As It Happens

Friend of LOVE artist Robert Indiana fears elder abuse in his last days

Robert Indiana had a reputation for being reclusive — but his near-complete withdrawal from friends in his final years was disturbingly uncharacteristic, says a close friend.

'It made no sense,' says friend Kathleen Rogers of the artist's reclusion toward the end of his life

Robert Indiana, who died earlier this month at the age of 89, is best known for his LOVE sculpture. (Pat Wellenbach/AP Photo)

UPDATE:  After this story was published, As It Happens received an emailed statement from art publisher Michael McKenzie denying the allegations and insisting that caretaker Jamie Thomas was simply honouring Robert Indiana's request for privacy.

"I remember when my grandmother got old and sometimes wouldn't see anyone. I didn't feel it would be right to be angry. I felt the same way with Bob. He lead his life in public for many decades. He deserved to get privacy for whatever reason. Kathleen takes it personally and wants to be angry," McKenzie said.

Robert Indiana, who died earlier this month at the age of 89, will likely be best remembered for his LOVE design — which lives on in various forms around the world.

It first appeared on a postcard in 1965 and since then has been reproduced in the form of countless sculptures, postage stamps, and mugs. 

But friends of Robert Indiana grew concerned for his welfare in his final years.

The day before his death, a lawsuit was filed alleging he had been intentionally isolated by his caretaker and an art publisher who were fraudulently profiting from his work. As It Happens has reached out to both of them for comment.

Kathleen Rogers was Indiana's friend and former publicist. She is not part of the lawsuit, and the allegations have not been proven in court. She spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from Los Angeles. Here is part of their conversation: 

When and why did you start to become concerned about Robert Indiana's welfare?

It was about two years ago.

He always has been reclusive. Sometimes people have gone out to the studio and been disappointed in not being able to get in and see him, however, that had never happened to me in 17 years I guess — at that point in time. 

The idea of Bob creating an ode to bratwurst made no sense.- Kathleen Rogers

I went out with an associate who was going to be financing a jewelry line.

She came all the way from India. We got out to the island [where Indiana lived].

You have to take a 90-minute ferry ride. We had an appointment and we were rebuffed.

Jamie said, "Bob's tired."

It just didn't seem right to me. 

Indiana poses at his studio in Vinalhaven, Maine. (Joel Page/Associated Press)

Who's Jamie?

Jamie Thomas was a relatively new studio assistant. Most of Bob's studio assistants I had known for many years. Jamie had come on the scene about three to four years ago.

He is at the centre of the lawsuit filed in New York, concerning not only potential art forgeries, but also Jamie Thomas isolating Bob from his friends and associates.

The largest example of that is Robert Indiana's last monumental sculpture — in which the LOVE piece that everyone knows so well — is now BRAT, apparently for 'bratwurst' sausage. It is something that a company that makes sausage in Wisconsin apparently commissioned.

What alarm bells went off for you and others when you learned that Robert Indiana ostensibly had created this work for this sausage company? 

The original template for LOVE has undergone several iterations — the second-most famous one being the HOPE template that was created for the Obama campaign.

Bob had played around with that template quite a bit. 

However, anyone familiar with Bob's oeuvres is quite familiar with the fact that it's all autobiographical. And that has never wavered.

He worked very hard to separate himself from commercializing any of his work.

So the idea of Bob creating an ode to bratwurst made no sense.

I've broken bread with him. I've stayed overnight at his studio. I've traveled with him. I've never seen him exhibit a penchant for sausage or bratwurst. 

Kathleen Rogers was a longtime friend and business associate of artist Robert Indiana. (Submitted by Kathleen Rogers)

When was the last time you had contact with Mr. Indiana?

That would have been the summer of 2014. Again, I traveled out there for a business meeting. All of my business meetings were also social occasions. My dog would come out with me. My children grew up going to Bob's studio. He was like family.

When we were rebuffed by Jamie Thomas, it hurt my feelings. 

It was also embarrassing from a professional standpoint. 

But it wasn't until it happened two more times that I really started getting concerned. 

Also, Bob is not my only art client. I started hearing from people in New York that they had not been able to get in. And from people in Maine — very prominent in the arts community — that they had not been able to get in. 

Rogers with Indiana, her friend and business associate. (Submitted by Kathleen Rogers)

But I guess what really compelled me to call the State DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) over suspicions of elder abuse was his long-time studio assistant Sean Hilgrove — who was always Bob's favourite studio assistant — went into work and his key didn't fit in the lock. He couldn't get into the studio for several days.

[When] he finally got in, he started telling Bob the reason he hadn't been in to work.

Jamie came in and Bob insisted that a key be given to Sean. Jamie gave Sean the key, but by the following day the locks had been changed again. 

The statement in response to the lawsuit that [art publisher] Michael McKenzie and Jamie Thomas have put out [says] that Indiana wanted to be left alone — that that was his wish, he had brought this isolation on himself. Is that possible?

No. Not to the degree that they're claiming.

It's one thing to not want people from the art world from New York coming out. If he were tired, I can certainly understand that.

But when you have somebody who has been your studio assistant and your right-hand person since 1987, it just doesn't make any sense that Bob would not want to see Sean. 

Rogers and family with Indiana. (Submitted by Kathleen Rogers)

Just finally, how will you remember your friend?

I think the thing that I loved most about him was how playful he was. He sort of tested people to see if they could relate to his sense of humour and that informed him as to whether that was a person who was on his level.

He was just a wonderful man. He is sorely missed. We loved him. 

Written by Kevin Ball and Julian Uzielli. Interview produced by Julian Uzielli. Q&A edited for length and clarity.