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Mountain Home Magazine

Big Art in a Small Town

by Nicole Landers

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." ~ Pablo Picasso

Visitors to Penn Yan will notice a remarkable sight—a procession of elephants walking down the middle of Main Street. Although the elephants are not real, they do depict a real event. Painter and retired Penn Yan Middle School art teacher Robert (Bob) Gillespie had been looking for the perfect location for the mural he was inspired to create after seeing an 1897 photograph at the Yates County History Center.

“Then I found Ray’s wall,” Bob says with a smile.

Ray and Sandy Spencer were more than happy to accept and fund Bob’s mural project on the gray wall of their building, home to them and their business, Water Street Wine and Liquor. Ray, a member of the Penn Yan Village Board, is always looking for ways to improve his community. Five years ago, the couple moved their wine shop of fifteen years from a different area of town to this historic building—it was once Lake Keuka Fruit Sales and the place from which fruit was transported along the canal system to New York City. Ray recalls that Water Street had become an abandoned warehouse street. Now it’s home to a wine bar, restaurant, and luxury apartments.

“I knew it had to be a big painting,” Bob explains, “because of the detail.” Bob’s been producing murals for over twenty years, but nothing quite like the elephants. Perhaps best known for his action-filled murals depicting key moments of the 1948 and 1954 Grand Prix races in Watkins Glen, Bob has also created large pieces commemorating interesting moments in local history. His motivation stems from the desire to conjure an emotion from the viewer, whether it be joy, warmth, or nostalgia. He enjoys pushing paint and evoking positive feelings.

“It’s a kind of therapy for the artist as well as the viewer,” Bob explains. And because his pieces are in plain view, he’s likely to reach a wide audience, not just those who visit galleries.

Bob says he’s learned that “when painting a mural at street level you become an entertainer.” Passersby stop and engage the artist in conversation, either with questions, suggestions, or stories of their own. Bob would be quick to show them the photograph and explain that this early circus would have been inspiration for Jimmy Cole to establish the James M. Cole Circus, which he managed for nearly fifty years. As in many of Bob’s pieces, he included some personal touches. He placed his great-grandfather, Bill Shays, a commercial photographer from Oswego, standing along the road with camera and tripod at-the-ready. A figure important to aviation during the 1890s, Glenn Curtiss, is standing in the crowd. If you look hard enough, you might see a print of one of Bob’s racing murals in a shop window.

A popular tourist spot, the Windmill Farm and Craft Market, hosts a number of Bob’s murals. One shows an annual boat race between graduating classes at Keuka College. Another reflects the time when steamships dotted Keuka Lake’s waters, while several provide snapshots of action on the racetrack at the Glen. Further along Route 54A is another popular Penn Yan business, Oak Hill Bulk Foods, which houses a scenic mural of Bob’s creation. Renovations made it necessary for the mural, painted on an eight-foot by twenty-plus-foot wall, to be moved to a different location within the café.

Creative Director Ruth Sommers says, “We knew how much the public loved it. There was no doubt we were going to keep it.” Using the business’s name as inspiration, Bob created the fictitious scene of an oak tree on a hill overlooking the lake and the village of Keuka Park. He painted his daughter walking across the street to see Milly Bloomquist, local anti-hunger advocate, who always had treats for anyone who came to her door. He included fellow artist and friend, Dexter Benedict, moving art materials from the studio to his truck. Bob wanted patrons of the café to feel cozy on a cold winter’s day, so he chose warm colors. An empty swing hanging form the tree in the foreground seems to invite the observer to enter the scene and enjoy the view.

His most recent mural is being installed in sections at Bully Hill Winery in Hammondsport. When finished, it will include a series of seven four-foot by eight-foot panels. The first panel is complete and will hang so that wine tasters can see the bright flower designs camouflaging an animal—this one being a goat, since that’s the winery’s trademark.

Not all of Bob’s art is on a grand scale. For the last thirty years, he’s been self-publishing calendars of his original works. He started out with wall calendars of line drawings representing historical scenes and events of the local area. For the last fifteen years he’s been creating a desk calendar of original lithographs of his race car paintings.

The Arts Center of Yates County also contributed funds towards the circus painting in Penn Yan. Executive Director Kris Pearson shares Bob’s opinion that public art has a place in strengthening people’s understanding of the history of the place. Public art is an important part of a downtown’s aesthetics, appeal, livability, and culture, she says.

Bob says what he really wants is to “bring a smile to people’s faces.”

You can see more of Bob’s work at

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