Craig Robb is a very talented sculptor who creates very fresh and inventive wall sculptures, among other things http://www.craigrobb.com/. When I saw his website, I knew I had to chat with him about his process and creations. He’s a brilliant artist and very clear thinker as you’ll find out in our chat below …
“… A piece of art is good because of the emotional connection that we have to it and … it is not much more than that. We can talk all day about technique, materials and content, but in the end it comes down to that response one gets to an artwork …”
MICHAEL: Hey Craig, Your sculptural works are so fresh and inventive. The wall hangings are like 3-D paintings. They're mechanical and organic at the same time. What inspires you to create them?
CRAIG: I am not sure about what my inspiration is or better, that I can explain it. A good friend once said that I respond to objects and build structures to show them off. I've always liked that statement. I've always been fascinated by symbolism in art ... how centuries ago, someone could look at a painting and understand the story within it because they understood what those objects represented.
I started looking at everyday objects and what their symbolism might be. I would put three things together to see what story I could create. I soon discovered that my interpretation based on my histories with these items would vary widely from other people viewing them. From there it almost became more interesting to see how people would interpret what I displayed.
The wood and steel structures evolved from a simple box form early on to the more elaborate structures I make today. They have become a means to display the objects, to create spaces for them to live in and interact. The organic wood became rigid and linear while the structural steel became the organic element. I use both as compositional elements to draw the eye into the piece much as early paintings did with curtains and hand gestures.
MICHAEL: When you're creating works that employ different materials like wood and metal, what holds them together? Does glue hold things together forever? Can simple engineering and gravity hold sculpture together?
CRAIG: Good engineering is very effective and I’m not sure that I would want to rely on gravity to hold my work together. On the wood components, I use good wood glue and often incorporate joinery methods such as miter cuts and lap joints. When I add another material like acrylic, I will use epoxy. They say that a joint glued properly will be stronger than the wood. If the joint is not exposed to excessive moisture or heat, it should last a very long time. But does anything last forever?
MICHAEL: Unfortunately not ... as far as I can tell.
CRAIG: All of the steel elements are welded together to reduce the amount they move. To that I usually weld on a tab that allows me to screw the metal to the wood. I’ve started adding lengths of steel between the wood as another material element and then welding to those.
I learned the value of quality early on so I am always testing the strength of my connections. At the same time, I like to make things appear seamless and try to hide how the construction was done.
MICHAEL: What purpose does sculpture serve? It takes up even more space than paintings that at least hang out of the way. Do we need sculpture?
CRAIG: Can we not say that about all art? Do we really need it around us? Is there any intrinsic value to it? What purpose does it serve? The questions are endless and probably cannot be readily answered.
I recall a conversation I had when I first got started in this. The gist of that conversation was that a piece of art is good because of the emotional connection that we have to it and that it is not much more than that. We can talk all day about technique, materials and content, but in the end it comes down to that response one gets to an artwork.
That being said, why sculpture? For me, it is an art form that allows me to express a feeling or a societal condition I am passionate about. Along with the emotional connection, sculpture offers the opportunity for exploration and discovery. When someone looks at a large outdoor sculpture, it always changes as one interacts with it. The perspective changes as one walks around it not only in how you perceive the interactions of the various elements of it, but also in how it interacts with the physical environment.
In my work, I like to push that aspect of exploration by hiding things for viewers to discover. For someone who spends the time to explore some of my sculpture they may find a house hidden behind a curve of steel or a stone in a nook or even an unexpected splash of color. So, in my world, sculpture has the ability to enhance the visual experience in a way that a painting cannot.
MICHAEL: Do you think all of our handheld technology is impacting sculpture at all? I mean, don't people expect inanimate objects to light up or vibrate or shoot rays of light or something? Is sculpture suffering at all from our everyday reliance on and obsession with tech devices?
CRAIG: In terms of what people expect to see, I am not sure what or if there are any expectations about an influx of technology into artworks. There are some artists who are exploring the incorporation of computer technology into their art … using arduino boards for lighting or sound effects and even movement. Others are using video components that become a part of the entire story by the artist.
If these new technologies are looked upon as another tool in their kit, I think some great things can happen. Those who blend it into the work so that it becomes a part of the whole are more successful. For me, it becomes problematic when I see work that is totally reliant on the process and becomes an object meant to wow us.
A trend that is of concern to me is in how many of the younger artists think in terms of the making or building their sculptures. I get the feeling that several of the artists from the millennial generation are looking for the easiest and quickest way to make their art. In some part, I think this may be the obsession with these tech devises. Along with other factors, the millennial generation seems to have a lack of focus, instant gratification and a low attention span.
This is meant more as an observation than a criticism. Whereas friends my age take immense pleasure and pride in being able to make our own art, this new group has no problem in outsourcing the building process or learning the minimal amount to construct the sculpture. Many would rather spend their creative time thinking about their next great piece. Their satisfaction is derived from the idea created.
I have no idea if this is good or not and it is not that way of all artists of that generation. It is a maybe just a different way to approach things. A trend that does excite me is that the 20-year-olds just starting out are from the “Do-It-Yourself” thought process and they really want to learn the processes and get good at them. Hopefully there is still someone to teach them.
MICHAEL: If Michelangelo or Leonardo were alive today and had access to our technology, how different do you think their work might be? I mean, would David be the same?
CRAIG: Aesthetically, I don't believe either would have been affected by the availability of the technology that we have now. They created artwork that their times needed and had no reason to do otherwise. Michelangelo I think would have been more prolific.
With access to the air tools used today, it would have been so much faster to make a sculpture and given him time to make more. I could also see him making a 3D scan of his work and printing off miniatures. I can just see a kiosk in Florence selling miniature Davids. And what would the Sistine Chapel look like if aerosol paint had been available?
What would have happened with Leonardo's inventions had he been able to create them with some of the software now available? With his mind, it would be interesting to see where his explorations would have gone. If 3D printing had been available, this may have enabled him to try out his ideas and led to who knows what.
MICHAEL: Which leads me to this ... Most people don't “get” that there really isn't much difference between the Old Masters and gifted, insightful artists of today. I love the Old Masters. They were incredibly gifted, but they were human beings just like the rest of us. They probably had fewer distractions and more time to make mistakes, but that's it. Thoughts? And spare me your modesty. LOL.
CRAIG: Artists are artists if that make sense. The drive to perfect our craft and thus ourselves truly separates and is universal throughout time. One cannot get to be the best at what it is they do so without passion, drive and a sense of purpose. It has always been difficult for me to explain the motivation behind what I do … my need to create beauty or the desire to have people see the world differently through my craft. As with many of my friends, we are simply compelled to make it and find it best to not ask the why of it and I believe that it is a common theme between artists no matter when they were creating.
Art itself though has gone through huge transformations. Over the past few centuries, artists have always rebelled against the traditions of those before them. There has always been a search as to what the essence of art is. This not just a post-modernist thing. Artists have always explored the “whys” and “hows” of it all, the fundamentals behind it.
And so, the form of art has and is always changing to reflect this exploration. Even though art has transformed from the iconic paintings of the masters to a minimalist’s version of blue to who knows what else, there will always be the same drive and passion that motivated the masters to those who created Cubism to those working with new forms we have yet to classify. Those truly gifted and insightful artists of today are really no different than those of the past.
MICHAEL: Craig, I love that answer. Moving on … you know, sculpture is arguably the least accessible of all art. It's beautiful, but it takes up space and most people cannot afford it. Does this ever guide your creative process?
CRAIG: It has in the past. When I finished with my schooling, my studio suddenly became my 100-square-foot living room. Without a large space anymore, the size went from seven to eight-foot-tall pieces to small things that would fit on a shelf. This is also when I started using the box form as the basis of my work and when I started exploring the use of symbology in the arts.
I found it fascinating how in the Renaissance times, people could walk up to a painting and understand the story being told simply because they understood the symbolism of what was before them. A vase of flowers next to a sitting dog made sense to them. We have lost that understanding today and no longer see the story being told. This led to an exploration into everyday objects around us and what they might symbolize. If several of them were enclosed in a space such as the box, what stories would be created by the viewer?
The accessibility issue is also why my work now is mostly wall hung. People loved the work, but couldn't figure out where to put the things. I started making brackets so they could put them on the wall. This transformed into a need to incorporate the bracket into sculpture so that it became an integral component of the piece and not just a crutch for display purposes.
MICHAEL: I love that! Genius.
CRAIG: The curved steel also harkens back to the Renaissance in that I use it as a compositional tool to direct the eye of the viewer. I didn't understand that for the longest time until one day talking to someone about the old masters and how they used drapery or hand gestures to guide the eye to that vase of flowers. When I looked at my work, I realized that unknowingly, that is what I had done.
There you go. The history of my process in 30 seconds.
MICHAEL: Fantastic Craig. You should use that in your marketing pitches to people. I’m serious. You know, I think that sculptors are probably the most visionary of artists. Surely you have a grand work that you'd like to do, but money, space and time are impediments. If you can reveal it, what would you say is your grand, unattempted work?
CRAIG: I would love to see some of my curved steel maybe with a box or two done at thirty or forty feet, but I do have one massive piece that I would love to see created. A few years ago, I saw trucks on the highway loaded with the propellers for a wind turbine being installed somewhere. Driving down the highway, I started imagining three of them coming out of the ground as if they had just fallen from the sky. We have a center for the performing arts downtown with a large grass plot that would be ideal for this. Or even out in the middle of nowhere so it would become a random thing on the horizon that you might happen upon.
MICHAEL: Random things in the middle of nowhere. I love that. That would be great. Now that would be art! Only sculpture could achieve this. I think if people could just let art BE art without any conditions or expectations at all ... boy, this would be a different world. What do you think?
CRAIG: Someone once told me a quote that they attributed to Agnes Martin. Can't seem to verify the author, but love the quote anyway.
To paraphrase, ‘Why can't art just be beautiful?’ I love that art has content and meaning and has the power to transform mindsets, but I believe that it needs to have a beauty to it that engages people who then hopefully will see the content within. I often have people comment to me about what they see within my work is the pleasure I take in creating it … while I see others in deep thought pondering what it is they are seeing. Either way, I know that I have accomplished something good.
One of the biggest issues that I am having lately is with how art is being taught in academia. For many professor types, they believe that it is the message that is all important … that you must have a brilliant, earth shattering thing to say before you even start the creative process. But without teaching how to build the art, how will people ever see the statement?
MICHAEL: Wow. Yes indeed. I'm seeing how what you're saying is playing out amongst painters, but are you seeing this in sculpture as well? I mean, surely you cannot fake sculpture. It's so easy to tell what's good and what has been poorly constructed.
CRAIG: I agree with you. It is impossible to hide a bad weld or a wood joint that doesn't match up and to me, it is very obvious and distracting. But what I am seeing in recent MFA grads is that they value the concept of the idea more than the ability to construct it. They are more than willing to outsource their idea and have someone else fabricate it. This would then eliminate the issue of bad construction.
I'm not quite sure how I feel about this since I come from a group that takes enormous pride in our ability to build our ideas. Also, this may just be a phenomenon of academia and that the true artisan still exists. This has been a source of discussion forever.
Is it really an issue that someone else builds your piece?
There has always been sculpture that needs to be created, but is beyond the ability of the artist in terms of timelines, size or physical restraints and so they involve others to accomplish the task. Today though, there seems to be more of a willingness to have someone else fabricate or revert to the simplest methodology available such as assemblage.
MICHAEL: I totally understand what you’re saying. Is a sculptor truly a sculptor if he or she isn’t involved in the actual physical process of constructing the piece?
CRAIG: Again, this may be an isolated thing related to my situation so I don't want to create a generalization. And is it really a problem? But I am also seeing the 20-year-olds who come from the DIY mentality and they want to know the processes and find value in good construction. Who knows?
MICHAEL: Interesting. How do most people react when you tell them you're a sculptor? It's certainly not the same thing as saying you're a doctor or firefighter.
CRAIG: They laugh hysterically! I get all kinds of responses, but for the most part, I don't reveal that I am a sculptor unless asked. The responses I get are normally positive. They vary from those who are fascinated by the idea of the artist and those who seemed confused that anybody in their right mind would choose this way of life, which is sometimes how I feel.
Many want to know exactly what I create and seem to be supportive until I try to describe my work and then I get a lot of, “That's nice!” comments. For the most part, in terms of my career decision, I feel like I don't have much choice in the matter. I kind of fell into this, but cannot imagine a life where I am not in the studio building. So on the rare occasion I get the negative response, I just smile at them.
MICHAEL: I totally understand. That's why I asked. What do you think about the contemporary art world and art market and how they function? Do you understand them at all?
CRAIG: I have always been intrigued by the newest and latest in what is happening to art. I want to see new approaches to creating and new ideas as to what art is. If art stagnates, then we are lost.
I have seen some recent pieces that bother me because they are truly regurgitations of the 70’s more hardcore art. It is fine to draw from history, but the artist needs to remake the art in their own mindset and make it relevant to our times and thus make it contemporary. But overall, I still find artwork that stops me in my tracks and makes me smile at its uniqueness.
With the introduction of all of the new materials, processes and the technology available, there’s so much opportunity, especially with sculpture, to find a unique and different voice in the art world.
MICHAEL: And the art market?
CRAIG: The art market has always baffled me because what sells is often work that has been attributed as valuable by a random art critic or a big name gallerist looking to make a profit and is not necessarily the best work available. The way the art market works has been interesting to watch. There are still many galleries that still think that all one needs to do to sell art is to open the front door. Since the internet has become so prevalent in our lives, art has become so much more accessible and available and yet, I am not sure that art dealers have quite figured out what to do with it. And no, I don’t understand any of it!
MICHAEL: Finally Craig, after you're gone and your art remains, what do you want it to say or do? Is there a message behind your body of work?
CRAIG: For myself, my work references the casual nature of our actions. How the things we do, our actions and behaviors affect our planet and those around us. This does not always translate to people viewing my sculptures.
One thing I learned early on in using content laden objects in my work was that not everybody has the same history or connection to that substance and will see it in a different light than I would. Add several other objects to this and whole stories are created based on the viewer’s interpretation of that symbology.
When people ask me what the meaning of a particular piece is, I often decline to answer, but ask them what they think. They then go back to the piece and ponder it for a while and then tell me what they are seeing within it. I’ve heard some amazing interpretations that I would never have seen in the piece. This in turn leads to a discussion about the work and it is not me dictating the meaning to them.
So when I am but ashes in the wind, I hope the message people get from my art is the one they see and can enjoy. After I am gone and only my art remains, I hope that what people see is the craft in my work and the enjoyment I had in creating it.
MICHAEL: Thanks Craig. I totally enjoyed our chat.
CRAIG: Thanks for doing this. It has been interesting talking about my work. I'm not sure that I am very good at it and somewhat uncomfortable doing it so ignore the ramblings.
MICHAEL: Craig, you did NOT ramble. What you did was teach a very interesting art history class!
Check out Craig Robb at http://www.craigrobb.com/.