March 14, 2009

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)

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