster looks forward to his future.
“I gotta go; I’m tired now. I’ll come back and joke and jive, but academia has burned me out. The only job I’ll have is to walk to the mailbox and get my check,” he said with a laugh.
The Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Communication Arts professor is lively, gesturing wildly and adding sound effects when he shares his life’s stories. At 68, he has many.
Zannutul Ferdous, a junior in his non-major drawing class, appreciates his perspective.
“You can tell he really isn’t like any other professor to tell at VCU. It’s interesting that he’s been all over the world and seen so many things. It’s insightful,” Ferdous said.
Foster has been a member of the VCU Arts community for 37 years. He graduated from the university with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in 1977.
He always knew he could draw, but never expected to be here today.
“I went through high school, got out of there, took one art class and realized I wasn’t interested,” Foster said.
He was born on Nov. 13, 1946, in Swiftown, Mississippi. He was the fourth generation to live on a cotton plantation. An only child when farm families were large, his parents let him ride their cotton sacks to the fields when he was only four, an experience he remembers fondly.
Foster attended a segregated school until the fourth grade. The change in education after moving to an integrated school was drastically noticeable.
“When I think back on it, I was being programmed by the system with inadequate education. It was like going from the United States to Russia. I didn’t understand anything,” he said.
Science and math were never his strong suits, but Foster still wasn’t focused on art. He just hoped to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War, which had killed three friends. He entered the Air Force and worked as a heating specialist and after being discharged, worked as a windshield inspector. This was a hard job he didn’t enjoy.
“I came home and I was hot. I was mad. I was angry. I said, God what am I gonna do? A commercial came on advertising an art school. I said that’s it,” he said.
A friend’s mother eventually pointed him to VCU — he would later earn a Masters of Fine Arts at Syracuse University — where he made many undergraduate connections that would lead to his current position.
For Foster, education is about instilling the basics. As a student, he felt he and others weren’t given an essential foundation and only a handful of his own professors provided the necessities.
“My photography teacher taught me how to see. I learned that form should be felt before you touch it. When the picture starts speaking to you, you don’t have to be there to explain it. That’s what I try to teach all of my students,” he said.
With his focus on the fundamentals, Foster considers himself to be boring. However, his list of endeavors and experiences are extensive. He once ran from a bodyguard named Igor while attending an international exhibition in Soviet Union Russia. He’s a brown belt in Shotokan karate. He developed the Scientific and Preparatory Medical Illustration track at VCU.
He jokes often about relaxing after accomplishing so much. Still, he won’t retire from art completely. He wants to turn his focus on history. Foster plans to paint the experiences of the colored troops who fought in the Siege of Vicksburg, beginning with his great grandfather and uncle.
According to Foster, more people should know about the local African Americans who contributed in the Civil War.
“I want to tell the story, our story…so that people can understand what we’ve been through and maybe they’ll evaluate themselves.”