The icebreaker is always the same for documentary filmmakers Allison Bohl DeHart and Peter DeHart — a suggestion for their next movie.
“A lot of people approach you, and there’s that opening line: ‘You know who you should make a film about,’” Peter says. “What follows is a complete wild card. You don’t know what it’s going to be.”
During the 2014 Southern Screen Film Festival, sculptor/artist Lisa Osborn approached the couple and posed that same rhetorical question. However, as fate would have it, Osborn’s answer was a topic that intrigued the husband-and-wife duo — the work of artist Robert Wiggs.
Months before Southern Screen, the couple had seen a retrospective of Wiggs’ work at the Acadiana Center for the Arts.
“We didn’t even meet him,” Peter recalls. “We were walking through and saying, ‘This is interesting.’ Then, we saw him from a distance at that event. He was visual gold.”
Wiggs, then 92 years old, had drooping eyes, big glasses that reached to his wrinkled brow, and a bent back.
“He was rich in texture,” Peter says. “We said to ourselves, ‘Man, that guy would be great to film.’ We never thought we would make a film about him.”
Osborn knew Wiggs, and she offered to help introduce the two filmmakers to the artist, saying she was also interested in investing money into a possible film project on him.
“[Osborn] was our way in,” Peter says. “The first time we met him, we showed up at his house, introduced ourselves. We just brought a microphone. We didn’t want to scare them [Bob and his wife, Betty] immediately. [Betty] was skeptical about the entire thing. But we had Lisa on our side. She was the best partner because she helped fuel the filmmaking. She told [them] to trust us.”
Artists thought Wiggs’ geometric creations were too mathematic in their designs, despite that Wiggs didn’t possess a mathematical or scientific background. At the same time, the math and science community didn’t give Wiggs the time of day because he was discovering shapes with an artist’s eye.
In the four years since that first meeting, Allison and Peter have completed work on their first feature-length documentary, “Bending Lines: The Sculpture of Robert Wiggs.” A screening of the film starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, at the Acadiana Center for the Arts. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased here.
The result is a portrait of an eccentric, yet brilliant artist who kept working on his precise, geometric sculptures into his old age as his eyesight and hearing were deteriorating.
Though Wiggs’ work can be seen in public displays around Lafayette, the Illinois-born artist and former UL Lafayette professor amassed decades of underappreciated work before dying at the age of 93. Artists thought Wiggs’ geometric creations were too mathematic in their designs, despite that Wiggs didn’t possess a mathematical or scientific background. At the same time, the math and science community didn’t give Wiggs the time of day because he was discovering shapes with an artist’s eye.
“Some of the stuff Wiggs was discovering was by purely playing with line and form,” Peter says. “You look at his work — it’s more like a scientific journal, but he didn’t use complicated formulas.”
While neither side would give Wiggs’ work the credit it deserved, those close to him told the filmmakers the same thing: “He was on another level.” However, as he aged, he would try to condense those decades of thoughts, pieces and sketches into 10-minute conversations for those with even the smallest interest in him.
“When we first got to his house, he had already gotten boxes out and had different sections of his house displaying his artwork,” Peter says. “He would show us this, then walk to another part of the room and show us something else. He would jump into full sentences in a language you wouldn’t understand.”
Across the four years, the film changed from a casual short-form documentary to a feature-length film that’s as obsessive with Wiggs as the artist was with his work. In between the initial meetings and the film’s completion, Peter and Allison also worked on commercials, shorts and other creative projects through their production company Makemade. A year after compiling footage, Wiggs died at 93 years old. Rather than exploit the artist and rush footage out to audiences, Peter and Allison took care with the film, letting it unravel naturally in the editing booth.
“Originally, we thought this would be a 10-minute short,” Peter says. “We knew very quickly when we were editing that it had to be a feature film. We put together one scene, and it was 10 minutes. That would have been it. We knew we had to go further.”
Digging deeper into the footage, the goal wasn’t just to present Wiggs and his artistic process in an accessible way. “Bending Lines” does feature those educational explanations and art/science debates, but those topics are pieced around the essential reels of an aging artist at work.
“We just got to explore Bob and film him explore his space,” Peter says. “He was like an actor on a set. The more we got to know him, the more we wanted to show a portrait of a 92-year-old artist, what he is dealing with at that time, still pushing to see what he can do. There are moments where you see him struggle for a minute. That’s exactly where he is in his life. If you showed up at his house, you would notice it, too.
“We just turned the cameras on and followed Bob.”
For some, making a film like “Bending Lines” would be a test of patience. But for Allison and Peter, a patient couple who has always preferred a slower pace to the “go-go-go” editing style of modern cinema, any moment with Wiggs was time well spent.
“This is the first time we felt like we got to do exactly what we wanted to do,” Peter says. “It felt like it took us 10 years to finally do that. We just needed the right subject.”