Dr. Bob's art hangs at Elizabeth's restaurant in Bywater — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
"Be nice or leave" isn’t just a catchy phrase to self-taught Bywater folk artist Dr. Bob, aka Bob Shaffer.
Sure, it’s become his calling card in New Orleans, with his brightly colored signs popping up for sale all over town, including at Jazz Fest, where he’s a regular.
“It goes back to the days when I was a juvenile delinquent,” says the grizzled 60-something artist, who is about as curmudgeonly as they come. “I was 14 and going into places that were forbidden, getting into trouble.”
One of those places was a dive bar on the Pearl River called Working Man’s Paradise. He went in to buy a six-pack of Dixie beer, and a hand-lettered sign that said "Be Nice or Leave" caught his eye.
Dr. Bob, holding shotgun shells in his Bywater gallery — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
Born in Wichita, Kan., Shaffer is of Crow Indian, French and German heritage. His family settled in Slidell when his engineer dad got a job working for Boeing, after the aerospace company won the contract to build the first phase of NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket in New Orleans.
Shaffer never had an art lesson in his life. Legends and lore, swamps and gators, shotgun houses and starry skies inspire his whimsical, neon folk art. He incorporates found objects in his work; alligator teeth, reclaimed wood and local bottle caps adorn his paintings.
A "Be Nice or Leave" sign at a Marigny doorway — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
It was at the birth of his son Isaac 34 years ago that Shaffer earned his "Dr. Bob" moniker. He assisted in his son’s birth at Lakeside Women’s Hospital, and the nurse, Margie Vanderbeck, was a friend he’d gone to school with.
"She said, 'Well, doctor freakin' Bob,' and that was it," he remembers.
If you have a meal at Elizabeth’s restaurant at Chartres and Piety, you’ll see plenty of Dr. Bob’s work hanging on the walls. But the best place to see the artist’s work and meet him, too, depending on his mood, is at his Bywater studio, an industrial space shared with a local furniture maker.
Used to be, the place was less then welcoming to passersby, with "No Trespassing" signs posted. Shaffer usually put out at any interruptions. After termite damage ruined a second-floor apartment over his studio a few years ago, Dr. Bob transformed the space into a bona fide gallery, complete with a smiling assistant and floor-to-ceiling displays of his work for sale.
But it sticks in his craw to be even a little bit mainstream.
“People feel comfortable with what they understand,” he says. “Success comes with a price. I just deal with it.”