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Artist Steve Tobin turns organic forms into sculpture

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Tobin made his reputation creating sculptures out of glass that were at once both delicate and monumental. He was introduced to glass blowing in junior high school, but didn't take it up until 1977 when he was at Tulane and glass artist Gene Koss arrived to teach there. Tobin and Koss built Tulane's first glass furnace, and Tobin had his first exhibition in 1979. His early pieces were modest in scale, but he would go on to produce such works as the 41-foot-high Waterfall he created out of scrap glass tubing for an exhibition at the American Craft Museum in New York City in 1993. That same year, he suspended scores of handblown, 15-foot-tall glass "cocoons" from the ceiling of a cave for an exhibition at the Retretti Art Museum in Finland. "The engineers at Corning said I couldn't blow glass pieces 15 feet high because they wouldn't support themselves," he says. "But I blew them."

Tobin hasn't worked with glass for almost a decade and doubts that he ever will again. "I'm not loyal to any particular material," he says. "I invent processes that create pieces." He takes particular pride, for instance, in the method he came up with for casting a leaf in bronze through its stem. "I'd like to cast a spider web in bronze," he says. "I'd like to make clay pieces that are 20,000 pounds and explode them the size of a large room."

To that end, on this day Tobin is making what he estimates to be at least the ten thousandth "experiment" in his "Exploded Clay" series, testing various "what if" scenarios. What if he uses more clay, or less? What if he increases the amount of explosives? What if he textures the surface with bronze dust or packs the unfired clay with glass?

This time he has loaded a 3,000-pound block of clay onto a large metal plate. The clay has been scored on the exterior with a grid and coated with glass and bronze sweepings. Copper wires connected to embedded explosives protrude from the center. "We're ready," someone yells. Tobin's assistants scramble up a hill to watch at a safe distance. Tobin, wearing industrial earmuffs and a protective visor, takes the detonator behind a door. "Fire in the hole," he cries.

There's a tense silence. The clay explodes, not with a bang but a pop. Tobin shoves up the visor and grins. For him, this is what passes for elation. "I'm working my way up to that 20,000 pounds of clay," he says. "I'll make monumental outdoor pieces that you can walk inside. I've already made some that you can hold in your hand. It's like in mathematics: What happens in the smallest case? What happens in the largest case? What is your relationship to the size of the piece and the relationship of the piece to the environment?"

Tobin lives alone in an 1820s house that reflects his having worked, over the years, in 20 different countries: African Dogon house posts flank the entrance; kente cloth from Ghana hangs from a ceiling; fossils are grouped near the fireplace. "I like to surround myself with things mysterious in themselves," he says. "I'm a bit of a hermit." He craves quiet, he says, because "my work really comes from my own heartbeat. If my life gets too frenetic, I can't feel my pulse and don't know what I'm doing."

There was a time when he had to grow his own food to support his art. Now he can sell a single work for as much as $400,000; he estimates it costs $45,000 a month to pay his crew and keep the furnaces fired. It helps that for the past six years he's had a partner, Kathleen Rogers, who helps arrange and promote his exhibitions. "Kathleen is really my muse," he says. "She put together the Los Angeles show."

Tobin saw his first termite hills—the craggy mounds that termites construct out of earth and saliva—in 1994, when he visited one of his assistants in Ghana. Fired with the urge to cast them in bronze, Tobin mortgaged his house to finance the $600,000 project. He then hired Ghanaian villagers to make rubber-and-plastic molds of abandoned mounds. Of the resulting bronze termite hills—there are 12 in all, ranging in height from 8 to 14 feet—and of Tobin's work in general, critic William Warmus wrote: "His anarchic art is largely there to jolt us into seeing the result of power: insect power, explosive actions, the terror of dreams."

The termite mounds, like the bone walls, are examples of what Tobin calls his "Earth Bronzes" series. Bone Wave, which was made for the Los Angeles show, is now on display at Florida International University, along with one of Tobin's arched, upright eight-foot-high Forest Floor bronzes. To make them, he dug up sections of the forest floor and took them back to his studio on sheets of plywood. He then cast the sections exactly the way he found them—leaves, bark, spiders and all.

Similarly, for his bronze sculptures of tree roots—one of which was recently installed in Chicago's Lincoln Park—he excavated dead roots as large as 30 feet in diameter, then cast them in bronze. ("Maybe 200 castings to make a single piece," he says.) He welded them together and applied a patina of iron oxide. Then he set them on the ground like baroque domes to be walked under and looked up through.

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