LOW PROFILE A Cosmic Willy Loman

Dallas’s oldest living Bohemian opens a shop in the West End.


in the Sixties: an intense artistic type, given to flights of intellectual fantasy, sometimes chemically induced. We envied his non-conformity; feigned poverty with him, finding it more principled somehow, less establishment. Whether straight or stoned, few people could go as far out as he could.

But some say that Rollo, the one-time starving artist-in-residence at the old 8,0. Restaurant & Bar, the former painter, writer, and sage to Dallas cafe society, has finally sold out. With a Bohemian lifestyle that once bordered on monastic, Rollo seemed willing to sacrifice everything for his art. He slept in vacated nightclubs, the bell tower of a church, the back of a truck, just so he could afford to do his art, his way.

Now, at forty-three, Rollo peddles “leather-painted” artwear from his West End Marketplace venture, Coats of Paint. Has he suddenly rejected his intensely idealistic moral code? Or is this retail store merely an extension of the rebellious part of himself, the part that refuses to compromise with reality?

His real name isn’t Rollo-that was just a tag some friend stuck on him for reasons he can’t fully explain. His true name is Bob Barber-an indication, he says, of his parents’ limited vision for him. He grew up a preacher’s kid whose father’s fire-and-brimstone ways kept the family moving from church to church. “I went to fourteen schools in twelve years and some of them twice,” says Rollo. “I was always the new kid-of questionable status in the pecking order.”

As an adult, the longest he has ever lived in one home is sixteen months-aboard a Navy warship patrolling the coastline of Vietnam, a home that offered him little security. But those three “repressive” years in the service did offer Rollo a college education. In 1969, he took all his back pay, bought a Corvette that he dubbed his “Vietnam Vet,” and enrolled in The University of Texas at Arlington. Although Rollo pledged a fraternity, after one particular drunken brawl he quickly realized he “was not destined to be a Fiji.” Neither was he destined to finish school, rebelling against what he termed an “archaic educational system” taught by academics “with no street experience.” He quit in protest, but not before he had begun a successful manuscript mill, ghostwriting term papers.

Tiring of the enterprise by 1970, he moved to Dallas and found a job as a research assistant with the Bloom Advertising Agency. Within six months, he was being touted in the business as one of the hottest cub writers in town, dazzling clients with his whimsical, offbeat copy. One day he went on vacation, never to return. “I wanted to write like James Joyce,” he says, “and the thirty-second spot just didn’t cut it.”

That’s when he began to roam, going on the road like his hero, Jack Kerouac, writer and voice of the Beat Generation. For the next six years, he hitchhiked through life, crisscrossing the countryside, burdened only by a typewriter, guitar case, and a cardboard sign that read, “BRAZIL.”

With life as his teacher, Rollo wrote four novels, dozens of essays, and shorter pieces of nonfiction. But after years of rejection by major publishing houses and magazines, he bounced back to Dallas in 1978, hungry for food as well as recognition. Rather than sell out, go back into advertising, maybe even pay rent, Rollo just put aside his typewriter and picked up a sketch pad.

Rollo always knew he could draw. As a child, he sketched the church mural on the back of his program-a kind of escape from his father’s fiery sermons. Not until years later, when he sat down in the Stoneleigh P in 1978, did he begin to draw again. His art, much like his writing, gave him the freedom to illustrate his own ideas, not someone else’s. And his quirky cartoon vision lent itself easily to visual puns, mixing images with caustic comments-’Self image can be a case of mistaken identity.”

Rollo was also gifted at working the bar crowd, intellectualizing about life and art, creative freedom, women. His easy intimacy won him many friends-among them, a young Shannon Wynne, whose head was swimming with fresh ideas about starting a cutting-edge nightclub. Eventually, Wynne asked him to manage what was to become the first 8.0. Restaurant & Bar, which Rollo did-but only briefly. “I wanted the waiters to wear uniforms,” says Shannon. “But Rollo said he couldn’t force another human being to wear clothing not of their own choosing.”

Instead, Rollo became part of the mythology of the 8.0., resident artist, raconteur, and bouncer. He would often sketch portraits there, mostly of women, some remarkably lifelike, others disturbingly surreal, his rebellion against traditional notions of beauty. “I was just taking license with the cheesecake motif,” says Rollo. One painting depicted a beautiful woman-her right leg toned and shapely, her left in the form of a thickly muscled male bicep.

Although Rollo was growing into a cult figure, he was getting famous without getting rich. His living habits still hadn’t changed. For a time, home was a converted horse stable, then a vacated hot tub club. So in 1986, after the fall of Shannon Wynne’s many nightclubs that had been galleries to Rollo’s art, he hit the road again. Then in 1989, after years of tinkering, Rollo perfected a process he called “leather paint.” By applying leather paint to jackets, skirts, shoes, ties, even bras, Rollo could create a distinct piece of artwear that was also washable, durable, and wouldn’t crack. In May of 1990, after finding a backer, Rollo opened Coats of Paint in the West End Marketplace.

Rollo dismisses any notion that he has sold out, pointing out that he currently lives in a vacant retail space on Centra) Expressway. He claims he’s just doing what he’s always done on the road and in the bars: bringing art to the people.

TWO UNSUSPECTING CUSTOMERS, A HUSBANDand wife, amble into Rollo’s Coats of Paint as they might any store. The woman turns her attention to the racks of clothes, then stops to admire a jacket, leather-painted in colorful geometrics.

“This place should be in Deep Ellum,” says the husband.

Rollo chides him. “I like to think that it’s filling the gap between Deep Ellum and Rodeo Drive.”

The wife laughs; the husband doesn’t. “Look at those ties,” says the woman, trying to interest her husband.

“They’re weird,” he says.

“Thank you,” says Rollo.

The woman laughs again, and tries on the jacket; Rollo senses a sale. His approach is soft, genuine, a kind of cosmic Willy Loman, but the jacket squeaks noticeably as leather rubs against leather.

“Sounds uncomfortable,” says the husband.

“It’s art,” says Rollo, defending his work.”If something is going to last three hundredyears, isn’t it worth a little discomfort at first?”


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