articles

gallery
shopping

marketplace

events

links

books 

mystery
marks

silverforum

archives

advertise

 

 

A   S H O W   O F   H A N D S
t h e   a r t   o f   L e e   R o b e r t s o n

b y   E l l i s   A n d e r s o n

copper Atlas sculpture
commissioned by Fischer & Frichtel
 St. Louis, Missouri

 

To find Lee Robertson’s house in the Ozarks, a visitor must pass three gates. They block a narrow dirt road that consists of more sharp stones than dirt. The road threads through sloping pastures where horses graze with great concentration. The first two gates must be opened and closed after passing - a tedious process for any driver. The third gate is propped open, but a large hand-lettered sign hanging from the post clearly reads, “Artist not accepting visitors today.”    

 

Beyond the last gate, thick forest darkly crowds the road, which has suddenly grown rougher. Finally, it curves into a large level clearing. In the center, an enormous Atlas kneels, shouldering the weight of an entire world. Although the huge globe has been formed from delicate lines of copper, the overall effect is one of weight and mass. The figure of Atlas itself is comprised of copper plates, suggesting an armor so impenetrable that the god beneath has fused into the metal He bends low beneath his burden, kneeling with a resigned grace. This is an Atlas not about to shrug

At the back of the clearing, stands a dome structure that seems to have sprung from the earth whole, like a woody mushroom after a hard rain. Doors large enough to accommodate a car are angled open. Robertson himself emerges from his studio at the honk of a horn. Despite the stern sign on the gate, he seems genuinely delighted to see visitors and invites us in. The ground floor studio is completely open except for a spiral stairway in the center that leads up to his living quarters. The circle of walls is lined with workbenches and tools. A melange of works in process covers every available surface area.

Robertson's Ozark studio

copper boxes

copper lighting fixture/mobile
City Hall, Branson, Missouri

 

If an object can be created from metal, Robertson has probably tried it at some point in his thirty-five year career as a metal-smith. The Atlas sculpture is just the latest of his commissions. His repertoire includes lighting fixtures, fountains, boxes, mobiles, stabiles, wall panels and furniture. One of his favorite commissions is an extraordinary copper-covered refrigerator, complete with an elaborately ornamented panel mounted on one door that detaches to become a serving tray.

copper-covered refrigerator
Middleburg, Virginia
private collection

 

"Circle of the Waters"
Branson, Missouri

seahorse sculpture
collection of Bill & Lorraine McCune

 

Robertson is modest about his accomplishments although he’s won numerous awards and accolades. Recently, the Smithsonian tagged one of his pieces for inclusion in their National Survey of Public Sculpture. His work graces various corporate and municipal as well as private collections around the country, yet his talents are not confined to working with metal. Galleries represent his oil paintings and glass vessels as well as his copper work. He has even written and published two volumes of poetry. But he is best known for his recognizable style of metal working, both two and three dimensional.

“I never chose to work with metal,” Robertson says. “It chose me. The only formal training I had was in a metal shop course in high school. They showed me how to light the torch and that’s all I needed to know to get me going.”

When he returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967, he attended North Texas State University in Denton and began to study art history. His mother mentioned her admiration for a metal bonsai tree she’d seen and Robertson decided to make her one as a Christmas present. He had noticed a room in the arts building filled with metal working equipment but rarely used. He received permission to use the equipment in his spare time and found that he thoroughly enjoyed the small project. The gift was a hit, not only with his mother but with his professor of interior design.

“He took me aside when he saw the first tree and said, ‘I’ll bet you could sell those things,’” Robertson says, laughing. With that small piece of encouragement, Robertson’s career was launched. “Art probably saved my life. Suddenly, here was this chance to lead a life that at least had dignity. It looked like a real path to freedom. I thought that if one could survive as an artist that maybe it’d be possible for a person to actually make a difference in the world without hurting anyone.”

 

"self portrait"
copper tiger through a hoop
Springfield, Missouri, private collection 

 

 

hand built copper male torso

Within two years, Robertson had a thriving business, showing at art fairs and galleries around the country. Eventually he gathered a staff of seventeen assistants, all kept busy working on various projects from interior design work to public commissions. However, after several years, he realized that he’d had to become more of a manager and businessman than an artist.

“I finally just let everybody go when I realized that I had lost all of my creative time,” he says. “The part that I enjoyed most had become impossible.”

The downsizing turned out to be an auspicious career move. The amount of work issuing from his studio shrank drastically in volume, but when he returned to the creative aspects and hands-on work that he liked best, he found that his joy grew in tandem with his reputation.

Robertson has spent many hours working in solitude mulling over his philosophy. He explains his overall goals, “I see the object as the vehicle of truth. We all know truth when we see it, that’s why the classics endure. A true line is a true line and is absolutely beautiful and touches us all. If a piece of art takes an essay to hold it up, then it’s nothing. An object should be able to stand alone.”

“Every object created is destined either for a dump or a museum eventually. Fashionable things go to the dump, while other objects are beyond fashion and never get tossed away. I decided early on to try to get to the truth with everything I took time to make, if it was a dustpan or a human form.”

“To paraphrase Brancusi, he continues, ‘To make these things is not hard. The hard part is to attain the state that makes the work possible.’”

 

One of his most striking works is actually an entire atrium he designed for the Forest Institute of Psychology in Springfield, Missouri. The sky-lit room is in the center of the building, but Robertson created an entire environment that bespeaks open-air tranquility. The five part fountain has a great visual as well as auditory impact, while a series of wall panels takes the viewer’s eye up toward the mobile that hangs from the high ceiling. Even the wall sconces were built to spill out a softened light. Robertson loves the fact that the Institute reports that the room is a popular place for meditation and reflection.

atrium for the Forest Institute of Psychology, Springfield, Missouri

life-size horse sculpture
collection of Dorothy Greenwald

Despite the fierce dedication to his work, Robertson doesn’t take himself too seriously. His sense of humor is evident in many of his pieces. One of his more recent commissions is a life-size horse sculpture created for Dorothy Greenwald. The mare stands alert in a wooded yard, harnessed with copper to an authentic Amish buggy. The piece embodies so much animation that the viewer wonders when the horse will lower it’s raised hoof.

Robertson explains the irony. “I built the entire piece from old truck body parts. For instance, the flanks are made from the hood of a 1952 Chevy.  I loved the idea of an early “horse-less carriage” reconfigured into the shape of a literal horse.” He completes the humor by pointing out a bird’s nest safely sheltered in one nostril of the horse. “Nature working together with art,” he laughs.

Another whimsical work is a copper bell fountain: When the water fills a hinged cup to a certain level, the cup tips. The water flows down to the next level but the tipping motion rings a bell. Robertson’s humor is also readily apparent in the many mobiles and stabiles (a mobile on a fixed base) he’s created. Some liken his work to Alexander Calder and Robertson  acknowledges the similarities. “After all, Calder created the moveable sculpture. The most wonderful thing about mobiles is that they instantly make a space come to life.”

copper bell fountain
private collection

Lee Robertson with his stabile
collection of John and Natalie Alberici

One of Robertson’s mobiles, part of New Orleanian Rick Jordan’s collection, is entitled “Wine, Women and Song.” Foaming green champagne bottles, blue notes and orange women’s torsos move madly around each other with a the merest suggestion of a breeze. And in a stabile Robertson created on commission last year, the eighteen foot high structure is painted with bright primary colors. It’s easy to see that the sculpture is meant to be a toy that will bring delight to even the oldest set of eyes

Robertson actually fabricates even his largest sculptures alone in his studio. While some pieces are made from steel, the majority are fashioned from copper. He begins by building a skeletal framework and then hammers sheets of metal into a smooth submission, welding them into place with a buttery skill. One series he has continued through the years is comprised of both male and female hollow formed torsos. The sculptures are explicit but simple, the curves meeting and matching in ways that surprise any viewer and amaze any metalsmith.

male torso

female torso
collection of Steve & Carol Christiansen
Springfield,Missouri

 

The same simplicity is the hallmark of his copper wall panels. Although he’s created many panels covering a variety of subject matter, the perennial favorites of gallery patrons are his “Love Poem” series. This series depicts female figures in such a specific fashion that they sometimes appear at first to be abstracted studies.

 

“The idea is to present the human figure in a way that a viewer could only see if they were observing from a very close and intimate perspective,” Robertson explains. “I want a few lines to reveal as much emotion and intimacy as possible.”

"Love Poem Series"
copper wall panal

 

"Love Poem Series"
copper wall panel

The technique Robertson uses to create the panels is as unique as it is recognizable. A sheet of copper is textured as if it were a blank canvas. Basic lines are then “drawn” with copper wire then welded to the surface. When the “drawing” is completed, Robertson manipulates acids that react with the copper to add color and shading. When the work is complete, imron – the coating used to protect the finish on automobiles and jets - is applied to protect the piece, as well as stop further oxidization and color change.

patinated copper wall panel

In some of the Robertson’s newest panels, he uses only the acids and patinas to “paint” onto the textured copper surface, creating exotic, mysterious landscapes where mountain valleys are filled with rolling fog. He says these newest explorations are merely “tendrils growing up toward the light. Every application is built on the body of work that’s come before. It’s an organic layering and like a vine, it does not grow back on itself.”

 

In one of Robertson’s volumes of poetry, “Mind Like a Mirror,” there is a poem entitled “Show of Hands.” The lines seems to sum up a romantic idealism that’s been tempered by a lifetime of heating and twisting metal in a very physical way:

“…my hands are scarred and lumped

for all the years of rough work

the bent finger was bit in a brawl…

for black creases they often look like road maps,

nails irregular and broken

stained by what has filled them

cuticles torn and brown

 

yet all somehow quite in place…”

 

 

steel hand-wrought gate
New Coast Gallery, Reed Spring, Missouri

 

Robertson’s work is available at:

Jean Braly Gallery,  New Orleans, LA     (504) 524-3208

Quarter Moon Gallery, Bay St. Louis, MS    (228) 467-7279

New Coast Gallery,  Reed Spring, MO.    (417) 272-8386

Central Park Gallery,  Kansas City, MO     (816) 471-7711

Talk Of The Town,  Washington, VA       (540) 675-3625

 ______________________________________

Ellis Anderson is a studio jeweler living in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  She is also an accomplished writer.  Below, she shares her thoughts on her life and her art.

When I was five years old, I kept a suitcase packed and hidden under the bed. I was ready to leave as soon as an available freighter heading towards Africa steamed into Charlotte, North Carolina. Tarzan, Jane and Boy - who obviously needed a human friend his own age - were waiting for me in their jungle home. Later, my 5th grade diary listed my goal in life: To be an adventuress. I supposed that adventuresses wore a lot of jewelry so I made my own - from beads and paper, wire and copper. When I discovered as a young adult that English majors and adventurers seldom find employment, I was inspired one night by vagabond jewelers in a tiny train station in Norway. They traveled, they made beautiful things, they sold enough to eat. It looked good to me. Most of my metals training since then has been from other jewelers, informally or in workshops, from books and from wildly experimenting on my own.

My favorite tool on my bench is a torch. I love to play with the fire, bend that intense heat to my will, taming it to solder the most delicate joints without destroying the pieces. My next favorite tool is the jeweler's hand saw, with it's almost invisible steel teeth, fragile yet sharp enough to cut gold and silver and the occasional stray finger.

Pretension and trendiness are pesky intruders. I try to swat them out of my studio while making tea for whimsy and change. My favorite designs make me laugh and trigger memories of deserts and oceans and trains trips at midnight. My goal is to create work that makes the wearer feel light-hearted and powerful - designs that are clean, unmuddied by conformity and crafted with precision. I want my pieces to be worn and treasured, jewelry that makes one feel confident and lucky and aware of different languages.

After twenty fabulous years of living in the French Quarter, I have moved full time to Bay St. Louis, MS. The old-timers in the Bay call my place there the Monkey House. A wonderful eccentric owned the house earlier in the century – she kept a monkey who used to escape periodically and terrorize the neighbors. No monkeys (yet), but my terrier Frieda has made a name for herself balancing on the handlebars of my bicycle when we go out riding. In the evenings we cruise down by the Gulf of Mexico, where I’ll watch the ships pass and wonder which ones are headed for Africa. Then we go home to sleep on the bed that’s over the suitcase, the one that's still packed and ready to go.

Ellis Anderson in her studio
ellis@datasync.com

Back to the top

 

Article by Ellis Anderson
Photographs courtesy of  Ellis Anderson
 Web design by Marbeth Schon 
 Copyright © 2001 Modern Silver Magazine


  Your comments are invited: Feedback Form