Darien artist Robert Carley captures history through his caricatures of famous figures

Darien artist Robert Carley likes to draw caricatures of famous people and surround the image with their unique quotes.

Then he presents the artwork to the subject.

“It’s exciting to actually encounter them in person, to see their reaction,” Carley said. “There’s a little suspense in it for me. It can be encouraging.”

He’s done this with former U.S. presidents, other politicians, and famous entertainers, athletes, artists, chefs, journalists and business leaders.

He just presented former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with a caricature during a library event in upstate Connecticut, where Kissinger has a country house.

He’s done the same with Donald Trump, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Hanks, Bob Newhart, Magic Johnson, Jacques Pepin and other celebrities.

Actor George Hamilton has a Carley caricature with quotes about his famous tan hanging in his Los Angeles home, according to a 2019 Hollywood Reporter article that included a photo of Carley’s artwork.

Carley, 61, also is known for his abstract drawings and paintings, sculptures made of found objects and patriotic photography, especially of American flags. His work regularly is exhibited around the state and elsewhere, often selected for juried shows.

This year his art has been shown locally at the Silvermine Art Guild, Ridgefield Art Guild, Greenwich Art Society and Rowayton Art Center as well as the Museum of Connecticut History, Central Connecticut State University library, state Legislative Office Building, West Hartford Art League and Baltimore’s Star-Spangled Flag Museum.

The National Portrait Gallery and two presidential libraries have exhibited his caricatures, and he’s been featured on television and in major newspapers.

Carley also is a part-time actor and Screen Actors Guild member who’s played “extra” roles on television shows and in movies. He’s worked on sets with Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Adam Sandler, portraying businessmen, professors, restaurant patrons and pedestrians.

If the opportunity arises and the time is appropriate, he’ll present an actor on the set with a caricature he’s done of them.

Carley’s latest pursuit is what he calls “fast food art,” where he works at a Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, McDonald’s or Wendy’s with a pen and large drawing pad while drinking coffee.

“I like the feeling of working outside my studio,” he said. “I get stimulated and inspired when I go into a public space. You get certain vibes. I like being around people and enjoy their comments.”

He also draws in his vehicle and at Walmart, Stew Leonard’s and a laundromat. “I’m not pretentious about where I create my art,” Carley said. “What matters is the quality of the art. I try to make the best use of time so I draw everywhere.”

He’s had a lot of success having his fast food art — usually abstract in nature — being accepted into juried art shows, perhaps due to its spontaneity. “I feel freer when drawing my abstracts,” he said.

Carley’s interest in photography began when he inherited a quality camera after his father’s death.

Soon after, the 9/11 attacks occurred and he came upon a pumpkin painted like an American flag at a store. “I’ve got to document this,” he told himself.

He began taking photos of all the patriotic displays that popped up, especially in the Northeast, and eventually specialized in capturing images of houses painted like American flags around the country.

“It shows the American spirit at a historic time,” Carley said. “I wanted to capture what average people were doing.”

He soon was creating his own American flag art from unusual objects, such as painted or colored baskets, tires, cans, water bottles, egg cartons and even paper clips.

Carley was born in New Orleans but spent most of his youth in Connecticut, graduating from Darien High School in 1977. He started drawing at a young age, encouraged by his mother, a fashion illustrator and food writer.

“She believed in me,” he said, noting he later received strong encouragement from a stepmother as well.

In high school, he drew caricatures for the Stamford Advocate’s Player of the Week sports feature.

New Yorker cartoonist Perry Barlow, who lived in Westport, was an early mentor. “He liked my unorthodox way of drawing,” Carley said.

He did political cartoons for his college newspapers and longed to pursue that as a career, partly due to his interest in politics. He worked for a political polling firm in Washington, D.C., after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982.

But Carley’s big break never came. “I was a bohemian artist, barely making ends meet,” he said.

He moved back to Connecticut and worked in graphic arts and marketing, continuing to pursue art on the side.

He’s received a lot of positive feedback from the people depicted in his caricatures through the years.

“I love the caricatures and have posted them ... for all to enjoy. They’re getting rave reviews!” the elder former President Bush wrote in a thank-you note.

Lee Iacocca, the outspoken auto executive known for saving Chrysler, wrote that Carley’s art was “so very original and well done” and “I was surprised to see some of the comments I have made over the years on all the subjects you covered.”

Carley said he plans to continue creating art as much as possible, including doing large-scale abstracts. “I want to go really big,” he said.