It was the fall of 2010 when Robert Auth found out he had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease or ALS. And while this was ultimately a death sentence for the longtime Boise artist and educator, it was also the driving force behind his biography, Francie's Camera: The Art and Stories of Robert Auth. Enlisting the help of his nephew Marc Auth and local author and former Boise Weekly Editor Nick Collias, the trio set about defining his legacy.
Auth, or Bob as he was known to friends and family, was a teacher, collector, historian, storyteller, soldier, and above all, creator. Originally from Illinois, Auth fell in love with Idaho on a hunting trip in 1955 and resolved to return and live in the state.
In 1959, he settled in Boise and started a long career teaching art in the Boise School District, as well as working with students at College of Idaho and Boise State. In addition to accolades he received as an instructor, Auth won several awards for his art during his life and was even selected for an exhibit showcasing Idaho artists at the Smithsonian.
Auth produced an eclectic array of art throughout his life. His body of work includes pen-and-ink drawings, calligraphy, sculptures, watercolor, papier-mache, engravings, etchings and pastels. He's best known, however, for the acrylic pop art paintings he made in the '60s and '70s, when his artwork was widely exhibited in the Treasure Valley. In fact, his work is still on display at Boise Art Museum, Brown's Gallery and Boise Airport.
In his acrylic era, Auth focused on everyday objects, with extreme attention to detail and particular emphasis on reflections.
"There's really no explaining what struck him about something," Collias said. "He would just happen across something ... that he thought was really cool and re-create it."
A cup of coffee, French fries or a simple paint can were reproduced in bold, bright colors, yet contained a photographic element. Auth once described the color schemes of his paintings as "almost a clash of colors ... very bold, in your face."
Whether teaching or creating, art was the focus of Auth's life.
"There are a lot of prolific artists out there but Bob was especially prolific," said nephew Marc. "You look at his body of work and you come to find that he produced as many pieces as could be done in three lifetimes."
During the '70s and '80s, Auth's work went in a totally new direction when he began focusing on Idaho history. He would often produce impeccably detailed pen-and-ink drawings relating the events of Idaho's past.
"To go from very modern pop art-looking stuff to people in buckskins and Native Americans and early turn-of-the-century imagery ... it's almost like it was two different people," said Randall Brown of Brown's Gallery.
And Auth's fascination with frontiersmen and aviation led to a collection of incredibly realistic drawings with spectacular attention to detail.
"He was very much the historian ... very much the perfectionist," added Brown.
When Auth was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 2010, he became determined to get his legacy down on paper, a project he had been working toward since his retirement. And that's where Collias and Marc came in.
"He basically said, 'I'm dying within the next year to 18 months. We're on a tight deadline,'" said Collias. And with that, they were off, sorting through a lifetime of art, family history and reference materials, along with hundreds of pages of hand-written manuscripts detailing Auth's life. Collias recalled sitting with Auth for hours, listening to stories. But amid the reminiscing, there was also a sense of urgency.
"He'd call me up sometimes and say, 'You done yet? I'm dying over here,'" said Collias. "It's a tough call to get from somebody."
But getting an entire lifetime into a book in a matter of months was a daunting challenge, and on May 12, 2011, Auth passed away before that dream was realized.
"I think he knew that his time was coming and that he didn't have the hard copy in his hands," said Marc. "But I think he was good with that because there on the table was the whole thing and he was pleased."
After his death, Auth's family began sorting through hundreds of attache cases that contained decades worth of documents, stories, photos and reference materials. In the midst of it was a letter Auth wrote to his sister, Rosemary, in 1987 that captures what this book meant to him.
"Like planting a tree, fathering a child, building a house--I want to leave some evidence of my being here," wrote Auth.
And with his newly minted book and a First Thursday exhibit at Brown's Gallery, Francie's Camera: The Art and Stories of Robert Auth, is his final way of saying, "Bob was here."