During his days as a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Robert Isenberg recalls having the opportunity to ask a question of celebrated author John McPhee.
A longtime contributor to The New Yorker and a Pulitzer Prize finalist on multiple occasions, McPhee’s creative nonfiction work has been hailed for its stylistic diversity and wide-ranging influence.
After McPhee’s presentation, Isenberg asked: Of all the kinds of writing the renowned author had pursued, was there one he most preferred?
“His response was just so warm. He was just like, ‘Let all flowers bloom,’” Isenberg remembers. “And I was like, that’s so great. And honestly, I’ve carried that with me for 20 years.”
That mantra has clearly informed Isenberg’s artistic journey – and it remains very much at the heart of his burgeoning pursuits as a filmmaker, which recently won him top festival honors for two shorts of differing styles.
It has also been central to his educational and professional path, which has led him from his native Vermont – where he enjoyed a “very rural upbringing … about as bucolic as one imagines” – to Rhode Island, with a few far-flung stops along the way.
At Pitt, he majored in writing while drawing inspiration from the surrounding “gritty, brick-and-mortar, working-class environment.”
“I absolutely thrived there,” he says.
He remained in the city following his graduation, contributing to various publications – alternative weeklies, glossy magazines, others – while becoming “heavily involved” in the theater scene. In all, he had 17 of his plays produced for the stage, and he put on a couple of one-man shows, too.
A turning point came around 2010, as advances in technology continued to make high-level photography and videography increasingly affordable. Isenberg says he was “never a darkroom kid,” but the growing accessibility of digital imaging technology led him to make a creative pivot.
“The thing I sort of accidentally found out is that I am really good at video, and it’s a really intuitive process for me … It was so easy to fall into, and I found that I loved editing,” he says.
Video then helped lead Isenberg to an “extraordinary opportunity” in an unexpected place – the Central American nation of Costa Rica. He took a job with the Tico Times, a newspaper based in the capital city of San José, contributing as a writer while he helped develop the publication’s multimedia content portfolio.
“I just took the bull by the horns. I couldn’t wait to run around the country and just make short documentaries … It was such a blast,” he says.
After a couple of years in Costa Rica, Isenberg and his wife sought a return to the U.S. to be closer to family. Their first stop was Arizona, where Isenberg spent time writing and shooting video for the Phoenix New Times.
Then, Isenberg’s journey led him back to New England and a new position with Providence Media, publisher of Providence Monthly and other magazines. He and his wife purchased a home in Cranston, and by this time, he felt ready to take his video pursuits to another level, drawing on his skills as both an artist and a journalist.
“I’ve done all this stuff on stage, and now I’ve done all these nonfiction videos … and it would be really fun to put them together and start making movies,” he said. “I was starting to get ready to do some more cinematic projects and more experimental stuff.”
An interview Isenberg conducted for a Providence Media story proved to be inspiration for one of his first short films, “The Painter.”
It tells the story of Jason Hamel, a Jamestown artist who lost use of his arms and legs in a bicycle accident decades ago, and features interviews with Hamel, his fiancée and a close friend. In recent years, Hamel has taken up painting, rekindling a creative energy he has carried since before his accident.
Isenberg says he pitched Hamel on the film based on their interview for the magazine story.
“I just found him to be incredibly easy to talk with,” Isenberg recalls. “I told him, ‘If you’re willing to sort of take that little journey with me, then I think it could be a lot of fun.’ And he was totally game, the second I proposed it.”
He adds: “I only wish we could have made it longer, because there’s so much other stuff to his life that’s just remarkable.”
Just a couple of months after filming for what would become “The Painter,” the pandemic arrived in Rhode Island. Isenberg says the circumstances created more time for him to begin the editing process at his home office. The themes of the short film took on even greater resonance, too.
“Here’s this guy that is pretty heavily confined in every possible way, and he’s found a way for years to live an incredibly rich and dynamic life,” Isenberg says. “And I feel like people will benefit from seeing this story and kind of comparing notes with that … I feel like the themes really carried nicely basically into everyone’s experience in 2020.”
Once completed, Isenberg shared the video online. A planned screening at the now-closed Acoustic Java Café and Microcinema, located in the former home of the Cable Car Cinema in Providence, unfortunately never materialized.
Isenberg then turned his attention to another creative vision, inspired by the Pixar films he watches with his son.
“I love how clever they are, and I love how concise a lot of the shorts are,” he says.
The project that became the short film “Mannequin” began as a “kind of collaboration” with his son, using an iPad to create stop-motion films for an after school moving-making class. Items like Legos and miniatures became central players in the videos.
Then, one day, Isenberg began work on a new project. Using a small mannequin from his drawing toolkit and the same stop-motion approach, the process went quickly.
“I just took those two hours and shot everything on my iPhone,” he said. “That was all the footage I needed.”
A few hours of editing later, “Mannequin” made its debut online around the holidays. The short, running roughly three minutes, features the mannequin coming alive in an empty room – and, for once, becoming the creator of its own likeness, rather than the subject of another’s work.
“I was so into it that by the time I was done, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m done,’” Isenberg says.
The reaction to “Mannequin” from friends and family, he says, was “insane.” Positive feedback poured in via social media.
“It was just hundreds of likes, and all these comments, like ‘Where did this come from?’ and ‘This is so fun!’” he recalls.
Along with the acclaim came encouragement for Isenberg to enter his work in film festivals. Registration fees for such entries can be pricey, but after online research through the site FilmFreeway, a clearinghouse for film festivals around the world, he discovered Virgin Spring Cinefest in India and the Vesuvius International Film Festival in Italy – reasonable, and realistic, options for an initial foray.
Isenberg says he was “over the moon” when “Mannequin” was accepted to the Vesuvius festival, where it was a finalist for an award.
Then, he learned that “The Painter” and “Mannequin” had each been honored at the Virgin Spring festival – the former with a silver award in the category of films with disability themes, and the latter a gold award in the mobile film category.
“I can’t believe that just happened, and now I want to keep doing this forever,” he recalls of his reaction. He particularly enjoys the thought of people in some distant room gathering to watch and appreciate his work.
What’s next? Isenberg has some ideas in mind, including a larger production beyond the confines of his home studio. He also has a concept in the works focused on a single person inside a home, with a pandemic-related theme.
While COVID constraints remain, he says Rhode Island, with its vibrant creative community, offers a ripe environment to collaborate with others who “just love the magic of the process.”
“The number of people I’ve been able to meet [since coming to Rhode Island] is just incredible,” he says. “There’s just so many talented, interesting, intelligent, motivated people, and I just can’t wait to physically see them again so we can start working on stuff.”
In a broader sense, Isenberg says the words of McPhee – the encouragement to “let all flowers bloom” – continue to guide his artistic approach. He hopes his experience may inspire others to take chances of their own and explore new means of expression.
It’s clear, though, that film has proven special for Isenberg – a medium that resonates with him deeply and which has unlocked a new frontier of creativity.
“To really capture a moment in one photograph, you have to be so good, and you have to be able to slow down time and anticipate things that are about to happen in a way that most of us can’t do,” he says. “With film, you can film a bunch of stuff and you can then sculpt it into the story that you want. And I really love that process.”
To learn more about Isenberg and his work as an artist and storyteller, visit robertisenberg.net. “The Painter” and “Mannequin” can be viewed on Vimeo.