LAGRANGE — Bob Long takes his work home with him.
The owner of Butcher Bob’s in LaGrange for about 17 years, Long oversees a crew of seven meat-processing employees. Various cuts land on customers’ plates, bones are sometimes bought for dogs, blood becomes art.
Using the life force of cows, pigs, lambs, goats and buffalo, Long creates his paintings solely with his body, catching looks — and often second looks — from patrons and collectors at festivals such as ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and other regional showcases.
No brushes. No stencils.
“When I do it, I bring in a bucket of blood,” Long said of his process, looking down at a container of plasma in his downtown LaGrange home studio. “I’ve got my blender right here. A lot of the times, the blood will coagulate and get clotted together, so I’ll take my blender and I blend it. Then, I pour it on the canvas. I use my hands to move it all around. It’s all just finger painting.”
A cow, he said, can fill a 5-gallon bucket like the one inside his air-tight workspace. Dried splatters mark parts of the room’s wash-down walls and flooring covered in the same compound used in truck bed lining for easy cleaning. A single stainless-steel drain sits near the center of the slightly angled floor, alongside folding tables, a corner sink and ceiling vent to extracts scents.
“It’s very similar to my (butcher) shop,” the 51-year-old father of three explained.
Long’s workspace — “my Zen garden,” he said — is situated inside the former Clothes & Food Basket, once a movie theater prior to becoming a community pantry. He and his wife Laurie “Binky” Long purchased the structure, later selling their home and moving into an apartment the couple constructed in the belly of the building. Today, it serves as a home, gallery, studio and twice-a-week meeting point for a local Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous group the Longs welcome free of charge.
Walking around the perimeter of the main open room where paintings hang 10-15 feet from the floor, Long recalled his initial inspiration, an urge now about 4 years old.
“I was watching a show on TV and it was called ‘Sungazing,’ and these people were sungazing at the sun,” he said. “I was at work the next day, and I was thinking about that show, and thought, ‘I wonder if I could paint a picture of something like that,’ ya know?”
Long’s first attempt was a landscape, one comprised of a river bed with rocks, sun, a mountain and trees. His more recent works include religious imagery, such as crucifixes and a scene from Calvary/Golgotha, as well Native American references, familial themes and a series influenced by leukemia and other blood-related subjects. He said individual pieces have sold for between $400 and $1,000.
With no formal training, Long said he’s learned through trial and error with each work.
“Blood is all the same. … It just matters how old the blood gets,” he said. “When you first get it, it’s a little lighter, but then the older it gets, the darker it gets. It starts to smell a little more. I used to have different containers of 1-week-old blood, 1-month-old blood, 6-months-old blood. And when you get to six months, that stuff is nasty — it stinks. But when you put it on, it’s thick, syrupy and it’s black.
“… If I took water and hit (the canvas) with water, it would just wash that blood right off; it would ruin it,” he said, adding he purchases canvases from a local hobby shop.
A sealant of some sort was needed to preserve the painting, Long discovered after a few early runs.
“He tried a few things, and it just wasn’t happening,” said Shannon Hippenhammer, co-owner of Hippenhammer Collision Center in LaGrange.
“He came to me to find out if there’s anything I could recommend putting on there. I said, ‘Well, we could put, you know, automotive clear on it.’ It’s got a flex agent in it that’s like a rubberized coating. So we tried some, and it turned out pretty nice, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Hippenhammer has now been helping Long for about two and a half years, he said, placing the paintings on stands in a booth at his shop for finishing.
“First, I turn them upside down and do the backside,” he said. “And then, on the front, I put two coats, and let it sit overnight.”
With a laugh, Hippenhammer admitted although he and his wife, also named Shannon, “thought it was a little different,” he was up for assisting his friend from the beginning.
“I said, ‘Heck yeah, we’ll try it,’” he said.
‘IN MY BLOOD’
A career in butchering began for Long at age 19, shortly after high school.
“I was raised by my mom and dad, and they’re preachers,” he said. “We were never in the butchering business or nothing I ever knew about anyway. And I got out of school and went up to Sturgis, (Michigan), to a job-opportunity place where they help you find jobs. They said, ‘You ever butcher before?’ And I was like, ‘No, I’ve lived in the city. I’ve never hunted or anything. I’ll give it a shot.’”
After a roughly yearlong stint at local processor Mishler’s Meats, Long was forced to move on.
“They didn’t like me over there, so I got fired and thought, ‘Well, I kinda like this.’ I went around, jumped a few other jobs, then I went up to Sturgis and worked for K&W Meat Processing, and worked for them for about five years. I thought, ‘Man, that’s what I want to do is to cut meat.’ I love this, you know. I liked it better than all the other jobs I tried in between going there,” he said.
“I stuck with it, and eventually I got my own shop, and built it 17 years ago, I think. I’ve just always loved it.”
Long’s parents divorced around the time he was 21, his father moving to Florida after the split. Long said about 10 years passed before his father walked through the door of his shop.
“He came walking into the shop, looked around and goes, ‘So you’re a butcher, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ We had never talked about what my grandpa did,” Long said.
“He goes, ‘Well, my dad, your grandpa, was a butcher and had three different slaughterhouses in Ohio — Long’s Butcher Shop.’ That’s what he did was butcher. And I was also a boxer. I did a lot of boxing, a lot of cage fighting, MMA, a lot of different things. Come to find out my Grandpa Long, he was a professional boxer, won golden gloves in Ohio.
“I was like, that’s really in my blood, you know. That’s pretty cool.”
The idea of blood being unappealing to some isn’t lost on Long.
“I just want people to know that blood doesn’t necessarily mean dark and evil and gothic and really bad, ya know? Blood can actually be beautiful when you paint it and use it,” he said. “It’s whatever you want to do with it. … It’s another medium — it’s not oil, it’s not watercolor, it’s not acrylic or chalk or whatever — it’s blood, and it works great for making pictures with.”
While beginning a piece at his studio, Long remembered an elderly woman who blasted his work to a roomful of supporters for about 10 minutes — and then to the artist himself — before a verbal confrontation spawned between the two.
Sitting on a table in his workspace waiting to be coated, “Flowers for the Cat Lady,” born by swirls, pats, dabs, streaks and smudges, is Long’s visual ode to the ornery woman.
“I’ve showed at a lot of places. Some people come in and go, ‘Ew,’ and then they walk away,” he said. “And I’ve heard people come in and say, ‘Oh, awesome, blood.’ So I get all kinds of reactions,” he said. “I mean there are a lot people who think it’s really neat, and some people who think it’s really gross; but they think it’s really cool until they find out what it is.”
Enthralled by Long’s work is Ren Hartung, a professor of anatomy and physiology at Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Michigan, holding a doctorate in biomedical science. Long provides Hartung with pig hearts, cow hearts, pig lungs and other organs “that are very useful in my classroom,” he said.
“His business has been very good to Glen Oaks Community College. I called him, gosh, it’s gotta be two or three years ago now. Klopfenstein’s was a meat processor in Sturgis, and they closed down. And I knew that Butcher Bob’s had hired some of the people from that business,” Hartung said. “So he’s been nice to our neighborhood by taking some of our employees who lost their jobs.”
During trips to pick up organs for class, Hartung said he saw some of Long’s artwork hanging in the shop, “and I recognized from the color pretty quickly that those are blood paintings, and I thought they were kinda neat — some of them were kinda weird and kinda neat.”
Long now cycles paintings every few weeks in the science wing at Glen Oaks, where students and faculty seem to appreciate the works, Hartung said.
“Most of them are kinda fascinated by it,” he said of his students. “… I’ve only had one person that didn’t like the paintings, and it was just because the fact that blood is used, and it was one of our faculty members here.
“… I’m fascinated by Bob’s artwork too, partly because my background just in medicine, because blood is obviously important to life. … But at the same time, blood is kind of death, because you know if blood is leaving the body that’s a bad thing. From anatomical terms, like the science terms, it’s a transport medium that helps to keep us alive by transporting all these important nutrients and oxygen and all that other stuff.”
Analogizing in his comfort zone, Long offered a lean parallel for those apprehensive of his choice in “paint.”
“I don’t think it’s any different than these people who go home, and they buy a pound, 2 pounds of steak from your local butcher shop. You go home, you take that T-bone out of there. You have the Styrofoam tray, and there’s still a pool of blood inside there, you know?
“It’s the same thing, except I’ve got buckets and barrels.”
For more of Bob Long’s work, visit the Butcher Bob’s Inc. Facebook page, or for information, call 260-499-0693.
Geoff Lesar can be reached at email@example.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 307.