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Visual Philosopher

November 11, 2001

Mary Ann Travis
Michael DeMocker

On a hot--by Pennsylvania standards--day in June, sculptor Steve Tobin's barn-studio in idyllic Bucks County buzzes with activity. Adjacent to the barn's main workroom, on a concrete apron covered by a lean-to roof, a cauldron of bronze bubbles, ready for pouring.

On a summer day like this, the heating bronze exacerbates the discomfort of Tobin's assistants. They must contend with the outside temperature as two of them, lifting the ends of a pole inserted through a bucket's handle for leverage, hoist the bucket and its molten, orange liquid contents that weigh nearly 200 pounds.

Another assistant--J.C. Sarpong--directs the men where to flow the scalding, hot stuff over molds of bones and flowers. Bison and cow bones. Flowers left over from a social event. In a process invented by Tobin, these bones and flowers are being transformed into bronze sculpture. Memorialized. Cast into monumental objects that could last a thousand years. Delicate petals immortalized in metal.

"For me, profound transformation has to happen for it to be art," says Tobin, a 1979 Tulane graduate in mathematics. "Just taking something and turning it into bronze doesn't make it art. I have to really evaluate what is lost and what is gained by the process."

From Glass Cocoons to Earth Bronzes to Exploded Clay, Steve Tobin's sculptural projects have ambitiously stretched to the limit the materials he has used to express his ideas. "I look at a material and see what it has to say on a profound level," he says. "It's like torturing somebody you know and getting every bit of information that he doesn't want to give up in a normal confrontation."

Tobin also takes discarded things, such as metal fireworks launchers and steel I-beam ends, cast-off and abandoned long ago from the construction of such icons as the Empire State Building, to create sculpture nothing short of startling. He has welded together windows from Korean War M-60 tanks and early-20th-century glass lantern slides, thrown away by universities and museums, to make houses that metaphorically transport onlookers, when they enter them, into a different time and place.

He fastened hundreds of glass medical tubes to one another to create a Teepee and thousands together to make a spectacular 50-foot-high Water Column. Tobin takes the overlooked, transforms it with his alchemy, all with an ulterior motive in mind--to have the viewer see new meanings in things. "All my work is functional, even if you don't eat out of it or drink out of it," Tobin says. "But spiritually or philosophically or scientifically, I have an objective that I am trying to achieve."

Critic John Perreault, an art reviewer for the Village Voice who is writing a book about Tobin's work to be published by Hudson Hills Press next year, says, boldly, "Sculpture survives because of Steve Tobin." Perreault categorizes Tobin with the sculptor Auguste Rodin, saying that they are both concerned with meanings. And Perreault likens Tobin to Picasso--both fearless, energetic and protean in their approach to making art.

Tobin "is attempting the heroic rather than the forlorn," says Perreault. If we depend on artists to show us new, fresh ways to see the same old world we inhabit, Perreault says, "An artist like Tobin is the best hope we have. He is an original."

Tobin himself says, "Each material has something different to say, but my thesis in a lot of the work is the products of the mind versus the products of nature. My work really comes from a philosophic point of view as opposed to formal sculpture. "I'm willing to subjugate a formal line of sculpture for the poetry of an idea."

When his Roots sculpture--15-foot bronze recreations of the roots of a tree--or the Termite Mounds--20-foot-high bronzed replicas of Ghanian termite hills--are displayed in a building, Tobin says, "You have nature and architecture juxtaposed. They define each other." Tobin's Glass Cocoons, representing a stage of organic life, began their exhibition life supported by the structure of metal cages, indicating "the spirit in the cage of the body," he says.

His Exploded Clay series is a major exploration of how the universe formed. "So these are very much like experiments to me," says Tobin. He prefers to think of the premise of his work in terms of scientific thesis. It's visual philosophy or visual science, he says, claiming to be an intuitive artist, untrained in art and trained as a mathematician.

"I make art from a very intuitive place; I never studied art," he says. Tobin's barn serves not only as his working studio but also as a gallery or museum of his finished, unsold work.

A short cobblestone path away from the barn is the peaceful and tidy 200-year-old farmhouse in which Tobin lives. (He has a housekeeper to keep it that way.) Since 1987, this has been Tobin's home base, a place where he can hear his heart beat and mine spiritual sustenance from the natural surroundings. He likes it because it's close enough to airports in Allentown and Philadelphia from which he can easily fly anywhere around the world--Africa, China, Japan, Italy.

And it's only an hour and a half away from New York City, so critics, curators, gallery owners and writers can find him, if necessary. And find him they have: Tobin's work has been featured on the cover of Ceramics Monthly and in other art periodicals such as Art in America and Sculpture.

His Termite Mounds, now positioned on the grounds of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and scheduled to move to the La Brea Tar Pits/George Page Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in November, opened up new interest in his work. People and Newsweek magazines have come calling, lured by the homage Tobin paid to insect architecture.

The New York Times has said his Water Column installation, looking like cascading Niagara Falls but made of medical glass tubes, at the American Craft Museum in 1993, showed that Tobin was "'the maddest and grandest of all installation artists,'" he says. "So it's official, in print. I am a madman but, at least, I am grand."

In the midst of the media attention, Tobin stays focused on his work. At age 44, he says, "The analysis of what I'm doing and making it relevant and fit into the art world is outside of why I do it and how I work."

Tobin has exhibited his work in group and solo shows around the world, and his pieces are in many private and public collections. This fall, his Glass Lantern House is installed at the Marco Polo Gallery in Venice, Italy. And next year the United Nations will exhibit Termite Mounds and Roots.

Yet, in the middle of the production of High Art, the atmosphere at Tobin's barn is relaxed, a bit similar to what it's like when a bunch of guys get together to blow things up, for fun. "You mostly enjoy doing this in the winter," admits Tobin, on the hot summer day of the bronze pour.

He has 10 assistants collected from around the world, including Japan, Russia and Ghana, and they do most of the heavy lifting. Although Tobin appears to be one of the guys, it's obvious he's in charge. "I only do the part I need to do," he says. Sarpong, who supervises the bronze pour on this day, has been working at Tobin's studio for five years.

Tobin says Sarpong is Ghana's best sculptor; and one of Sarpong's pieces, a three-foot-high bronze sculpture of a thatched hut and a girl preparing bread, is on a path outside the barn.

Sarpong calls Tobin's studio an "exploratorium" that is a great place to work. "He takes everything to its limits," says Sarpong. "Artists that get to work here have the opportunity to explore other things. We are not limited by material. We are not limited by equipment. We get everything we need."

And from Sarpong, Tobin got his idea to make bronze sculpture, nearly exact replicas, of Ghanian termite hills when he visited Sarpong at his home. "He got excited," says Sarpong of the project that required making molds of the termite hills on-site in Ghana and the hiring of almost all the male inhabitants of an African village.

Daisuke Shintani, Tobin's "main man," has assisted Tobin for 16 years. They met when Tobin taught glassblowing in Shintani's native Japan. "You can't find another place like this," says Shintani. "That's why I stay. It's never the same. It's always changing, always new things happening."

Tobin says the ideas that fuel his art never stop coming. "I get a curiosity. Then I have to see it. How's it going to be different when it's solid? How's it going to feel? How's it going to look? "So often I get new ideas and I try to beat them out of my head because there's so much work and expense. Sometimes an idea can take two or three years to develop." Ping.

Tobin makes a musical sound as he plucks at a leaf of a finished Forest Floor piece, part of the Earth Bronze series. "You can touch," he says. "Silicon bronze is what's used in making bells. So it's very resonant. We come out here with drumsticks sometimes and play. These are dandelions from the backyard turned into bronze."

To make the Forest Floor bronzes, of which a dozen are displayed inside and outside the barn, Tobin and his crew "just dug up the pine forest back there and turned it into bronze. And it's something that's never been done before."

The finished Forest Floor pieces, including bugs, leaves, snakes and all, are shaped like Renaissance doorways or windows. "It's a doorway back into the Earth that we stand on, but our mind stops at our feet. We don't really think about it. We don't look at it," Tobin says. Instead of remaining immune to Earth's beauty, Tobin hopes that people looking at his work will see the Earth "again for the first time." His objective: "If you think the Earth is beautiful, maybe you'll take a little more care of it."

Other objects cast into Forest Floor pieces are hundreds of carrots; all variety of breads, including bagels, biscuits and buns; dozens of tires; piles of fish; and a deer killed on a highway. Tobin again creates a musical note, picking like a mandolin player on a delicate bronze stem. "Can you see the curly snake there?" he points to a detail of the Forest Floor, as he plays a tune. He adds, almost gleefully, "This is what I do for a living. Isn't it fun?"

Tobin's playfulness also shows in his Toy Bronzes, which are a combination of art and artifact as is much of his work. Objects such as Mardi Gras king cake babies and toy soldiers found at flea markets "survived because they're interesting," says Tobin, and now he has frozen them in bronze to awaken the viewer to olden good times. While Tobin does have fun, he is quite serious, ambitious and hardworking--traits whose basis comes from his experience at Tulane, he says.

Tobin earned his bachelor of science studying theoretical math and physics, but he had a disagreement with the assumption on which all mathematics is based: that one plus one equals two. "They never could prove to me that one and one were separate in the first place," he says. "Not that I disagreed that one and one was two, but if you couldn't prove it, then what is the point of building everything on something that you take on faith?"

Tobin says that he can't think of better training for an artist than theoretical mathematics. "You think in very large and very small terms. You think outside the form. In theoretical mathematics, things don't have shape or volume, so diagrams are just a window into an idea."

Tobin's work--in its many different forms and materials--is "just a window into my thought process," he says. A questioning math student, for sure, Tobin took a ceramics class at Tulane. Thrilled with the abundant clay available for his use, he'd throw pots, making teapots and cups all weekend while his classmates partied.

When Gene Koss, professor of art, arrived to teach at Tulane in 1977, he found Tobin, a willing and eager student, who was hungry for challenges. "Not to boast," says Koss, "but I changed his life."

Koss, now an art world luminary, is known for his mammoth cast-glass and neon sculptures inspired by farm machinery. Then, he was learning how to handle glass, with Tobin as an accomplice. Together, they built the first glass furnace at Tulane. "I learned a lot from him, but the main thing is the work ethnic," Tobin says. Koss is known for keeping early-morning farm-boy hours: up at 5 a.m. cow-milking time. "I think it's whoever works hardest," says Tobin. "And I work the hardest, except for Gene Koss. I can't keep up with him."

Tobin says that he gained so much from Koss, the teacher, and he acknowledges, "I wouldn't be here, if it weren't for Gene Koss. I wouldn't be where I am." Tobin's Glass Cocoons put him on the map and are his first real claim to fame.
From 1979 to 1986, he traveled in Italy, Japan and around the United States, developing his own techniques for glass blowing and dabbling in vessels as he created his Manhattan Bowls series. Not in the shadow of anyone, Tobin says the idea to make the Glass Cocoons just came to him. They are "just hand-blown glass taken to the limits," he says.

And those limits were where no one had ever blown glass before: 15-feet-long, eerie, striking glass objects, representing the human form, Tobin says. Perreault says the Cocoons portend the numerous transformations of Tobin to come. "Glass is wonderful material," says Tobin, "because it moves on its own. And I got ideas from the way it moved and from its nature."

Tobin also got considerable financial rewards from the Glass Cocoons, but, abruptly, after only two years, once he had freed the Cocoons from the metal cages that he first showed them in and turned them into Hanging Cocoons, Tobin quit making them. "We had tremendous success," he says, "but I didn't want to end up a parody of myself, spending the rest of my life doing variations on that." There were other materials to explore. And Tobin says, "I felt glass all expressed the same feeling."

As a boy growing up in suburban Philadelphia, Tobin occupied a backyard treehouse built for him by his father. Up in the tree, Tobin watched and listened to what went on in the real house, but no one could see him.

In his adult life as an artist, Tobin has captured that boy-spy-in-a-treehouse feeling in his Shelters, constructed similarly to his childhood treehouse. The Matzoh House is made of cast bronze, matzoh (unleavened bread)-shaped building blocks. And Adobe and Glass Lantern Houses are made from recycled objects.

The Glass Lantern Houses are constructed of discarded antique lantern slides of early photography and drawings from the 1890s to 1930s. Glass-lantern-slide images were once projected by "magic lanterns," forerunners of 35-mm slide projectors, but they are now considered obsolete.

"It's a kind of time travel," says Tobin, pointing out images--John James Audubon's drawings of birds and hand-tinted photographs of Egypt--in his latest Glass Lantern House, which is made from 10,000 slides donated by Pennsylvania State University.

As viewers set foot into the house, "You can see and feel and be bathed in the light of all the information from that time period," says Tobin. "It's very respectful to the people who made these. I haven't altered them, painted them, defaced them or damaged them in any way."

Explosives, on the other hand, usually connote havoc wreaked, damage done. Tobin's next excursion is Exploded Clay, where physics and art meet in a firecracker inserted into a cube of clay.

The Exploded Clay pieces are shaped entirely by explosives. The explosives hollow out or open up solid clay cubes. A piece of clear glass is added before firing in a kiln. The chemicals in the explosive and bronze dust picked up from the studio floor color the clay and glass, making glazes of blue, green, red and pink. Tobin, the physics aficionado, is presenting The Big Bang theory in clay and glass, and making it beautiful to boot. "It's the same physics. These function as little universes or galaxies," he says.

Right now, the explosives are firecrackers. Later, Tobin plans to do bigger Exploded Clay pieces with bigger charges. His goal: "I plan to make these 10 or 15 feet across, 20 or 30 thousand pounds. As big as a car, so you can climb inside, like bomb craters, volcano craters. Mountain lakes, they've been called. Because they are made in the same geological way that the Earth was made."

Since he dreamed up the idea for Exploded Clay two years ago, Tobin says he's probably experimented with 5,000 of them. "Many of these are tests," he says. "I blow them up, throw them away."

To delve further into the meaning of the physics of the art, Tobin invited Brian Greene, the string theorist who wrote the best-selling book The Elegant Universe, to spend a day exploding clay at Tobin's barn. "We talked about positive and negative matter and stuff like that. Fun, fun. We talked about the surface of the clay as an event horizon being formed exactly the way galaxies are formed," says Tobin. The path to the barn is lined with small Exploded Clay sculptures.

The guest bathroom walls, ceiling to floor, are covered with Exploded Clay pieces, too. Tobin hasn't put any of them on the market yet. He says, "Before I show them, I want to achieve the large scale so that those pieces will energize the smaller ones. And people will see the ambition of the idea, not the object."

Tobin's Squeezes are the opposite of Exploded Clay. While the artist's hand in no way forms Exploded Clay, Squeezes are formed completely by Tobin--with one squeeze of his hand. "I simply take a ball of wax and squeeze it. I don't form it. Just one squeeze." Then the squeeze is cast in bronze. "This is my most elegant formula," says Tobin.

Mathematical elegance means the simplest, most fundamental expression of an idea. The simplest act of a hand is a squeeze. A baby's curled fist, a handshake, a sculptor's most fundamental gesture--all are squeezes. Tobin explains: "I have taken the most elemental thing we do, and there's no added anything. I have different hand positions that produce different things. Like E = MC2, you're balancing matter and energy.

"As I squeeze inward, I'm creating a structure, an order. And then the wax squirts between my fingers moving toward chaos. So you're balancing order and chaos. As you compress and squeeze, you are creating this patterning and order. "It's a simple little thing. But it says a lot. And it's important that they're attractive looking or engaging. "But these are kind of hard for some people to get because they don't look like anything."

And Tobin does want people to "get" his work. He says he's impatient. "The experiences I've had, and the pieces I've gotten to make, and the travel and working in different environments, and the people I've gotten to work with-- it's been many lifetimes. "I just want more. I'm greedy. As Koss will tell you, I want more than my share." Gathered like tombs in an underground cemetery, Tobin's thousand-pound Doors, made of cast-glass and bronze, which he completed in 1993, are displayed in a lower room of Tobin's barn.

The Doors will be shown next year in a two-man traveling exhibit with paintings by abstract expressionistic Robert Motherwell. The Doors were last seen in Finland eight years ago. But Tobin hasn't felt ready until now to show them in the United States because "glass is not respected as an art form," he says.

For Tobin, the Doors are about transformation, too. The viewer, in a sense, enters the work. "There is an entry point for everybody," says Tobin. "I'm making the work from a real point of experience and knowledge but I want it to be accessible to the uninitiated."

Tobin also wants his work to "enter that river of art history," of which he claims ignorance. Simply making artwork and selling it isn't enough for Tobin. His ideas won't have "impacted" the art world if his work is not shown in the right venues or "contextualized," he says. A dialogue surrounding his work is important to Tobin.

Once he's finished making the work, "I want it seen. Every body of work is different. I want it seen in different ways." Among the most dramatic of Tobin's works are his 60-foot Bone Wall and his Roots. The Roots, 12 and 15 feet high, are cast-bronzes of the actual roots of trees uprooted on Tobin's property. They took a year to make and a thousand castings.

"I am releasing them from underground, shining a light into the shadows. You never get to see roots in all their splendor," he says. Until now. Two years ago Tobin went into an antique store on Magazine Street in New Orleans. He said to his friend who was with him, "You know, I might find a piece of mine here."

And in the next minute, he saw something that he knew was his. Sure enough, it had his name on the bottom. His friend couldn't believe it. "I asked the lady, 'What about this?' "And she goes, 'It's early Newcomb Glass,' " says Tobin. "And I said, '1978. And I'm the artist.' " "And she said, 'Do you want to buy it?' "And I said, 'Oh, no, no, too expensive for me.'"

The piece had a price tag of $95. Tobin had sold it for maybe $20 at his booth at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In the early days of Jazz Fest, while he was a student, Tobin had run between the arts and crafts section, selling his ceramics and glass, to a performing stage where he played tenor saxophone with the Tulane Jazz Ensemble and the great piano player James Booker. "It was so much fun!" Tobin says. (Tobin is still a musician. He recorded a CD, "Retretti Cave Songs," of himself on saxophone, flute and guitar for his glass sculpture installation in the caves of the Retretti Art Museum in Finland in 1993.)

On this summer day at his Pennsylvania barn, he takes a Blue Oyster from the kiln. Blue Oysters, so named because their outer shape is similar to oyster shells, are small Exploded Clay pieces, made from clay fragments blown off from the explosions and glass. "I love making these," he says. "I don't sell them. I give them away. They're just too much fun. "Aren't they beautiful?" he says, proving beauty does intrigue him, too--not just meaning--and that he likes small things.

When he goes to the beach, he throws the Blue Oysters down and then watches as people find them. "They go, 'Wow!' because they don't look manmade. There's no fingerprints on them." No fingerprints because they have been entirely shaped by explosives. Yet, "this is from the tradition of Newcomb Pottery," says Tobin. "This is the most cutting-edge advancement of that tradition. We're using explosives now." And proud of it.

Mary Ann Travis is managing editor of Tulanian and a senior editor in the Tulane publications office. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Tulanian.


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