Riding on the cusp of something great

When Colorado artist's career hits plateaus, he climbs them

Practical Welding Today March/April 2003
May 15, 2003
By: Kate Bachman

Kevin Robb's sculptures seem to defy gravity, arrest time, encroach space. Each sculpture is a moment freeze-framed; each element seems to be impossibly suspended.

The sculptures' pieces seem only incidentally connected, barely touching, much less literally supporting and balancing each other. They appear more like glittering ornaments dangling from a mobile than weighty metal structures connected by fate and strong welds.

Ironically, Robb said he is initially more concerned with the visual appearance and expression of the piece than with its ability to stand up. "I'm more interested in how it looks, if all the pieces rotate around each other, and whether it looks good as you walk all the way around it."

He said he assembles the sculptures first and then makes adjustments to balance the piece physically. "Shifting the base only 1/8 inch at the bottom can push the top of the sculpture 2 or 3 inches. The sculpture itself hasn't changed visually, but it stands balanced."

Even more ironic, this former graphic designer/illustrator does not begin the conceptualizing stage with a sketch. "A lot of artists I know go through a process of doing illustrations and coming up with a name. I create sculpture direct to metal. Sometimes I will physically prepare eight or nine individual curved pieces with long radii and then randomly grab and assemble them to build the structure."

He draws inspiration from various sources ranging from the physical environment to found objects.

"I look at how my physical surroundings affect me and other people - how we place things in the world, how we live within the environment we are subjected to."

In addition, Robb finds inspiration from the Asian art he "experienced" after spending a week in Tokyo. The influence is evident in many of his sculptures, which resemble broad Asian calligraphy ink swashes, as though Atlas had drawn strokes in the air with a silver or bronze metal brush.

"I have more ideas floating around in my head than I'll ever use. It just flows."

Career Is a Staircase of Plateaus

Robb says his 24-year career as a metal sculptor has been a series of plateaus. "Sometimes reaching the next level has been a small step; sometimes a large one. I'd say, in the last few years, they have been giant steps," he said.

"Dragonfly" Robb became strongly influenced by Asian art after spending a week in Tokyo. Many of his sculptures resemble broad Asian calligraphy ink swashes.

The first step toward climbing the series of plateaus was motivated by a desire many kids probably can relate to. As an 11-year-old city boy who spent summers at his grandfather's farm and was already driving farm vehicles since the age of 8, he wanted a go-cart.

"My granddad said, 'If you want one, you'll have to build it - and weld it.'"

Eventually he also built corrals, welded farm implements, and weld-repaired windmills. As an adult, his welding arena expanded to creating found-object artwork from interesting farm implement pieces.

Having awakened his artistic side, Robb attended art school, where he studied graphic design. He worked as a freelance advertising designer, but found himself unfulfilled by the intangible aspects of two-dimensional design. "I didn't like that people couldn't touch the pieces," he said.

At a crossroad, he accepted an opportunity to supplement his not-so-satisfying career with a part-time job, pouring metal at a foundry.

"Seeing molten metal pour out of this crucible into a cast intrigued me. It really hooked me on doing more dimensional work with metal."

Refining Welding Techniques

That job led to working in a fabrication shop, welding metal grid stairways and other structural metal projects. "Having not had any formal training in welding, my learning curve was really steep at the school of hard knocks," Robb said.

He then stepped up his artistic career, creating sculptures that have been exhibited in more than 33 prominent art shows, including the international Sculptural Objects and Functional Art (SOFA) exhibit in Chicago; displayed in public art projects from New York to Texas to California; and purchased for private collections throughout North America and Europe.

"I've gotten to a certain level of success so that I can afford to have some things done for me that I'm not specifically having to do myself. This allows me the opportunity to have more artistic freedom," Robb said.

"Triangles" To create a sense of movement, Robb tilts, curves, and overlaps the elements.

And it has given him the opportunity to continue learning welding techniques. "About a year ago I hired a gentleman to weld two days a week. I have learned more from him about welding and fabricating in a month than I did in the 23 years that I've been doing it myself. He had some ideas on how to maximize the weld and how to get better penetration," Robb said.

"We went from an older-model TIG [GTAW] machine to an inverter machine. There are all these knobs and dials, all the bells and whistles, but I couldn't figure out how to make it work the way it was supposed to." He said that the welder he hired called the factory rep, who performed demonstrations and training. "We learned the value of the machine for the application that we have."

Robb said they now use a pulsed, rather than a nonpulsed, welding technique, and that has reduced the grinding time needed to finish the sculptures. "By doing that, we've been able to increase the penetration of the weld and get a flatter weld, resulting in less grinding and using less filler rod."

He said they also have reduced the number of occasions to use GMAW to tack the pieces together before permanent welding. "Rather than using the MIG welding all the time, we use TIG welding more. We get better penetration, so we have less contamination."

Materials, Techniques, and Fabrication

Robb said that because 95 percent of what he creates goes into private gardens, he primarily uses 11-gauge 304L stainless steel for its rust resistance. He also uses bronze.

Robb said that for him, stainless steel is easier to weld than carbon steel. "The only thing that makes it difficult is that if you get it too hot, you work-harden the material, and then it's harder to finish. The prep time takes a bit longer than it does on carbon steel, because the material is harder, which makes everything a little bit more labor-intensive. And bronze is just like butter - it's so soft and easy to weld."

He said the initial fabrication is a fairly quick process. He and his crew begin by plasma cutting two narrow sides out of an identical pattern. Then they manually pull a full sheet of sheet metal into curved pieces and tack-weld the narrow pieces onto the larger piece.

"So then I just pull that metal around, and whatever that radius ends up is where it ends up. Sometimes the metal doesn't go as far as I want it to, or it'll go farther than I started out. We just let it go, and then we cut off the excess."

Then he adds the remaining side of a rectangle. "We don't fight the metal, we just let it go where it wants." He said that fabricators he hires to build the full-scale sculpture versions who are accustomed to adhering to very tight specifications have difficulty accepting his unrestricted approach.

"I'll give them a one-third-scale model to fabricate the larger sculpture and they'll say, 'Kevin, we cannot get the same radii and the same angles that you have on your model.' When I tell them not to fight it, just to build it within a 10 percent tolerance, they can't accept it."

Movement, Light, and Shadow

To create a sense of movement, Robb tilts, curves, and overlaps the elements. "There are no 90-degree angles, nothing is straight." Often this requires additional fabricating, because he has to cut into the metal element that becomes the receptor for another element. But he says he believes the extra effort is worth it to achieve a more dynamic composition. The overlapping also provides structural support and stability.

Finishing it takes quite a bit longer. "A lot of the highlights on the pieces come from how we finish the metal. We grind everything together before we do final assembly. And then I go over it for a final time, and just add some artistic swirls in it, you might say, so that as the light moves across the metal, you almost get these drawings on the metal itself."

On the Cusp

Robb said he and his staff are working on a couple of projects now that will be finished and installed by the end of the year that potentially could really change his life. One project involves 28 sculptures for a private residence; another involves six sculptures from 8 to 17 ft. for a commercial property.

"I believe you're always riding on the cusp of something great - you just have to open yourself up to it."

Kevin Robb can be reached at 7001 W. 35th Ave., Wheat Ridge, CO 80033, 303-431-4758, fax 303-425-8802, 3d@kevinrobb.com, www.kevinrobb.com.

Kate Bachman

Kate Bachman

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1302

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