Artist to Watch: Robert Castillo

photo by Jim Barcus

From enchanting the ears to engaging the eyes, KC musician Robert Castillo charts a new path as a visual artist

If the name Robert Anthony Castillo sounds familiar, that’s because he has experienced notable success as an artist on the Kansas City scene. But lately, the Kansas City native has shifted from works that enchant the ears to those that engage the eyes.

In his career as a jazz musician, he won fans as bassist, bandleader and composer with The Sextet — which pursued a sound at once up-to-the-minute and old-school, and released albums including “In a Natural State,” “Blob Castle” and “Among Friends.” The latter album attracted the attention of National Public Radio, which in 2019 noted that it “veers between traditional swing and futuristic sounds.”

So it was something of a departure when, five years ago, Castillo’s artistic path took a turn from the jazz club to the art gallery.

“That sparked this whole world inside of me that I had not really explored before,” he said. An exhibition of his paintings — which reflect a stylistic range encompassing influences from Mayan culture to 20th-century abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky — runs through April at the Lenexa City Center Library.

“Nowadays, I don’t play too much jazz,” Castillo said. “Visual art is, sincerely, where most of my energy is focused. My current project, that I have a deadline for, is a marble sculpture. So that’s really what’s been consuming my creative time.

Castillo’s early modernist influences are apparent in “On Yellow.” (from the artist)

“But I play in a couple of salsa bands. I play in a bluegrass band; I’ve played in avant-garde groups. I’ve played pop music. I love music, and I love the versatility of the bass.”

The Sextet, however, has apparently played its last tune.

“Running a band is a lot of work,” Castillo said. “Especially a group of that size, of professional musicians who all want to get paid. I’m not saying I’m averse to work, and there’s really nothing like the communal experience of being onstage.

“But it’s a lot of time investment — and in that same time, I might be able to create a painting. For the past few years, I’ve been really interested in exploring what I, as an individual, am capable of.”

Born to a Dominican mother and a Mayan-speaking father from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Castillo is a graduate of North Kansas City High School and North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. At college, he majored in jazz studies.

A life involving music was virtually preordained.

“My parents always facilitated that for me,” Castillo said. “I started playing piano when I was in second grade. I switched to violin in fifth grade.” But ultimately, the bass, with which jazz luminaries from Charles Mingus to Jaco Pastorius made their musical mark, proved to be his instrument of choice.

Castillo cites Snarky Puppy, an instrumental combo with jazz cred, as highly influential on his approach to music. That had more than a little bit to do with the bass player, Michael League, also being the bandleader and primary composer.

“That was very inspiring, to see a bass player doing all of that,” Castillo said. “Because in general, you don’t see a bass player being the one to lead the charge.

“I actually had a really interesting conversation at a restaurant one time,” he said. “It was with a bass player, and he was essentially saying that if you want to play bass and study music, you have two routes: jazz and classical.

“And he was really promoting jazz, because of how much of a working understanding of music you begin to develop, whereas classical music is really concentrated on history. So I’m extremely grateful to have had that conversation.”

“Mayan Jaguar” is part of artist’s exhibit at the Lenexa City Center Library. (from the artist)

Castillo brings much the same enthusiasm to his burgeoning career as a visual artist. The shift in focus, he said, began in 2018.

“At the beginning of the year, a friend of mine who was curating an art show, he reached out to me and asked if I wanted to display work at this coffee shop,” Castillo said. “And I generally want to say yes to things. So I asked if he had something available in December, to give me the most time to create, and he did.”

His experience in learning jazz, Castillo said, has been “a great steppingstone to being a visual artist.”

“It’s been a really blessed journey,” he said. “Some of my pieces sell for over a thousand dollars. To find that sort of success in five years is not very common at all. It’s nice that all the work that I put into creating a painting is recognized as valuable, and I’m definitely grateful.”

For more information about the artist, visit robertcastillo.art. To learn more about his exhibit at the Lenexa City Center Library, visit www.jocolibrary.org/events/exhibitions/robert-castillo.

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

Leave a Reply