Who is Steve Tobin?

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In March, Diane and I spent several days in Manhattan with our friends, John and Barbara Paglione.  One day we took a trip to the new 9-11 Memorial Museum.  After our tour of the museum (very emotional) we walked several blocks to Trinty Church.  We wanted to see Steve Tobin’s “Trinity Root” sculpture.  According to Tobin, the story of the sycamore tree that protected Trinity church from the fall out of 9-11 was the only upbeat story he read.  He obtained permission to dig  up the root of the tree and  eventually cast it as a sculpture.  As with all of Tobin’s work it’s pretty amazing — a red bronzed root pulled from the soil, hanging, dangling — roots, so many associations, metaphors.

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My first encounter with Steve Tobin was last year  at a  Mitchener Museum exhibit “Out of this World.”  I was amazed  — what a range of mediums — glass, ceramics, bronze, steel.  Large root-like sculptures, ceramic exploded worlds, back lighted glass tombstone doors, bronze reliefs.  This guy was unique; his work was — it must be seen.   The museum was offering tours of Tobin’s studio but unfortunately they were booked.  I shot many photographs and posted some on Facebook.  We purchased a small exploded world ceramics.  End of story.  Not quite.

imageA few months ago, we were at the Mitchener and saw some mugs labeled Steve Tobin.  We thought the mug would complement our small exploded world and so we purchased one. We later learned that the mugs are actually the work of Greg White, one of Tobin’s major atelier associates.  But we also learned that the museum was sponsoring a Tobin tour in June.  Sign us up.

As we drove to Tobin’s Quakertown studio,  I didn’t have any expectations.  On arrival I was a bit taken back by the huge industrial building surround by Steel Root  sculptures.  Tobin’s Steel  Roots are quite different from the Trinity Root and similar bronze cast  root sculptures. To make the Trinity Root, Tobin actually dug up the root and make a naturalistic bronze casting of the actual root.  It looks like a root.   But the experience of the Trinity root was so intense,  he moved to his modernistic Steel Roots which are made from steel pipe welded together.  Different process; different feel.

Steve Tobin was born in Philadelphia in 1957.  He studied theoretical mathematics at Tulane University.  He has never taken an art course. In 1993, he created an installation of tall glass sculptures and an  amazing waterfall from strands of glass.  He then retired from glass since he thought he  could never top the work.  Another early major work reflects his drawing inspiration from nature and his melding science and art.  At the Fulller Museum in Massachusetts, he created a series of bronze casting of Ghanaian termite mounds.  I have never seen an example but the photographs are fantastic.  His root sculptures which ended with Trinity Root and bone castings and Earth Bronze doors are related works.

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More recently Tobin has placed small charges in blocks of clay with glass before firing in a kiln.  These  are the amazing “Exploded Earth” sculptures which range from the small one we purchased at Mitchener for about $100 to huge pieces that are moved with a fork lift and may cost 30 to 50,000 dollars.  Each is unique and the interior of the irregular rounded ceramic can be dazzling colored volcanic like glass.

The two hour tour of Tobin’s studio we took in early this June was was led by John Connelly (seems to function as Tobin’s manager, salesman, promoter).   About 20 people gathered around what looked like a showroom.  Small pottery plates platters of various shapes, earth colors, the clay pressed with something — maybe a piece of lace, something from nature — were displayed on a table.  There were mugs similar to the one we purchased at Mitchner; and some small Exploded Earth sculptures.  On the table and on some shelves around the room were heavy cast high heel shoes (these were the one series Diane didnt like; saw one used in the studio as a door stop)  and small Bronze Squeezes — all abstract shapes, almost something a child might squeeze from play dough, only much more sophisticated. I missed the discussion of these pieces, nature inspired, just imagination at work; I’m not sure.  Most of these pieces in the show room were priced from 20 to 1500 dollars. I said this looked like a showroom because it’s not regularly opened.  In fact it was only recently that Tobin held an  open house and offered these small pieces for sale.  Hundreds showed up and according to Connelly, Steve said, “If all these people wanted to see the studio, why didn’t they just knock.”

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I think the open house, the Mitchener sponsored tours (the only tours formally given) and two local exhibits — the one we went to at Mitchener and one we somehow missed at the Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ — may mark a new local outreach for Tobin.  His kiln (which is huge) is on his home property not far from the studio.  And he is in the process to moving to another house.  Hopefully he is settling in to Bucks.  The writer James Mitchner, born in Doylestown, traveled the United States and the World researching and writing his monumental novels.  He visited Bucks County and was finally persuaded, decided to establish an Art Museum.  The Mitchener Art Museum has been fantastic is making the county and world aware of our rich artistic heritage.  Tobin is a contemporary example and should be known by more local people.

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The exhibit at the Grounds for Sculpture featured a few Tree Roots (remember a bronze cast of a real root) but many of the more modern “Steel Roots” made from welded steel pipe.  Just as Tobin abandoned glass for a while, he moved to Steel Roots after casting “Trinity Root.”  It was a powerful experience for him dealing with a memorial to 9-11 and he wouldn’t repeat the root style.  I suspect there were some smaller pieces displayed in the buildings at the Grounds but most of their sculpture is outside and massive.  What do you do with all those huge pieces after the show.  They all don’t sell.  Tobin  followed the example of the John Steward Johnson at the Grounds.  Many of Johnson’s towering, iconic, realistic sculptures are installed on properties leading up to the sculpture garden.  Tobin installed many of the Steel Roots on properties  near his studio.  And of course both artists have work on their studio property.

In a small room off the “show room” were tombstone like, swirling colors, glass sculptures that Tobin calls Doors.  I believe he is inviting the viewer to enter a door into another world.  And I believe Tobin wants the viewer to help construct that world.  None of his works have names which may allow for more audience participation.  Not sure when the doors were created.  Post tour, in reflection, I have many questions about Steve’s work.

The hallway to the larger studio spaces is lined with pizza sculptures.  Each decorated with something different. to our surprise, after the tour, we went for lunch at the Karlton Cafe in downtown Quakertown.  The wall behind us was filled with Tobin Pizzas.  If I got the story correctly, the Karltons, who have a farm, are into organic, local produce, you know the type; they once owned Tobin’s studio as part of a catering business.  Great place for lunch.

There is no way I can describe everything we saw in the studio space.  In reality most of the area was display or storage or works.  Usually grouped together. There was a small work area but remember kiln is located at his house and given the processes some pieces are formed outside.  Not a good idea to explode a huge piece of clay indoors.  All the series I’ve mentioned were represented in the studio  (except I didn’t  see a Termite Hill).   There were also several bronzed lattice works of deer bones.  It seems Steve had a friend or friends who hunted.  What can you do with piles of deer bones. I really liked one large deer bone sculpture.

Steve Tobin finds things, many in nature, but he also visits flea markets.  The day we were doing the tour, we were told he was in China, probably at a flea market buying things.  One sculpture in the studio was a house made out of hundreds of lantern slides — the glass photographic slides were  popular to illustrate explorations and lectures in the early days of photography.  Another house was labeled Matzoh House — didn’t get the story.

Understanding how Tobin crates his sculptures adds to appreciation.  At the Mitchner, I liked, was amazed at the Earth Bronzes (above).   Like the glass doors, Earth Bronzes are shaped like large tombstones.  They are bronze casts of just about anything — corn cobs, litter form the forest floor, bread, my favorite was several of fish, buckets of them picked up in South Philadelphia.  I can’t describe all Tobin’s works.  His versatility is just amazing.  Check out his website or visit the studio grounds to see Weeds and New Nature Series — both are large, rusting outdoor sculpture.  Another unique series is Syntax — I think bronze, green, letters, welded together in large shapes, many circles.  Finally I will mention Torsos — back lighted moulded sculpture of the upper torso — real people.  Again, amazing.

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I don’t think I can recall an artist whose work has intrigued me more.  Tobin’s output (ok he has several apprentices), his medium variety, his vision, inspiration, just too much.  I look forward to Tobin continuing his Bucks Couty outreach.  I want to return to the studio, with questions and insights.

And and I couldn’t resist, we bought another Tobin sculpture from the display table.

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Some additional photographs from the tour.  Wal-mart didn’t like the crucifix and refused some deal.

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