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

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