Bums And Vatican Mini Bars – Shaftesbury Shopkeeper Prepares A Quirky Art Show

You will never have a boring conversation with Shaftesbury businessman Rob Neely. He became friends with Roxy Music when he lived in a commune. He jammed with the Sex Pistols and spent six weeks creating art in the dark. Now the co-owner of The Dorset Store is staging a Shaftesbury Arts Centre Gallery exhibition, where each piece on display promises to be as colourful as his stories.

Rob Neely isn’t snobby or elitist about his art. Far from it. He believes that art should be both accessible and disposable. “My ideal thing would be that it would last a week and then it would dissolve into nothing,” said Rob. And he loved Banksy’s self-shredding painting. “That was perfect. I don’t have this precious thing about art at all.”

Rob Neely

Rob’s creative talent was first spotted in school in South Wales. “I could draw a bit but I couldn’t do much else. The art master said, ‘Why don’t you try to get into art college?’ So I went to Cardiff Art College. I went from there to Leeds College of Art. I got a first class honours degree, a BA in Fine Art, and I didn’t do one single painting. People can’t believe that. They think artists should do paintings,” said Rob, adding, “I have done some since.”

Leeds College of Art was a place of experimentation in the 1960s. “Normally an art college will be full of sunlight. They blacked out all the windows, so we worked in the pitch black for six weeks.”

When Rob finished his studies in Leeds he discovered the States. “In 1969, I went on this working tour of America. I worked as an orderly in a hospital in Manhattan. I ended up in Mexico and California and then came back to this country. I went to live in London.”

On his return to the UK, Rob spent a brief time teaching the arts. “I was asked to be a visiting lecturer at The Royal College of Art in the ceramics department. The head of the department was the Marquis of Queensbury. I was there for two years, although I knew nothing whatsoever about ceramics!”

But Rob decided not to pursue art professionally. “I was involved in music a little bit, including Roxy Music for a while,” he said. Rob became friends with the band’s synth player, Brian Eno. “He was at Winchester Art College and a friend of mine met him. When I came back from America the phone rang and he said ‘fancy coming to live in London?’ It was a good idea, so I did,” said Rob

“We had a commune in Camberwell and eventually, Roxy Music started there. I was printing for a living and I’ve got the original Roxy Music posters. I didn’t take one single photograph for some reason,” said Rob, with a hint of regret. But years later he did meet the band’s frontman again. “Bryan Ferry popped into the shop when I was in Gillingham. It was quite nice to catch up.”

Rob continued, “From there we lived in an old warehouse in Rotherhithe and a lot of bands started there, including the Sex Pistols. In fact I jammed with them a few times because one guy didn’t turn up. I helped to make up the numbers.”

After London, Rob moved to North Dorset. It was a different world. “I got sort of tired of London. I was actually from the valleys and London was okay but I’d had enough of it,” said Rob. “Me and Sue, my wife, decided just to move out and quite honestly the cheapest place we could find was in Gillingham. It was an old stable block and I think we bought it for like £2,500. It was derelict anyway. We moved to Shaftesbury three and a half years ago now.”

Rob reckons it has been a decade since the last display of his work at the Shaftesbury Arts Centre. “Ten years ago, before this new, lovely gallery, there was a smaller gallery inside. This is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve done it. It might be the last because there’s a huge waiting list here.”

Rob is considering working and exhibiting from his Bell Street home. “This house is quite large. I’m thinking of opening it up for Dorset Arts Weeks, with maybe one or two other artists. There are enough rooms here. And every year I try the RA summer exhibition,” said Rob.

Many artists who show at the Arts Centre Gallery hope to sell their work but Rob isn’t driven by sales. “If any of my stuff is what people would put on their walls, then it is purely by accident,” he said. “The stuff I do is what I want to do. Once I start doing anything to please somebody else, I would stop doing it. I think most of my stuff is about ideas. Every piece has a story behind. It starts with an idea or something which happens and then I take it from there and I develop it.”

One such example is Rob’s piece ‘Minibar in the Vatican’. And there’s a story, naturally. “We went for a weekend break in Rome. We went to St Peter’s and there’s a café there and I suddenly thought, hang on a minute, people stay at The Vatican! Not like a hotel but they have guests,” said Rob. “I had just come from the hotel and we had used the minibar, so I thought of the crossover ‘what would a Vatican mini bar look like?’ That will be in the exhibition. I couldn’t get hold of any holy water so I have got Crème de Menthe because apparently the Pope likes it.”

Rob’s work is quite humorous. “I have a piece called Tutu. It means ‘bum bum’. In our garden, we had a statue of Botticelli. The word ‘botty’ came to mind,” said Rob, referring to the Welsh slang word for backside. “I made a cast of the bottom of the Venus de Milo and I put that into a box, surrounded by a little window with a grill on it. It is like a confessional box. You open it up and there’s a bottom looking at you.”

It’s Monday evening now and Rob has two more pieces to complete. But he bats away my suggestion that he’s cutting it fine. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “I do things really, really fast. Last time I did it, I decided to do a whole painting in under an hour from nothing.”

Rob is sharing the exhibition space with artist Eric Bailey. His exhibition opens at 10am on Wednesday 13th and there’s a ‘meet the artist’ event at 5.30pm on Thursday 14th.