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    Friday, August 12, 2022

    The Stars and Stripes reimagined

    Robert Carley with a flag constructed of painted VHS tapes Tuesday, June 28, 2022 at his Colchester home. Carley has traveled the nation photographing the Stars and Stripes in countless iterations and published a book of those photos þÄúLiberated, Freed from the FlagpoleþÄù. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

    Colchester — Robert Carley has always loved drawing abstracts, caricatures and cartoons. Then the old Nikon he inherited from his father inspired him to take up photography in a serious way.

    The subject matter for so many of his photos took sharp focus after 9/11: American flags.

    “It took me a while to realize the historic importance of documenting the reaction of 9/11. In my neighborhood (of Norwalk), I started seeing beautiful creations — everyday people making flags and showing a lot of ingenuity and creativity. One of the big reasons was that flags had sold out. People couldn’t buy any, so people decided to make their own and turned what they loved into a flag, like their car, their boat, their mailbox, and in most extreme cases, their houses," he said.

    Carley snapped photos of those creations and expanded his geographic range, to all of Connecticut, and then to Michigan and the South, before finally traveling to Washington state.

    His resulting pictures have been compiled in his book “Liberated from the Flagpole, The Metamorphosis of the Flag since 9/11,” which was published in August 2021. He said some of those images were used earlier by the BBC website as part of the 10-year commemoration of 9/11.

    His works were also featured in an exhibition at Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury last summer titled “In the Wake of 9/11: Robert Carley’s American Journey.”

    New interpretations of the flag

    What has kept him fascinated by the red, white and blue, he said, is that “I keep seeing new interpretations of the flag. Anything you can imagine, it has metamorphosized into a flag. Flags made out of cups, lids. I was inspired by what other people were doing. One flag I saw that was so cool was made out of chains and bolts — you know, nuts and bolts. It was on the side of a tattoo shop in New York state … To me, it rivals Jasper Johns.”

    Johns is an American artist known for his depictions of the American flag.

    The flag-related inventiveness inspired Carley to make his own flags out of unexpected items.

    “I never thought I’d make a flag out of facemasks in a million years, but then I accumulated so many facemasks, and I knew, ‘Oh, I can save these for a flag and use materials that are thrown out.’ I made a flag out of my coffee creamers because every day I go to Dunkin’ Donuts and get coffee, so I save all those creamers and I save lids and I know I can use it and make them into a flag,” he said.

    Carley has turned everything from tires to water jugs into flag imagery.

    “The American flag is a great design. It can be incorporated and played around with and interpreted more than any other flag,” he said. “With the stars and stripes, it’s just a neat flag.”

    Of course, it’s not just how the flag looks that draws him in but also what it symbolizes.

    “I’m very patriotic, always have been. I’ve always appreciated living in America. I believe it’s the most free country. It’s not perfect, but I think of all countries, it’s unique. We have a foundation that we can build upon,” he said, citing the Constitution and its amendments. “That’s why people flock here.”

    Houses painted like flags

    Carley said the most impressive images to him were homes that were painted like a flag, with the first one he saw being in Kent.

    That image was “symbolic of the country, how America rallied around the flag, literally. The most unified time, probably, in American history, those few weeks after 9/11. It’s gone downhill since then,” he said ruefully.

    “I’m a Christian. I believe it was God’s timing that God gave me a little gift for photography at just the right time. I had some really amazing instances that I don’t think were coincidences,” he said, adding that he often found really interesting things along the way when he was heading elsewhere.

    Carley said he has also had a lot of “fun, memorable moments” on the road in new places — exploring, going to diners, meeting and talking to people.

    Coming to Colchester

    Carley moved to Colchester in November 2021.

    “I wanted to downsize. My wife wanted to move. Taxes were getting high in Darien, where I moved from. It’s a lot of congestion down there, and there was no real reason for me to stay there,” he said. “I had a big, old two-family house I inherited from my mother from 1828. I just needed a smaller house, less expenses, and then to take advantage of the hot real estate market. So I could get a good amount for the house. And then you get a lot more bang for the buck up here in Colchester. Colchester is a nice, quiet town, and I have a nice little house that’s more affordable. I’ll be 64 so I don’t need to pay high taxes for the school system in Darien.”

    Carley is retired now. His jobs over the years included being a sales rep for a graphic arts company; production manager at Manhattanville College, working for a pharmaceutical marking company and later for UST, a smokeless tobacco company.

    He also, though, has an avocation he’d like to get back to: background acting, which he had “so much fun” doing. He has been an extra in all sorts of films and TV shows, dating back to one gig in 1980 when he was a college student and then his next, 2012’s “Hope Springs,” the Meryl Streep-Tommy Lee Jones movie that was shot in Stonington.

    When he was on the set of "Hope Springs," he was encouraged by other extras to submit himself to a couple of casting companies because he had a "good look" for this line of work. 

    "(I) have always been attracted to acting, but growing up, I was too shy to get on stage. With background acting, there is no pressure, especially when I don't have to memorize lines," said Carley, who uses the downtime on set to work on his abstract drawing.

    More recently, he appeared as a jeweler in “Uncut Gems” starring Adam Sandler. And, in a bit of typecasting, he was a photographer on “Blue Bloods” and “Gossip Girl.”

    With COVID, Carley’s background work came to a halt, but he’d like to return to that and is excited about the fact that a number of Hallmark movies have been filmed in Connecticut recently.

    Caricatures and celebrities

    As a kid growing up in Darien, Carley loved politics and drawing political cartoons. At the University of Pennsylvania, he earned degrees in fine arts and political science.

    "Working background has given me an opportunity to get up close and personal to celebrities that I draw," he said.

    Even now, he still does drawing, mostly caricatures of celebrities and politicians and surrounded by relevant quotes. His work has led him to meet some of those famous folks, from Cheryl Tiegs to President George H.W. Bush. He likes to do a caricature of a star and then find a way to present it personally to him or her, often getting a photo of them together.

    Carley actually drew a couple of caricatures of Bush fishing, which was one of the former president’s favorite hobbies. Carley managed to get it to his subject via a Bush cousin. Years later, with another Bush caricature in tow, Carley went to a Memorial Day parade in Kennebunkport, Maine, that Bush always attended. When Bush stepped out of his limousine, Carley gave him two caricatures, which included one for wife Barbara. In both instances, Carley later received a thank you note from Bush.

    “I’ve met I don’t know how many celebrities through the years,” Carley said. “So when I’m not doing flags, I’m doing caricatures, and when I’m not going that, I’m doing abstracts. Those are my three passions.” 

    k.dorsey@theday.com

    A wine cork flag by Robert Carley Tuesday, June 28, 2022 at his Colchester home. Carley has traveled the nation photographing the Stars and Stripes in countless iterations and published a book of those photos þÄúLiberated, Freed from the FlagpoleþÄù. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
    A flag created from painted medical masks by Robert Carley Tuesday, June 28, 2022 at his Colchester home. Carley has traveled the nation photographing the Stars and Stripes in countless iterations and published a book of those photos þÄúLiberated, Freed from the FlagpoleþÄù. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
    Robert Carley with his book þÄúLiberated, Freed from the FlagpoleþÄù, and a flag constructed of painted VHS tapes Tuesday, June 28, 2022 at his Colchester home. Carley has traveled the nation photographing the Stars and Stripes in countless iterations. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
    Robert Carley with his book þÄúLiberated, Freed from the FlagpoleþÄù, and a flag constructed of painted VHS tapes Tuesday, June 28, 2022 at his Colchester home. Carley has traveled the nation photographing the Stars and Stripes in countless iterations. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
    A flag crafted from plastic flatware by Robert Carley Tuesday, June 28, 2022 at his Colchester home. Carley has traveled the nation photographing the Stars and Stripes in countless iterations and published a book of those photos þÄúLiberated, Freed from the FlagpoleþÄù. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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