'Paintings of the Berkshires' by Robert U. Taylor

Work by a designer, artist who can do 'anything'

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Designer Robert U. Taylor's work can be seen in films, theme parks, restaurants and resorts around the world, from the U.S. to China and Dubai. Through June 24, Taylor's artworks can be viewed closer to home at Pittsfield's Hotel on North.

Two dozen watercolor paintings depict local nature scenes, bucolic fall and winter images of corn stalks, barns and Highland cattle glowing with vibrant oranges and yellows, white snow contoured by blue shadows. Hotel on North is the latest of a dozen East Coast exhibitions.

In his sunny glass-walled lounge in his Great Barrington home, Taylor shared his journey that led to the Berkshires.

Throughout his lengthy career Taylor, 76, has designed sets for stage, film and television, as well as architectural projects.

"Essentially, a designer should be able to do anything," he said.

Growing up in Virginia, at age 5 he drew pictures of his stuffed animals. "I kept on drawing because that was what I could do," he recalled.

His mother and chemistry teacher father encouraged his creativity and framed his teenaged work.

Taylor attended Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts — "probably the last bastion of classical art on this continent," he said — in a joint program with University of Pennsylvania, where he became "heavily engaged" in theater, acting and building sets. Art making is solitary, he discovered, "and I wanted to be around people." He subsequently studied set design at Yale.

Over 15 years in New York City he designed 100 shows, staged across the U.S. In 1975, he had three sets on Broadway, including the Tony-winning musical "Raisin."

The cost of sending two kids to Manhattan schools led Taylor to switch to more lucrative television commercials. Of 700 ads he designed, among them CLIO winners, half required kitchen sets.

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"You'd think, `How hard can that be?'" he said, "but I never used the same kitchen twice."

Five years later, when commercials production left New York City for less expensive locales, Taylor found himself unemployed. Like many film industry professionals, he arrived in the Berkshires through filmmaker and visual effects guru Douglas Trumbull, who had abandoned Hollywood politics and moved east.

Hired for his advertising visual effects experience, Taylor became Production Designer on Universal Studio's "Back to the Future" ride, being created in a Housatonic mill.

He designed meticulously detailed miniature sets including a town, glacier and volcanic river for Trumbull to film using custom camera rigs.

"Doug likes to use models," Taylor said. With impossible lighting and exposure limitations, "it was insanely hard, but a lot of fun."

After two years of commuting, he and his wife Margaret built a house and relocated their young family to Great Barrington. Further Trumbull projects included a futuristic film theme park at LUXOR Las Vegas. Later, with other Trumbull imports he joined new visual effects company Mass.Illusion to work on films including "Judge Dredd" and "Matrix," learning CGI computer generated imagery "on the job."

His two children are now grown. His son is a key grip in the film industry, and an intricately detailed elementary school drawing of a Manhattan street scene on the kitchen wall shows his daughter inherited Taylor's creative genes.

Taylor has no plans to slow down. "I'm doing attraction design for this new breed of experiential hotels," he said, working with famous brands from Sponge Bob and Ninja Turtles to Margaritaville. Currently, he is painting themed "fine art" to hang on resort walls.

"I can do a fake Rembrandt or outer space," he said. "It's the hand that does it, not the tools."

He still collaborates with Trumbull on projects. "The guy is a master of physical effects while everybody else is using CG," said Taylor, who scans his own hand-drawn work onto computers for processing.

For two decades he has painted, transitioning to watercolors from oils. "Watercolors are fast and dangerous, you can't repair it," he said.


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