Back to Nature

Artist Steve Tobin turns organic forms into sculpture

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

At 2,250 degrees Fahrenheit the fire burns lime green. Embers and scraps of molten bronze skitter onto the concrete floor of an open-air shed housing the furnace.

"Sweep it up," commands sculptor Steve Tobin, and ten assistants—shouting and brandishing shovels—rush forward and spring into a kind of dance. They've done this hundreds of times and are casual about protection. Some are dressed in shorts. Others wear scorched leather jackets, gloves, a mask. Tobin's concession is sunglasses.

As usual, there are several projects under way in Tobin's Bucks County, Pennsylvania, studio, and everyone seems to be doing everything at once. The molten bronze is for casting bones—deer, coyote, mountain lion—that the 47-year-old artist is welding together into a 7-foot-high, 12-foot-long sculpture called Bone Wave. The bronze bones—some 3,000 so far, with a thousand more to go—fit together like lace.

"Some of the pieces we do take 2,000 or 3,000 man-hours, which is a whole year's labor," says Tobin, who has made art out of a forest floor, tree roots and African termite hills. For an exhibition of 50 of his huge sculptures at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and its sister Page Museum earlier this year, "we sent 150,000 pounds of artwork in five tractor-trailers." (That show has now been broken down into three smaller exhibitions—at the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, Missouri, Florida International University's Margulies Collection in Miami and the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.)

Tobin calls what he does—turning aspects of nature into sculpture—"visual science." Art and science are often "regarded as mutually exclusive," he says, "because science is considered to be about deductive reasoning. But science defines the universe starting from basic assumptions. Art is trying to do the same thing using a different language."

With a degree in theoretical mathematics from Tulane University, Tobin is particularly interested in string theory, which proposes that everything in the universe is composed of vibrating loops of energy. In that spirit, he created a spiny organic work he calls Uni, Japanese for sea urchin, out of junked fireworks-launching tubes. The piece appears to be in throbbing motion, like string theory's loops of energy.

More recently he's been working on "Exploded Clay" sculptures (made by detonating fireworks in blocks of wet clay), which, at least in theory, pay homage to the Big Bang that most scientists believe created the universe. Open or closed, upright or hunched, concave or protruding, the sculptures appear ageless, as various in their frozen moment of creation as anything in nature. The Earth, Tobin points out, is also exploded clay.

Steve Tobin has always seen himself as odd man out. Growing up in suburban Philadelphia's tradition-bound Main Line, "I felt like a wild animal in the house," he says. "Everything was ordered, everything was structured. I felt out of place, like a piece of lint in a clean environment."

His father, Sylvan Tobin, is a second-generation manufacturer of men's and boy's clothing. His mother, Fran, raises orchids. When he was 10, his father built a treehouse, and that became the place where the boy hung out. "I felt more in harmony with nature," he says. "Nature is not as rigid. I was wild. I never really drank or stole cars. I was conversing with the birds and the butterflies. I was sleeping in the woods. They call it antisocial." Not much has changed. He still casts himself as the outsider who never went to art school. "I did pottery," he says, "I did glass blowing, but I never formally studied art." In fact, it's his study of physics and math—his passion for science—that forms the basis of his art.

"Even as a child I used to see sets of things, and I would know how many there were," Tobin tells me, as we tour his 14 disheveled acres. "Sometimes when I'm swimming, I'll see a pattern of rocks and know how many red ones there are." It wasn't until he saw the 1988 film Rain Man (for which Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his role as an autistic savant) that Tobin realized that his facility for grasping patterns was not widely shared. "In mathematics I would know the answer and not know the method," he says, "and that got me in trouble in school."


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus