March 14, 2009

The Ring of a Gentle Hammer

An Interview with American Sculptor Robert T. Cole
(part 1 of 2, link to Part 2)
Note: all pictures may be enlarged by clicking on them, see end of article for more details to each work.
My interview with Robert Cole – the world-renowned sculptor stationed in Washington, DC – presented me with a number of challenges. True, I learned a great deal about his inspiration and process for creating his sculptures – many of which strike you immediately with their monumental size – as well as Robert’s trademark style of often omitting significant parts of his works’ forms, teasing and insisting that the viewer’s imaginations fill in the rest. It was also a journey into his philosophy on life and art from the better part of his 5 decades of experience (of one kind or another) that he has under his belt.

But I found that my approximately 60 minute conversation with Robert was not as easy to transcribe as many other interviews I’ve made. You see, Robert’s voice has a unique tone to it that calls to mind some of the musical instruments he has experimented with in the past (keep reading). I would not call it booming or gravelly; but I found that his well-worn baritone would mesmerize me to the point where I would often forget to write down what was being said. Also, rather uniquely, unlike other previous interviews – where I could use my trusty recorder, for example, to slow down the fast talking input of a native New Yorker or self-proclaimed high octane Ninja Master, or even change speeds to support needed translations after conversing with someone outside of my/our native language skills – Robert’s input did not lend itself to any adaptations. Our conversation had to be listened to as-is, and it was more of a tale than a talk, one that had to be reviewed literally from start to finish in order to grasp the entire context.

In addition, Robert’s unique philosophies give one food for thought that, well, if you’ll pardon the pun, can not be digested quickly. I’m still not entirely sure how much of it I’m ready to accept – after all, it would be both genetically and generationally unbecoming of me to just agree so quickly with someone that reminds me so much of my own father – but I did find myself realizing afterwards that certain events had a different tinge to them. There was the tear that fell at the finishing of a book (only the 2nd time that’s happened ... crying at a book’s ending I mean, not actually reading a book); there was the head shaking disbelief at the news of the Darfur crisis only managing to get worse and wondering why “we didn’t get it”; and more, including no less my own evaluation of how much fun I was having in life (my interim conclusion based on the current data I have gathered so far = not nearly enough).

I really don’t know if I’d refer to Robert’s outlook on life as he does as
essentialism or even existentialism, as my own 3-hours worth of accredited course-work in philosophy fails me for lack of a better term. I’m tempted to invent an inelegant phrase like “sculpturism”, but I can already hear the groans from here if I were to put that in writing (wait a minute...). Needless to say, Robert was a terrific guy to meet, talk to, and follow up with. And I hope that everyone can gain something from the following input. It goes without saying that I highly recommend getting to learn more about Robert, his works and techniques at the various links provided during this blog entry.

Robert, why do you think you – or really anyone for that matter that does this – became an artist?
There’s probably a gene that makes us become artists. They say there’s more brain cells in that area – for visualization, dance, whatever – and so you quickly pick things up faster than your contemporaries, even as babies. Adults will notice it in infants as well and begin to encourage that. I had pictures all over my wall when I was a baby. So I got that kind of feedback growing up, even though my father was a Colonel in the Army and didn’t understand anything about art. Even so, I think everybody has some appreciation of art. There are people that say “oh I like what I like” which is fine. You just want to know why you like that.

Are your works in any way connected to specific parts of your life?
In my mind, everything is connected. That’s why I did the folded figure and that’s also where ‘The Diver’ comes from, the latter is just more stylized. That was just me noticing that we are really like clams, we can fold like a clam. Because I love clams (laughs). So I’m making a modern totem to the clam. That’s me, I’m just a totem maker!

These are just iconic ideas. For example, I had a commission to do a Madonna. And I got to working on her and I made the face bronze and the gown silver (stainless steel). I made her hands holding out in front of her to let water drain out into a fountain. She had this beautiful, graceful pose even though it was pretty clunky in one sense because of the big gown and all. I mean, I couldn’t model that highly folded cloth of the dress in stainless steel. And I decided to turn the bronze face and hands black with a special acid because it was going to turn dark anyway.

Well, it was ultimately rejected by the church that ordered it for being too sexy, but I think it was the black face. But it was no problem. I just said fine, I love that piece. When I do a personality, a being almost, I love them. I make all these kinds of totems to myself. I mean, that’s the way my life has been.

How does your philosophical outlook affect your art?
I figured out a long time ago that there are 3 forces working on human beings. One of them is sexuality. It’s on all levels: everything exists out there so you have to pick and chose what it means to you. Another one is sociability: we’ve all got to get along in the world. We’ve got to talk to each other, we’ve got our families and our jobs. There’s a whole world there that has a rule of social behavior that’s forced upon us. And finally there’s moral principles. For example, there’s a natural born conscience in children, they know what’s right. There’s a natural understanding, a clear channel to right or wrong. Well, maybe not with everyone but we do have that capacity. If something causes us to be able to reflect on our behavior, well, that’s what makes us human beings.

These 3 forces are working on us and it’s up to us to balance them in our lives. And what all artists are working on is to balance 2 or more of these forces. Even with newer, more disparate forms of art we are trying to find that balance between these. What we do as artists then is we try to make sense of the world from our observations. And then through what we create, with our sculptures or paintings or other representations, we begin to see the world that way.

How does the creative process work for you? Do you spend a lot of time on the designing aspect itself or do you just jump right in to building your sculptures?
There’s two kinds of forms of creating that I just read about. One is like Picasso which is fast from the beginning, you know, boom boom boom. Picasso wouldn’t sit, he wouldn’t experiment at all. In his case it wasn’t experimentation, it was discovery. He would just get the idea and do it.

Then you have someone like Cezanne. For 40 years he struggled to even get paid, he just had some friends support him because they sense he was after something. He was experimenting, looking for the answer, the discovery of how to do something. Picasso was also looking for answers but he already had the technique and everything and he just laid it right down. Of course, yes, he was an incredible visionary as well.

Now myself, I have to have an idea first. I don’t just land and build. Also, I don’t necessarily know how the style of any artist develops. All I can say is that here I am, a sculpture who still works by hand at nearly 70 years of age handling and banging on metal like I’m still 20 years old. I have one assistant and we make these 16 foot sculptures and all. I don’t know how I quite manage to do it, but I do know that I wake up every morning excited to do it.

Your sculpture catalogue shows that y
ou’ve done quite a number of commissioned pieces, including in one very stylish example even for a staircase and cat-walk. What is it like to work on these vs. perhaps something you’ve done strictly for yourself?
Most importantly, I have to be inspired, no matter what I work on and no matter for whom. People will come to me with commissions and I’ll have to see if I can design something that inspires me. And it is an experiment then. At the same time I’m looking at the budget which usually changes or limits what I can build. This does not necessarily lessen the art but it does create a challenge. And I enjoy that.

The highest level of art would come from your psyche or your unconscious as you’re working. You see things, your brain is racing probably in a way, looking for connections. For me, therefore, it’s a process of looking how to build monumental sculpture by hand just with myself and my assistant at a cost I can afford. Because I’ve run enough commissions to know what it takes.

For example, when I started doing commissions, I worked on various tree-like forms. Nature is always beautiful anyway, right? But I quickly realized that the buyer wanted beauty, but they didn’t want truth. This is something I keep saying in one of my songs (my wife Susan - who I met in Venice, California and have been married to for 33 years - and I sing in a band together on occasion) is that sometimes truth and beauty are the same thing, but it’s the love that gets you through the day. What I mean is sometimes it is hard to have both truth and beauty. Maybe sometimes the artist is really after truth and can’t let that go. And it can be radical. They’re doing all kinds of wild things on canvas and they’re trying to show you some hot, far out form that represents chaos and order or whatever. Beauty, on the other hand, is most often not so confronting – but it is lovely to look at.

Recently, I had a commission for a piece of Bacchus – the Roman god of wine – for a client and it was good money. Okay, I thought, I’m not too old, yeah, I can do that, because I had no time limit to do it in. A time limit builds pressure, so without that I knew I could solve any problems that might arise. But the story goes is that Bacchus is usually rendered as revelling, over the top. There’s always a festival of wild drunkenness, sex going on all around, everybody drinking, carrying on like crazy. And I said, well, sure, that’s part of what innebriance that wine can cause. But I was inspired because there’s also this incredibly brilliant side of enjoying wine where we share with people a glass with the right food and conversation. It’s one of the highest things you can do on earth.

So I thought my Bacchus should represent this other side of wine. I made him sitting with a glass of wine in his hand looking into it in a very contemplative way. I really wanted to express that at the deepest level that I could, in a monumental work that would inspire a lot of people. That’s a very good example of how I approach my work.

Can you describe a bit more about your sculptures vs. your wall pieces?
One of the main differences between my wall pieces and my sculptures is obviously depth. A wall piece is a transition called a bas relief: it comes off the wall but it’s not fully round because, obviously, one side is attached. The one side can come out as far as you want, but you can’t walk completely around it. It reminds me that when we’re born, we see 2 dimensions but we have to learn to see 3. Because you can’t see around a piece unless you learn that it is 3-dimensional. Sculpture after all works very slow and you have to walk around it to see all the sides. A wall piece is for me therefore in many ways a cross between painting and sculpture.

Some of my sculptures also really only work in two sides. The other sides or dimensions are either condensed, almost to the point of being a joke they’re so funny. I mean, if you see a figure from the side that’s only 3 inches deep even though every thing is there, you may not get it. Then you turn it around to the front or back and it appears like a complete figure. But it’s fun. You see, I developed this whole sculpture and language of opening up the human figure. You can open up anything you want; try it, and see how much gesture you can get.

I also then did this new series with small figures but I didn’t these open up. I wanted to deal with complete form, I wanted to make them bigger and more solid. Where I usually open up the form, this time I wanted the opposite. The biggest problem was that I couldn’t build them large, because I can’t hammer a clean, pure shape at a monumental size.

I like to sculpt faces but my work is probably more about gesture of the body. I can hammer muscles of the body quite realistically. But at the end of the day, I use whatever technique is needed to bring off a piece. As I learn what the metal can do, as I learn what illusion can do, and as I learn what I can do. I combine all those forces and it really kind of builds the sculpture once I start.

What is it like working in Washington, DC vs. one of the cities more usually associated with artists such as yourself?
Well, clearly, with Washington, DC, people don’t come here to buy art, they come here to see the museums. We’re kind of overshadowed by that. But that has fostered a certain “devil-may-care” attitude and a certain growth in the local art community. Because now it’s no big scene to break into so there’s lots of little scenes going on and they’re kind of independent of each other.

There is a certain level of communication; for example, I’ve been part of the
Mid-City Artists because I’ve been doing my thing here for 20 years. And they started about 5 years ago and naturally since I was kind of the grandfather figure, I joined them! I have my two shows a year at the same time they do, as part of the group. There’s no real ideology to the group except that we live in a certain area, namely, Mid-City. We’re just artists working and living in about a 20 block area. Already we’ve had like 40 people trying to come in from the suburbs to get into the group because in the city is where it happens.

These days, well, I have a lot of fun here. I’m celebrating so much, especially when I finish a piece. Life is just work and celebration. We have people over and I have lots of friends in the city. I’m like a huge fish in this little pond of Washington. I mean, we’re nowhere on the artistic map. It’s not an art town; well, not a visual art town. Nothing like New York or San Francisco or LA.

Still, I needed that when I made my choice to come here. Because I didn’t want to be around all that fame and fortune nonsense. I just wanted a place to work my way, just find a place where a person could work metal. And I just decided not to go to New York because it was too crazy. I love the irony – because that was crazy but in a different way.

But I couldn’t get into the city until I divorced my first wife in the early 70’s and broke down and left plastics and saw all these terrible things on TV and lost my place and I hated it all. I went to Venice Beach and became a hippie, the whole trip. That was my first phase, up to that point. I’ve even written a 200 page memoir about my life and all this stuff.

A memoir? I’d like to see that!
It’s still got to be edited even though I did write the truth. It’s okay, but I know I could say some things better. It’s really hard to try and express a complete idea in a few sentences. But I tell you, when I wrote that memoir – boy, I was really inspired to tell about my life. It’s a really good thing to do for everyone, it just patterns your life. You try to live with the balance I talked about but you’ve still got to feel good about yourself when you die. You’ve got to know that you tried hard to really do everything you wanted to do. I mean, I’ve been through a lot. And I thought I should somehow codify that. I thought that the game was, when you write your memoirs, you start to codify how you think about life.

Well, I found out in fact that you don’t want to do that. There are people who are exposed to an artist who’s ‘made it’ and they want us to get to know ourselves so well that we’re projecting our real selves to them, whatever the hell that means. Sure, I could run around like Warhol and all. And to be fair, he did invoke a new way of looking at people with his lithographs and all.

But for me, a better example would be Marcel Duchamp, who already in the early 1900’s put the
toilet bowl into an art gallery. And he said that broke lose the idea, namely, that it’s not what a piece is made of, it’s not this or that, it’s not about the artist’s biography details or whatever... he said I don’t give a shit about any of that. Just show me the piece, just show me the idea.

That was a huge movement in the 20th century. It affected everybody. For me, though, what I care about is the craft and the materials and the fact that I created a sculpture myself. By doing this you develop your own eye-hand coordination and truly feel you’ve accomplished something. And it’s quite okay to use your ego to create.

Was it difficult being honest in your memoirs?
Well, no, ‘cause I covered some really embarrassing stories, and believe me, I have a few stories, even though some of them cost me a lot. Like my whole journey into music over 12 years. Damned near ruined my marriage, but it didn’t ruin me. Back then, like the song says, I was truckin’.

The story goes was that I was inventing instruments because I was new to it. That’s the thing about a new artist or when you go into a new medium and I’d just discovered music at age 33. Sure, I could sculpt. But I wasn’t a musician, I’d never played a note before in my life. I was scared to kind of walk into a room carrying a bunch of instruments, that would have been pretty presumptuous. But I had time and experimented. I’d rent all kinds of instruments all over Venice because I’d dropped out of society. I was living like a hippie and I had plenty of time on my hands.

But to learn music, what I’d do was: I’d play a horn for a month, then I’d take it back to the shop and trade it in on maybe, oh I don’t know, a Glockenspiel. That was my own high-tech education in music but it went very fast. And actually I realized a lot of these I could build myself so I just started in my living room. And that would draw good musicians to me because I was doing experiments. And these guys, too, were always willing to experiment in the newest instruments. There might even be one of my instruments from back then, maybe today it’s with somebody famous.

I did all this because one day I recognized that we weren’t making music at home anymore. I mean, we played music on tape but we didn’t make it. So I wanted to get people back to making music in their homes. In the days of old, there’d be all these great musicians roaming around and all they had to do was have their robe and their instrument. And they would be invited into people’s homes because everyone was playing music at night. And the trick of being a good musician was that they always wanted to get better, they were always willing to experiment.

During this phase, I did guitars and cellos, I invented new violins and technologies, everything. I’d also try to fill the gap between instruments like between viola and cello. It was great because I’d even get them where they matched up really well with your voice. It’d resonate the same chamber sound as your voice. I want to bring that back!

Again, I’m writing this book as a retrospective through all my journeys in life and in art – I started out in plastic then I went to wood and then stone. I finally ended up in metal which in about 10 years I mastered to a certain level. And I was inventing new ways to sculpt in a way because nobody had ever worked like that. And I guess some of the techniques were fairly new including some of the welding. But the technology came together with a cutting tool that could cut metal very fast. You could really almost draw with it. It was like ‘liquid fire’, it was the energy of the gods.
continued in Part 2

The Ring of a Gentle Hammer

An Interview with American Sculptor Robert T. Cole
(Part 2 of 2, link to Part 1)
Note: all pictures may be enlarged by clicking on them, see end of article for more details to each work.

How has your technique and sculpturing process changed over time?
One thing that Vulcan – the god of Fire – has taught me (he’s one of my masters) is to be extremely careful. I move so fast sometimes I get cut and burned everywhere. And I’ve fallen off ladders, even just able to catch myself one time when I was building my studio, or even gotten my sweater caught in the grinder and started to get pulled in, you name it. And some of this was 20 years ago so I was already 50 years old!

It used to be nothing for me to do all this kind of physical stuff. But gradually I’ve had to simplify because I can’t just do less and do less and still create my art the way I want to do it. That’s been the main way in terms of how the process has changed. I now try to create forms that take less physical work, even though that’s not always the case!

Again, the process when I began building these large statues was that I had to invent a kind of a technique that went beyond just the fact that I could sculpt. Sure, I learned how to sculpt the human form, which has very compound curves. And I learned how to hammer that so I could make a human-like form including figures, faces and other “softer” shapes. They’re very believable and yet they’re very evident and gradual and open, cut away.

It reminds me of
the show where I built the big Madré Della Pace (“Mother of Peace”) in Italy for the Florence Biennale of 2003. That was quite a story, very funny. My wife and I went over, we took my assistant and his girlfriend, everything. I was going to work on this new piece plus we shipped the unfinished Father Time over as well. I just decided it didn’t matter what the cost was, I was going to live there like a king. I said, what the hell, let’s give it our all. My web-site covers a lot of this story, too.

We went over there, did everything,
I won a gold medal for the Madré and it was all terrific. It was an adventure. And I love the piece because it represents all my ideas about sculpture. That’s all I cared about for the competition is that it showed what I could do. It had kind of flat plates and was open and all... but in all that, there was one thing I couldn’t do. I had this great design for this Mother figure, but I couldn’t hammer out the curve of her butt and breasts by hand. I just looked out one day and said I can’t build a butt that big because I had no wooden form to hammer that into. I said “I quit, I can’t do that anymore!”

But luckily we had access to an Italian metal worker over there who was a master, he really was. This master brought in some of his workers and took a look, ‘cause again, I’d caused some commotion because I had literally gone to the boss and told him I’d quit. Well, this guy walks around it for 5 minutes and he turns around and says he can do it! So he built a steel form for us that pressed the stainless steel to the right curve. That was terrific: I said great, you do the butt, I can do the rest. But oh man, there were a lot of great stories. It was fun.

But looking back at the sculpting process : when I started, most of the sculpture at that time was bronze-casting. You built a model or a mold and you went through the whole process for 6 months and by the time you got out of there you’d have spent 20,000 dollars to get a life-size figure. And if you’re just starting out, what you want to do is something that you can do small. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, because you just might not sell it for quite a while. It takes time to build a reputation.

I say this because I believe that the way an artist gets started and gets to be known is to get together their own series. I’m always telling folks starting out to do six little paintings or something like this, get into a show, keep the prices low, don’t get your ego involved and find out what people like ... and very importantly, start having a dialogue with them. You’re still working on everything for you, it’s all you, don’t worry about it. Just go slow and get going small and build a foundation. That’s what I did when I came to Washington. It took me 5 years to network the city before I could even earn something.

How did you manage then to get enough exposure to really start advancing to where you are today?
Again, nobody knew me when I got here, so it took time. We had lots of parties at the beginning and would attract a lot of folks. And then when people were here, I was able to kind of say “oh, by the way, have you seen my sculpture?” But I was fortunate to have a studio in the city. That was the prime place to be.

And later here I was already in DuPont Circle as they were gentrifying the place. I got real class now! And now it’s even a landmark on the Alley Tours from the Smithsonian. We’ve even been featured in the Great Homes Guide for the area. It’s a classic already.

What about your time spent working with plastics?
When I was doing big plastic pieces, I was doing things that were more avant garde than anything in the 60’s. It was pop art but with all the culture behind it rather than just doing an object in the world and rendering it big or changing Campbell soup cans blah blah blah.

For example,
Alexander Calder took large plates and bolted them together and painted them red or some other color and created a ‘new’ idea in sculpture. Well, Calder didn’t show me much; but he did show a lot of people that you could do something that simplistic in a big, monumental sculpture. It didn’t have to be perfect form or be a traditional sculpture. So I will give him that. But for me it was too easy.

It’s all about tradition, people love that. It’s all about two things: it’s the square and the circle. Or more specifically, it’s the art of a straight line or a curve. A straight line moves fast and a curve moves slower. So the dialogue in art is this yin-yang. It’s a big game but it’s very fundamental. That doesn’t mean much to me to create art in a straight line, I need curves. Perhaps better said, I need a dialogue between straight lines and curves, or in the case of my sculpture, between flat form and rounded form.

A new medium helps a lot because you can do the same old progression in a new way. Like these days with Jeff Koontz doing big trees and enlarging certain forms, like a huge dog made of bushes. But for me, again, he’s not showing me much, I can sculpt that very easily or I can have somebody build it. I want to know how you did that! Did you build that? Oh, you didn’t do it, ah well, sorry buddy. He isn’t a sculptor to me. He designs it and someone else builds it, well, that’s an architect.

Me? I’m a sculptor. I work with my material, I get to know it and love it. Even though it’s hurt me lot’s of times ... but that was my fault, not the medium.

When looking through your lists of pieces, I was immediately struck by the sheer dimensions of many your works, some ranging even up to 20 feet in height. What made you decide to work on such a large scale?
I’ve always thought that any sculpture worth it’s while would be involved in the monumental game. I mean, who else is going to do it? So I go for big ideas that will be out there publicly. For me they become iconic to our nature. It’s because I really think we need to become more tribal. You see, the world is one tribe. And we need spiritual leaders to manifest this idea out there all the time. That’s what I think I’m kind of doing with my sculptures.

One thing that always fascinated me was that Socrates was a sculptor! But he realized that he’d never get to do new things, that he’d never get the chance to do “his” stuff. So he became a philosopher. I really started off as kind of a philosopher, that’s really what interested me. I mean, as a kid I was always fighting for right and wrong. I had wars even at the early age of 3 or 4 over this idea of how you treat each other. What’s fair, and all that kind of thing.

But I had a talent for sculpture, really, all my life. I was always making things in the basement when I was a kid. And I decided I would try to translate philosophical ideas through sculpture. Just the opposite of Socrates. I decided that’d be cool, that’d be coming full circle.

How did you come to use your trade-mark style of cutting away so much of your sculptures, including leaving out body parts, or incorporating flowing pieces to indicate movement, or even only outlining faces, guitars, or other parts of the total form?
With figures, I’m trying to figure out a new way of dealing with the human body. I’m tired of taking the old roads, I’m trying to invent new ones and find that right touch. Actually, the body is really just architectural sections, like a building. With my figures, I am actually architecturalizing the house after it’s been built, after it already exists. Well, it’s not quite that easy. But every angle, every part of the figure should be aesthetic in itself. If you dug it up – even only a part of it – a thousand years from now, it should still have meaning.

Sometimes with competitions, I have to submit or show all my works in 2D first. But if you start off with just a photograph, well, I’m sorry sir, you didn’t see it, you can’t see it, because you have to walk around it! If someone walks up to one of my 10 foot or 15 foot pieces, boy, you feel it. You don’t just see it, you feel it.

I’m always trying to get out there with the images of what I’m doing. But with sculpture you have to see in real time to really experience it. What you’re trying to do really – even with an interview like this – is get the word out there of my consciousness by print medium since rarely people experience the real sculpture.

Do you feel that as an artist that you have a particular responsibility socially or even environmentally?
One time I was walking down the street and I gave a guy sitting there a hundred dollar bill. Just handed it him and said knock yourself out. Then I walked further down the street and around the corner and had dinner. Then I said to myself, oh man, if he walks into the convenience store and tries to cash a hundred dollar bill they’ll arrest him. I should have just given him just twenty, then he could go in and just drink himself to death. I goofed.

This story just says to me that you can’t tell what’s best even if it’s meant for good. That doesn’t mean that your actions are good. And that’s the moral question that’s the hardest to solve. It’s the “paper or plastic” question, it’s like the ‘Great Triad’ (I love triads). Because it’s not just paper or plastic; it’s paper, plastics and some other thing that we might come up with. Everybody has jumped on this idea of Armageddon, how we’re all doomed unless we change our ways and now, you have to pump that idea, somehow. I sometimes think I should be working on that, too, but sculpture is so slow. Well, let’s say that by the time we could get the message across we would have either died or solved it ourselves.

In terms of responsibility and all, well, I mean I get into that (as do most of my friends and colleagues), but I’m sure I could think of some artists that don’t get into that. Like we found this guy that built sculptures with natural materials. He would twist these big twigs and everything into huge art and it was beautiful. And we said, “boy that guy really knows how to use those twigs and wood pieces.” But what we respected was that he was somebody who can work that medium, not that it was ‘natural’ or anything like that.

I mean if I could go to Ireland and see someone weave a doll, it’s just beautiful. Or we buy woven Panama hats or wicker chairs or I even wore a pair of hemp boots. They recycle rubber tires and hemp ... but how about the process? What would that process be like? Would you have to kill 15 children before you even had to produce them? But I do believe we should all be thinking in a more socially and ecologically responsible way. Take the products and if everybody starts thinking that way, looking I mean at the whole process, you save more. Then we’d start to become a society around the world that becomes at least more conservative of the energy we use.

If you were talking to someone who’s just starting off in art or design and looking for your advice, what would you say?
You got probably one of two ways. You go through what I call a process of finding out. A dialogue with people to find out what you like and what they like. What you can produce that expresses how deep you can feel about something. Or you can fool around with abstracts, kind of playing with things, getting very mystical, use floating clouds or whatever you want. That’s okay, but maybe that doesn’t do too much for you. It’s very vague.

But that’s something that tells me quite a lot about the history of art. Art is about a new way of seeing. Is it a small new way of seeing? How small of a new of seeing is it? And all young artists – what they’re setting out to do is try to find out what interests them. Perhaps they’re interested in a brush-stroke, or a method to make color work for them, or another aspect. Your question takes me really into the dynamics of the workings of painting. You’ve got to put paint on canvas, how do you put it on there, do you have a vision? But at least follow your heart, your interests.

It’s like if you think, “I’ve got to paint like Renoir. Oh man, if I could paint like Renoir, geez, he’s so sensuous. He can wow you.” And if you see and really understand what he’s doing, you go like, oh I ought to try that – but do your own version. You’ve got to work through this phase as an artist. So you go to art school and come up with something there. You need to have a small amount of your work to show and you’ll probably have to work at some other job. But keep pushing.

Was it like this when you got started?
My trajectory has been kind of weird. Like I mentioned, I came up in the time of pop art. But I’ve had three major movements in my life. Real big movements. You could almost break them down into what I was interested in artistically, and kind of what happened in life, happened. There was a period of plastics, there was a period of musical instruments and now there’s the period of steel. There they are, they’re just huge chunks.

I was fortunate. When I started out I quickly got into making things, original models for lamp companies. And I got it figured out really fast. I mean, I arranged it so I could work 2, 2 ½ days and a make a decent living for my family. Plus, I’d have about 3 days to sculpt. It was pretty cool. It allowed me to do what I want and still provide like you were supposed to do as a father and all.

I guess I was pretty slack, well, as much as I could be, because I was really involved in my own work. Still, I’d get up at 5 in the morning, take the street car to work and get started. I had a job with a guy who taught me in a way how to sculpt. This gentleman had a shop that got all the repair work that started to come back into favor in those times. There was just nobody else doing these big scrolls or repairing some fountain or use the more “classic” materials or styles. So he got all that kind of work.

It was terrific for me because here was this great older guy with all his talent and experience. He’d take his lunch, have cheese and crackers every lunch time and I’d talk to him. He knew how to work clay and plaster, he used to model Corinthian caps up 30 feet in the air by hand and fix up just about anything good as new. Because guys used to do that kind of thing. You had a lot of craftsmen back then, they were really good at what they did. And he taught me that eye-hand coordination in a way – aesthetically and truthfully because I helped him.

After I had enough of that vocation then I switched to the lamp industry and became more independent. I had taken up plastics and of course back then it was really the new medium in the world. And it was fast. Oh man, I could do a life-size figure in 3 days. 3 days! As a sculptor I’d do caricatures because, well, let’s say that I was a gently satiric human being. I would do all forms that struck me as “types.” There was a whore, there was a goddess, there was a cowboy, there was Father Time. I actually brought that back. Who knew that I’d re-do it 40 years later as a stainless steel piece?

I love that piece! Why did you decide then to bring it back?

It wasn’t quite what I was thinking about but it was something that I wanted to develop. As such, I built it for myself. And as usual, I got a little deeper than I wanted to get into it. But it was such a great piece, it felt like such a great image to put out into the world. That Father Time is looking backwards, clothes being ripped off. He’s a new kind of Father Time with his really crazy boots and motorcycle and stuff. He’s looking back and he’s, let’s say, a little bit miffed. Just look at it: here we are, we’re pushing time so fast that we’re ripping his clothes off.

I mean, we should get it by now. Like I said, life should be more tribal. Cultures, people, we all always want more land, we want more resources and everything. We should really learn to negotiate better with each other. Just look at it like ‘what you got man’ and show some respect. Go to one country and say, ‘Alright, you guys, you build the cars. GM, you switch to building solar panels.’ All this blah blah blah... Come on, we should just figure out what everybody does best and learn to live with each other.

And let’s face it, life should be more fun. I have a lot of fun. I think people should have fun. We do have jobs but have fun, too ... or at least be gentle. My goodness, everyone has part of the pie. We have to get the message out there. We’ve got to include everybody. With tribes, even if someone was demented or homosexual or wasn’t tolerated or was this or that, they were still incorporated. Everybody kind of makes room for everybody else in a tribe and they all help out.

Another thing we need to realize is that everybody has a soul. All the feelings that you’ve felt. If you’ve pushed yourself alive. I mean, I’ve been pushed to death several times. I was really close to death and I just... well, suddenly something happened there and the power of life, the force of life took me on. I said, I won’t quit.

It’s a message that’s out there in our society: don’t quit, don’t ever quit. Well, some things you should quit, I’m sorry. Some things you should jump out of right away and some things you shouldn’t. And that takes a very experienced person to know who you are. To finally walk into the world secure in who you are. Everything you do – even more than the truth of who you are – is simply that the life force in everything has to be the true nature of God...

I mean, I know my death is coming, so I ask myself how can I arrange everything? Should I do like Timothy Leary did and have someone film it for TV? That was a cool thing to do. I mean if you know when it’s coming or when it’s close, go for it. Go out in glory if you can. Goodbye! Great party, thanks for coming – but the pills are taking effect, sorry, see ya’!

I think the key to life – if I could set the Earth back – would be that we have to learn to talk to everybody. Just like all art, if we learn how to have a dialogue, it would work out that much better. You get what you want, if you really want it. I mean, go for it. Me, I wanted a studio in the city so Susan and I worked for that. It happened. Sure I got lucky there. They call me “Fast Lucky”! Oh man, I love luck the most! Things seem to go my way lots of time!

And I would encourage everyone – especially in today’s world – to try and see the positive. Maybe what you’re calling a ‘disaster’ today, who knows, maybe you grow out of it. Maybe you have to take the blow kind of like a warrior like I’ve done and you go on. I just really think things will work out if what you want is a good thing. Especially if what you want is a good thing for you and for the world, too.

Have you thought about retiring?
So many artists say they retire, but what they really do is retreat. All they do is keep working, they just don’t want to see anybody. Like Stradivarius: it’s known that even when there was a war going on down the street, he just kept working in his studio and paid no attention. It’s like me, I’m in my world. I’m in my own psychic and physical world. I blend those 2. Sculpture has to do with all form in the world. All physical things that are made are about sculpture, my world.

I used to think that it would be great if everybody could get my ideas immediately : they get the piece, they get the gesture, the movement. They would get every one of my pieces right away. There’s more there, there is a lot more there. I’ve done a lot of hidden ideas that are involved in that. But basically you get it. I mean, that’s the way you start a golden age of art and sculpture, if there was that kind of understanding out there. But I’ve lost my chance, I think. Hell, I’m too old.

I still have lots of terrific ideas. I have great ideas for parks with stainless steel trees and bronze statues and water. And you’d walk in and be in heaven. You’d be healed. You’d sit down... and cry. Because we all have to cry an awful lot. What we did, what we needed to do, just stopping to look at the moral side of life.

But retiring? All I know is I still work like I’m 20 years old even though I get up in the morning and I creak and groan and my whole body has given up. I’ve got a shoulder that just won’t quit on me ‘cause I’ve damaged it by pushing too hard to get my art done. Maybe I do need to just take off and just quit.

No, I still have so many ideas and it’s all great. And as long as I’m having fun, well...

It would take at least as much space as this entire blog to go through all of Robert’s credit’s, works and awards. Needless to say, his “home” web-site is worth a long visit and there’s plenty more to enjoy as well (for example, we recommend 1, 2, 3 and 4 among many, many others).

And please: the next time you’re in DC, don’t just visit the museums, go see the monuments that Robert has created as well!

All photos listed used courtesy of the Artist by exclusive permission and may not be reprinted or otherwise used without written permission of Robert T. Cole. All pictures property of Robert T. Cole studios and are available at unless otherwise indicated.
Part 1
1 - Portrait of the Artist, originally from article at this
link, photo Amy Mullarkey
2 - ‘The Diver’, Bronze (8" x 4" x 5"), photo courtesy of
Mid-City Artists’ website
3 - ‘Gaia’, Stainless Steel and Bronze (7' 6")
4 - ‘The Guitar Player’, Stainless Steel (7')
5 - ‘Mushroom Tree’ (as part of the Naylor Road Metro Stop commissions, see here for more), Stainless Steel (12' x 15')
6 - ‘Bonetree’, Stainless Steel (4')
7 - ‘Sun Disk’, Stainless Steel and Bronze (47" in diameter)
8 - ‘Cleo of Mystery’ wall piece (no details)
9 - ‘Sunwalker-Waterwalker’, Stainless Steel and Bronze (6' 10")
10-11 - different views of ‘Potension: The Legacy’, Stainless Steel (16' x 10' x 5')
12 - ‘Rock Tree’, Bronze and Granite (15")
Part 2
13 - the Artist working on ‘The Thought’ (putting together an arm), Bronze and Copper (pipe)(14’ x 5’ x 6’), see also below
14 - series of ‘Madre Della Pace (Mother of Peace)’, Stainless Steel (16’)
15 - detail of the architecture of the ‘Madre Della Pace’ showing the Artist’s lacing technique
16 - ‘Armchair’, Steel
17 - ‘Budessa’, Bronze (12" x 5" x 5"), photo courtesy of
Mid-City Artists’ website
18 - ‘D.NA.-Tor’, Stainless Steel (10’ x 6’ x 9’), photo courtesy of Mid-City Artists’ website
19 - two views (and seasons) of ‘The Thought’
20 - ‘Opus Humanum’, Stainless Steel and Bronze (8’ high)
21 - ‘Father Time (Padre del Tempo)’, Stainless Steel and Bronze (8' x 5')
22 - the Artist making some adjustments to ‘Father Time’
23 - ‘Sun Muse’, Stainless Steel and Bronze (no detail given)