Painting & Programming: An Interview With Artist/Engineer Bob Belt

Our Artists & Engineers series replaces the actor/model with the artist/engineer,  a STEAM slash-something that is really worth looking up to. Get inspired by the individuals and collectives we interview, including Laetitia SonamiMitch Wenger, Arthur Ganson, and Ozobot’s own Bob Belt below, as they open up about the projects they’re excited about, where they think technology is headed, and what advice they’d give their teenaged selves.

At just 15 years old, Bob Belt responded to a newspaper ad that would jump-start his career. The ad was for a company called Micrograms Software and they were seeking skilled programmers to join their team. Out of 100 applicants, Belt was one of the six that were hired.

Little did he know, this would be his big break into the world of programming. At Micrograms, Belt learned to program games for the Apple II E and C and the Commodore 64. After finishing college and creating games for other companies such as Atari, 7 Studios and Zya, Belt is now the Senior Software Engineer here at Ozobot!

Not only is he an expert engineer (and one of Evo’s handlers!), he is also a skilled painter. Growing up, Belt excelled in his art classes and developed a passion for drawing. He actually ended up majoring in Art during his college career, realizing that painting (instead of drawing) was what really appealed to him. Then, he put his artwork on the back burner so that he could make a name for himself as an engineer, thinking he needed to choose one over the other.

We sat down to talk with him about his road to success, his paintings, and how he carves out extra time for his creative practice.

What motivated you to be an engineer who also practices art? Did the education system nurture that interest, or did you have to take matters into your own hands?
They were pushing [programming] hard in the schools. There were definitely computers in the schools, so I did get support there. I am mostly self-taught when it comes to programming, because I was just ahead of having a real computer class in school. My counselors in high school would tell me, “You should go into engineering because you are great at math and you like science and programming.” But, at the same time, I had art teachers who said I needed to pursue art so it was this back and forth thing.

Did you think, back then, that you’d be able to pursue both career paths, or did you feel like you had to make a distinct choice?
I think I have always felt like I had to choose. This is the first time in my life where I really feel like I could do both. It has taken a long time to finally realize that. In the past, I basically only painted when I wasn’t programming. There was a time where I was unemployed for a year or so and I did a lot of painting during that time. But then as soon as I got a job again, I kind of stopped painting.

This time around, I really want to make both of them happen. I think part of it is, now I am further along in my life and I don’t feel as pressured to try to make other things happen as much. Now, I am going to start painting again in addition to doing everything else.

What do you like about working with Evo?
The one thing I really like about [Evo] is that it’s a physical thing. I’ve spent so much time programming code that only affects a screen and it’s all invisible and it’s not really something you can pick up and touch. With the bot, we are actually making an app that allows you to control and play games with the bot. Also, getting back to a more education-based company. It’s not just about entertainment; it’s about educating.

Tell us about your paintings! How did you get started as an artist and how do you make time for your creative practice?
I didn’t discover that I liked painting until my early 20s. Before that, I liked to draw. Painting just clicked with me and I really liked it. I like making the big shapes of color and arranging the shapes of color and still trying to get an image out. Those are the things that are appealing to me with painting.

I come into the office a little bit later and work later. So, a lot of my painting time is right when I wake up in the morning. I get up, sometimes as early as six, and that is when my best painting is done: when my mind is fresh, before I am thinking about anything else.

How do you want others to feel when they see your paintings?
To be inspired and to stimulate your mind. To realize that you are looking at something that you have seen before, just haven’t seen presented in that way. Maybe give people the idea that there is more than one way to see something. There are multiple points of view in everything.

You get to have one conversation with your teenage self. What advice do you give him?
“Don’t think that you are not already capable.” As important as school and learning is, that just makes you better. You can start whenever you want to start. Don’t think that you have to wait until you can take a class, or wait until you have this certain teacher, or wait until you get to college. You can do it now.

Especially with the internet, you can learn anything you want to learn, whenever you want to learn it. Definitely do not wait.

How important is collaboration in your work? Who have you collaborated with recently?
It is crucial. There are too many different pieces involved to think that you can do a fantastic job all by yourself. You could do a good job as one person, but you would have to learn so many different fields.

Right now, [with Evo], I work with a designer who designs the layout [of the app], a designer who designs the game play, and artists who create the graphics. Even though I paint, my artwork isn’t near the kind of artwork that is necessary for the game. There are just so many different crucial roles that for one person to do all of them, it would take so long and it wouldn’t be as good because they wouldn’t be experts at those fields.

I wouldn’t want to discourage someone from trying to do something like that on their own, but it is definitely better to collaborate with people who have strengths in those areas.

Belt is currently hard at work with new additions to our Evo app that we can’t wait to share with you! To check out more of Bob’s paintings, follow him on Instagram @beltfineart.

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