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THE BEST...THE BEAUTIFUL...AND THE BIZARRE | FINE LINES
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Remade for Each Other

July 19, 1998|Robin Tolkan

Looking to get out of harm's way five years ago--to say nothing of paying off his Harley--it seemed rather natural when Tom Robb, a former bodyguard, combined the indelible influence of growing up in an artistic family with his athletic background to create some profitable sports lithographs. So what in the world would he want with your kindergarten picture?

"It was a romantic, good idea that just took on a life of its own," says the 37-year-old Brentwood resident. That "life" emerged while hopelessly foraging through stores in search of the perfect Valentine gift for a former girlfriend. Moved by photographer Kim Anderson's popular black and whites of children, this 6-foot, 2-inch, 230-pound artist put his personal twist on the pics. Using old photos as inspiration, Robb drew prepubescent sketches of himself and his girlfriend eating ice cream cones on a park bench. Once friends caught a glimpse of it, they encouraged him to market the sentimental work. Before Robb knew it, his mailbox overflowed with childhood photos from people asking for drawings.

Commissioned by actor Hank Azaria to fashion a gift for girlfriend Helen Hunt, Robb drew Azaria and the Oscar winner taking in a lazy day at the beach; Sherry Lansing ordered one for her husband, "Exorcist" director William Friedkin, depicting the couple sharing an ocean-side picnic; and Laker legend Jerry West received a touching present from his wife: a sports-themed Robb drawing of West's family as children.

Before putting his oil-based pencils to paper--Robb has created more than 100 11 x 14 "Playground Portraits"--he subjects his clients to a mini interrogation: Does she wear funky pajamas at night? Favorite movie? Snack? "I'm talking to people on the West Coast, in the Midwest, in trailers, in mansions," he says, "and it's the same conversation with every person. There's no difference in the demographic when it comes to how excited people get."

Excited enough not to blink at the $350 price. The pace at which he's drawn overalls and patent-leather shoes has meant, surprisingly, as much financial security as fending off paparazzi for the likes of Olivia Newton-John, Tina Turner and Diana Ross. Consequently, Robb hasn't had much time to spend his profits. Since becoming an artist, what he has done, he admits, "was pay off the stuff I bought when I was a bodyguard." Like the Harley.

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