“It’s hard to keep this place clean,” says ‘Dr. Bob’ Shaffer, as he surveys the Bywater studio where for nearly 20 years his folk-art stylings have been produced. If it weren’t for the brightly painted signs, kitschy knick-knacks and folksy witticisms hanging or scrawled onto every inch of the walls and fences surrounding the parking lot off of Chartres Street, one could easily think it was just another architectural salvage yard or auto body shop along the industrial corridor on this stretch of Mississippi, just downriver from the French Quarter.
The folk artist has developed a following in New Orleans. His signs commanding Be Nice or Leave (or some variant on that theme) have popped up all over the city, and Dr. Bob has been a fixture at Jazz Fest for some years now.
The first clues that Dr. Bob might have a northshore connection are warning signs featuring the Honey Island Swamp Monster (As Seen on TV) and the wild-eyed albino, Onion Head (Bonfouca Boogie Man), greeting visitors in the studio’s parking lot. So what exactly does an iconic “New Orleans” artist like Dr. Bob know about the mysterious waterways of Slidell? It turns out he knows quite a bit.
Born in Wichita, Kan., Dr. Bob is of Crow Indian, French and German descent. His dad was an engineer for aerospace manufacturing giant Boeing Co. The family was among the first wave of “come here” high-tech workers (“missile gypsies,” as Dr. Bob calls his family) who settled in the Slidell area after Boeing won the contract to build the first stage of NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket at the Michoud plant in New Orleans East.
Coming of age at the dawn of suburban development in St. Tammany meant endless adventure to Dr. Bob. “To a kid from Kansas, it was like being in Jurassic Park down here. Every where you turned, something moved, slithered, splashed, jumped or growled,” he remembers. “I started out discovering the secrets of the South, so to speak—all these opportunities to go fishing and hunting. Walking out your front door with a dip net and a flashlight or a frog gig made out of a nail and a broom handle—man, you could catch whatever you wanted to.”
Listen to Dr. Bob recounting his mischievous, if not misspent, youth spent in St. Tammany and it quickly becomes obvious that his time spent exploring the parish’s streams, woods and swamps has greatly shaped his art as much as his subsequent adventures later in life in New Orleans and throughout the South.
Dr. Bob’s storytelling intersects modern pop culture and the places that “ain’t dere no more” when he explains why he thinks he knows what’s behind the recent sightings of the northshore panther. “We had a neighbor, Arthur Jones, who later on invented Nautilus fitness machines. He owned a snake farm by the old White Kitchen on the road to the Gulf Coast. [Reptile Jungle, where Highways 90 and 190 meet.] That’s where Jayne Mansfield was killed when her driver ran into the back of a truck. We were at Bosco’s Restaurant in Slidell when we heard that. They took her car to Eddie’s Esso in Slidell. I saw that,” he digresses, then gets back on track with the panther. “Mr. Jones kept wild animals and snakes in his home, too. He had a pair of breeding jaguarundis that he kept in a bathtub with a sliding glass door he kept jammed up with a broom handle so you couldn’t slide it.”
Intrigued about the northshore panther reports, Dr. Bob did some research. “The climate is just the same as in Central America, and they describe jaguarundis as cocoa-colored—and they are blackish-looking—and I’m getting tickled over all this.” He brought it up in a visit with his friend, musician Coco Robicheaux, who died last November. (Robicheaux became known nationwide in 2010 for performing a bit of voodoo on the HBO show Treme.) “He was raised in Slidell and his real name was Curtis Arceneaux. Curtis and I used to catch snakes and lizards to sell to Mr. Arthur to feed his snakes and reptiles and stuff. We’d get a dollar for a turtle. That’s big money in the ’60s. Before he died, Curtis and I got to talking about Arthur Jones, who moved from the middle of Slidell to Palm Lake subdivision. Did those cats get away from the old White Kitchen? Or in the move? Or when Camille passed Slidell? Somehow, people are seeing these things and I truly believe it could be those jaguarundis.”
What about Onion Head, the Boogie Man of the Bonfouca? Turns out tales of the mythological monster were made up to scare the youth of Slidell, tales equally believed as tales of the Loup Garou are by the children of Acadiana.
To paraphrase Dr. Bob and make the tale fit for print in a family magazine, he says it all became too real one evening as he and a young lady were “necking” out by Bayou Pacquet. “We were in my daddy’s ’67 Impala and a pine cone fell and hit the roof. BAM! That was the end of that.” The girl (who will remain nameless) screamed, ‘Onion Head! Get the hell out!’ And when she screamed, you see three more cars’ lights pop on and everybody’s hauling ass out of Bayou Pacquet ’cause Onion Head’s coming.”
Dr. Bob’s Art
Dr. Bob is self-taught. The first piece of art that he made and sold was as much a product of the boredom he faced in an early stint as a forest ranger in northern Louisiana as any big creative urge. “There was nothing else to do with no cable and only two TV stations. The Album Hour out of Natchez was the first time anybody heard Lynyrd Skynyrd, so we’re out there turning the antenna up on the hill trying to tape it on a cassette player. We wanted some rock ‘n’ roll, living up in the boonies.”
Going back to his days in the swamps, he carved an alligator. But it wasn’t just a wooden gator. It was a musical instrument. A “ga-tar.” “I can’t play, I can’t sing and I was told I couldn’t carry a tune in a No. 3 washtub, so I made a washtub base. I wanted the neckpiece to be like snakes.” With an alligator’s head carved into the end, he says, “I put the eyes and the teeth in it. It’s the ga-tar, boys! Play one string at a time.” When he unveiled it, he says, “Everyone laughed. It turned into my first piece of art and sold to a New York collector. Last time it changed hands was 15 years ago for $5,000, and it’s in a private collection in New Jersey now. ”
Dr. Bob has since carved two more of these alligators in a labor- and time-intensive process. It takes hours and hours of sanding, he says, and adds that, “Once I get through with the sanding, I do the steel wool and get that down to 0000, which is really fine. After getting the wax on, it’s like butter.” The carved gators serve as demonstration pieces at art shows, where Dr. Bob shows off their finish. “I like to take a rag and just throw it and it slides down the gator, it’s so slick. I take a lot of pride in making it. It’s dangerous. A piece can go wrong after you spent months on it, bust it all to hell.”
He uses real alligator teeth in the alligator and dog pieces. “I get the eyes from anywhere that deals with glass or marbles; the guys at Studio Inferno around the corner are good at keeping me supplied. I buy my alligator teeth by the pound. People ask how I get ’em. I say, ‘Very carefully.’”
Found objects are the basis for much of his art. In an ironic twist, the storm that nearly killed him has ensured a steady supply of discarded signs, lumber, doors and window frames to forage in the decimated areas around his studio. “After the hurricane, I scoured the neighborhoods for what little bit of old New Orleans was left.”
Many of the bottle caps that he uses to bejewel his creations come from the Abita Brewery. He also has a stash of Barq’s root beer bottle caps and wood from the old Barq’s crates with the slogan “Drink Barq’s—it’s good!” stenciled on the sides. Dr. Bob recalls the old Conti St. warehouse. “It smelled intoxicating; that raw sassafras and birch just permeated that building. To this day, you walk in there and it knocks you over.
“The things that mean the most to me are things that come to me by magic,” Dr. Bob says. He has two rescued Union Beer signs from one of New Orleans’ first commercial breweries that are waiting to become part of some artwork, and, he says, “One of the only Dr. Nut signs in existence. It was on the gable-end of a building.” Dr. Nut, a local soft drink that ceased existence in the 1970s, is etched in literary history as the favorite beverage of Ignatius Riley in Confederacy of Dunces. Dr. Bob has cut an alligator-shaped portion out of the sign and, after adding eyes and teeth, will incorporate it into a piece assembled in tribute to the character. “I was thinking, I’ve got Ignatius done, and I want to make up some Dr. Nut bottle caps if I can’t find them online. I have to get the right eyeball to put on him to keep an eye on Ignatius.”
Be Nice or Leave
Even Dr. Bob’s catch phrase, “Be Nice or Leave,” has a back-swamp back-story. It started when Dr. Bob and some of his fellow St. Paul’s students took to the river to do some fishing on a holiday.
“We’d get a six-pack of Dixie, a pack of Marlboros and go out and act like we’re 14-year-old men. I drew the short straw, so I had to go get the beer,” says Dr. Bob. A Pearl River dive bar behind the St. Joe brick works was where the underage artist-to-be entered to buy the day’s “refreshments.”
“It was called Working Man’s Paradise, owned by a man named Edgar Ducre; it was painted red with black and white dice on the building and spelled ‘paradise’ for ‘pair of dice.’ It just intrigued me.” The scene inside the bar made an even bigger impact on Dr. Bob. “The interior was painted this turquoise blue that makes you feel like you’re in Haiti or something. On one wall was this big painting of Edgar Ducre’s son who went to LSU. He’s in his uniform riding Mike the Tiger and throwing a football. It’s awesome; it’s painted really good.”
Then he says, “That’s where I saw ‘Be Nice or Leave.’ It was written with a Marks-A-Lot on a piece of a cardboard beer box. When I got my order and turned to leave, the back of the sign said, ‘There’s Nothing in the World Worth Getting Killed Over.’ It hit me that I didn’t belong there, that I could get killed.”
His Be Nice or Leave signs can be found hanging all over the city, and he’s constantly commissioned to make signs with a personalized spin on the phrase. He has his own versions on sale as well. Be Nasty and Stay, Shut Up and Fish and Shut up and Eat are variations, and he paints Be Nice or Be Bitten signs that he donates to local animal shelters for them to give to donors and people adopting pets.
Dr. Freakin’ Bob
How did Dr. Bob, a man of no obvious medical training, get the name Dr. Bob? He’ll be happy to tell you. It was at the birth of the S.O.B.—the son of Bob, his boy Isaac. “My nickname came when I was helping deliver him at Lakeside Women’s Hospital. Lamaze failed, and we had to do an emergency C-section. I was in the sterile field, so I assisted with it. The nurse, Margie Vanderbeck, who I went to school with, said ‘Well, doctor freakin’ Bob,’ and that was it.”
Dr. Bob participates in many charitable endeavors in the New Orleans area and Bay St. Louis, where the first gallery to carry his work is located, and in Memphis and Washington, D.C. When Mr. Okra, a beloved New Orleans’ roaming vegetable vendor, needed a new truck, neighbors and businessmen rallied to help, as Mr. Okra had become a necessity in Katrina-ravaged neighborhoods after so many local grocery stores had closed. Dr. Bob helped organize the benefit and provided the decorative painting for the new truck. “My piece-de-resistance,” he says.
His work is now found in many private collections and museums throughout the South. Dr. Bob is a regular participant in the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A piece was featured in the Smithsonian Magazine in 1999; the Smithsonian’s affiliate, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, also includes one of his pieces in its collection.
“I did it! I used to tell my friends, ‘Screw you, I’m going to be in the Smithsonian, and then I’m going into the Louvre!’” he says, with only one more internationally-known institution to go.
Dr. Bob’s work can be found at drbobart.net.Filed under: Arts, Cover Artist, Front Page Feature, May-June 2012, Northshore Notables, St. Tammany Life, Travel