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Pandemic project: Dental lab owner Robert Carnell paints pop art abstracts of celebrities

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

Quick. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you think of visiting the dentist’s office?

Cavities? Crowns? Cleaning? Certainly, most of us wouldn’t imagine original artwork.

But that’s the first thing you notice when entering the lobby of the Professional Center Building on North Ash Street, home to several dental practices and a dental laboratory.

Vibrantly hued paintings of pop culture icons adorn the hallways. A steely eyed Clint Eastwood, a flower-bespectacled Van Morrison, several iterations of Marilyn Monroe and many more celebrities past and present catch your eye at every turn.

The art is Robert Carnell’s pandemic project. His family owns the building, and his dental lab is on the main floor. His studio is in the basement.

“My project started since no one could go to the dentist for about six months,” he said. “I began doing pop-abstract paintings of famous people.”

The King inspired him.

“I saw a painting of Elvis Presley that looked kind of 3D, and I decided to try my own.”

He may repair dentures for a living, but Carnell is no stranger to a paintbrush.

“I was always drawing. People would ask me to do sketches for them,” he recalled. “When I was around 13, I painted an Olympia beer can ping pong table for parents.”

That ping pong table quickly became an attraction for visiting friends and family.

The pandemic gave him time to explore a new medium and create an original style. He counts Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol as his favorite artists.

“I’ve painted in oils, but I’d never tried acrylics,” Carnell said. “And I’d never seen a mixture of pop and abstract.”

His work blends the two styles with a 3D-like effect and brilliant pops of color with a touch of chaos.

Carnell grinned.

“Gotta have some chaos.”

He pointed to his favorite work – a portrait of The Doors’ Jim Morrison. Scarlet and orange flames shoot up from the bottom of the painting.

“Light my fire,” Carnell said, referring to the band’s iconic hit.

He quickly discovered the difference between using oils and acrylics.

“Oils take so long to dry,” he explained. “But acrylics almost dry on the brush. It’s like painting with plastic.”

So, he began mixing the two, getting the finish and depth he wanted. To achieve the 3D sensation, he used what he had on hand to add texture to some of his work.

“I used dental wax,” Carnell explained, running his fingers along the ridges in Elton John’s glasses.

Each piece takes about a week or two to complete, and each is sprayed with a clear coat when completely dry.

The building interior had received a fresh coat of paint, which gave Carnell the idea for displaying his art.

“The white walls looked so stark,” he said. “I asked if I could hang my work.”

His paintings prompted requests from the building’s tenants.

Mick Jagger with the Union Jack behind him was one of those requests, so was Johnny Depp. Someone else asked him to paint rapper Machine Gun Kelly. He hasn’t started that one yet.

“I had to look him up,” Carnell said, shrugging.

The artist works from black and white images culled mainly from the Internet. In his basement studio, the unmistakable visage of John Lennon peers at visitors from a canvas. Lennon is his current work-in-progress.

To date, 30 of Carnell’s paintings are displayed throughout the public areas of the building, including a couple of Frank Sinatras and a Marlon Brando ala “The Godfather.”

“We’re an Italian family,” he explained.

What started as a way to fill the empty hours has brightened the walls of the professional building and invigorated the artist.

“I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can,” Carnell said.

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Correspondent Cindy Hval can be reached at dchval@juno.com.

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