Will Robinson On Inspiration, Ritual and Our Earth
In Conversation | Will Robinson
Foster/White Gallery: What is the significance of your exhibition title, Reverie For Yesteryear?
Will Robinson: I tend to think about and relate with the past a ton, even though I consider myself a living-in-the-now-person. All of my mythos is based on ancient history, from the middle ages and up – my interest in history starts to fade around 1800. I really enjoy the gray areas that ancient history provides. I’m interested in all of it. There are some civilizations that didn’t build with materials that lasted. We know a lot about the Egyptians because they built with stone in a desert environment, we know a lot about civilizations in Mexico and Guatemala, where there were cities underground, and they built with stone but it was grown over. But mud cities and wood cities don’t last.
F/WG: Is that what attracts you to working with stone?
WR: I like the enduring nature of stone – although it is kind of an illusion, all things fade with time. Stone outlasts our lifetimes, it’s hard and resistant and not easy to work. There are a lot of Soapstones but generally I don’t use them because they are too easy to mar or bruise, and I’m just not attracted to that. I want stone to be hard and resistant, I want it to feel like it will last a long time. I like metals too for a similar reason, but I just have more of an affinity for stone.
Also available individually as Achilles (left) and Hector (right)
F/WG: Can how you’ve titled the pieces in the exhibition?
WR: With Hector and Achilles, it was an iconic conflict – I remember reading the Illiad in school, I was 12 at the time and as dry as it was, and there was a lot of conflict. And so I formed a lot of feelings and memories around it that one would form at 12 years old. I’ve got Trojan Horse in there too. But to me a lot of the forms reference action – you know, with Hector and Achilles, you could see an owl, you could see a fledgling bird, and I do too but I also see a lot of action, the winding of action – hopefully everyone will see something different.
FW/G: You source your materials mostly from within Washington State, and often within just 50 miles of where you create your work. Historically, you have found many of the stones yourself, in riverbeds and the like. How do you select the stones you work with?
WR: Yes, it’s not by rule, I don’t do that on purpose. That’s just how it works out. The proximity is irrelevant essentially, but it does work out that most of the things I use are pretty proximal. I select them first on, do they look good? Then solidity. So these are kind of architectural concerns – aesthetic, and then what does it have as internal colors and textures once it’s shaped? At that point solidity is the thing because if it’s got a big crack in it I have to work around that. Anytime I’m going anywhere I’m looking for interesting stones. All the time.
With the piece Kryptonite, a guy called me and he had some stones in his yard he wanted to get rid of, about 10 miles from my studio. He sent me some pictures first – you know, a lot of people contact me about stones in their yard, and about 90 % of them I don’t want. They’re usually too small or the wrong material and don’t usually translate.
This stone from the outside it really looked like nothing – a gray mottled looking stone. But I cut into it and could see that it was a nice piece of Jadeite, which was just a nice piece of luck.
F/WG: You clearly have respect for and understanding of stone as a material. Are natural order and ideas of permanence important to you in your work?
WR: The illusion of permanence is important to me. It’s a little bit diametrically opposed, as I like the moss to grow, I like to see weathering, but I also like to seal the pieces with wax so they last longer. It’s important to me that it’s a hard stone and that if you take care of it, it can last lifetimes. It just has value to me – when you buy something, you want it to last. And so that’s part of the attraction [to stone] in general, I do use other materials but I like stone the best. I’ve done metal work, casting in glass, carved glass, bronze fabrication pieces combined with stone or other elements. I’m able to work in other materials. But I tend to do what I do [with stone].
F/WG: Have you found yourself having to reconcile with limits of material and form? You have spoken about revealing the natural properties and shapes within a stone and allowing that to dictate how you shape a sculpture. Have you ever felt frustrated by a limit within your material?
WR: Oh sure, all the time. You have to fit your idea within the limitations of it. I push the boundaries a lot because, you know, stone is brittle. Stone has weaknesses, the more you push it – the more exotic shapes, you have to keep enough thickness to hold itself together and still be movable. Sometimes I want things to be massive and chunky, but a lot of times I want things to be thin and airy, and that’s when I’m pushing against the boundaries of the limitations. I’m fairly obsessed with taper – I want things to taper out. You’ve got to have a sense for it. Some materials are stronger than others even within strong stones. Metamorphic granites or granitics are really solid – they ring, like a bell – they’ve been compressed and been through changes, and they just have a real solidity to them that allows you to get those sharp edges and things.
F/WG: Your sculptures inspire interaction and have a wonderful tactile element. Is this intentional? What is your ideal vision of how people will interact with your sculptures?
WR: I wouldn’t say that the tactile element comes into play when I’m making it, it’s all about what it looks like. In general, I would like everyone to be able to touch the stone – obviously you want to avoid having rings on and stuff but it can withstand that for a long time before you have to make any changes. I like that a lot. I would like everyone to be able to interact with it respectfully and that’s part of the experience with sculpture. With Stonehenge – they’ve had to do stuff where they had polished spots from people rubbing it (you know it was all rough stone). And with public work you have to decide how hands touching it will change it. Even respectfully, a tiny amount of friction is produced every time.
F/WG: Did visiting Stonehenge influence your work?
WR: It was neat. I am drawn to monolithic sites, and I’ve been to many, in Europe and also other areas of the world. In Asia there are massive carvings on cliffsides. I don’t know if they influenced my work – in general, everything you see or do influences your work. Before the Damn was put up at Three Gorges in the Yangtze River, I went on a tour about a year before the area was flooded. We got to see a lot of things that were going to be under water. I feel very influenced by everything. Whether there’s a direct connection or not, I don’t know – there may be, but I don’t bother trying to plumb the depths of it. I just do what I do and it all translates out into what I make. I’m not interested in trying to dial that in, I just view and look and enjoy. Everything you see influences you in some way.
F/WG: Do you have an artistic ritual that is part of your process?
WR: Once I have an idea, then I can move forward. I have a lot of work that’s started, that I set aside, and look at and come back to. So I may have 100 pieces I’m working on at once, but only one at a time. I’ll look around at the studio, which is primarily outside.
Sometimes late in the evenings, if I’m physically tired, I’ll just walk around and look at things or mark things with chalk. So I do have some rituals in how I think about things in a slow manner. And then work on whatever I’m working on at the moment. But there is an order. I don’t start without having an idea. And then generally the idea is pretty fleshed out, but as I’m working it I feel totally free to change what I’m working on. Part of it is I haven’t invested a whole lot of time preparing detailed drawings, or preparing for a casting. It’s all liquid for me, I plan it, I work on it, it changes – it’s fun.
Will Robinson, Binary Thought, granite, 44 x 28 x 9.5 inches
F/WG: But there must be some finality to the marks you make?
WR: Yes, the more you reduce the less options you have. So you’re narrowing what you can do. As you get closer and closer – in some ways, when you reach a finished point with a piece, it’s the least exciting part, because you’re no longer making decisions about shape at that point. You’re just making it pretty. I’ve got these pieces that are really cool just totally unworked, then I might spend a day or three making it all shiny or different textures – but the shape’s all there. So that part is just work – not as enjoyable, just laborious. The exciting part is when you’re shaping and exploring and bringing that new form out.
F/WG: Do shadows come into play in your work, do you think about how the shadow of a piece will look or influence the overall piece?
WR: I don’t. I really don’t. I mean I have titles that involve the word shadow. But for me the word shadow refers to fantasy novels and things in my mind – I don’t really think about how the shadow will actually cast – even if I have a piece called Shadow Caster! It’s more the word – it embodies something for me in my mind. There’s an added interest with shadows but I’m not working it in.
For me, I want everything I make to be impactful. And the shadows that they cast are just a bonus. It can be a neat element – but a lot of times a piece is going to be somewhere where there is no shadow.
F/WG: Are there specific forms in this exhibition you want to talk about?
WR: A lot of the works are coils, so they’re not spirals per se but there are spirals in them. Pieces of spirals in different pitches – all a bit different but very precise looking. They show a lot of movement for me and I like the spirals. A lot of the other movements are more freeform, so I’ve kind of mixed these precise spiral shapes with a lot of free form undulating shapes. I like that counterpoint. It gives the pieces an anthropomorphic feel, an animist effect. People will see different things.
F/WG: These works feel very active.
WR: I think it’s a result of these free-flowing textures that I’m using. Essentially I’m making undulating shapes that interact with semi-geometric shapes. But the undulating shapes are really what I’m relating to a lot now.
Sculpturally, I want to create these undulating, random shapes that are not predictable. There’s less of an arch than a twisting arch – and it totally changes things when you’ve got some discovery there and you’re looking at all the angularity of it.
It’s all flowing. Whether or not it’s a reaction to the uncertainty of our time who knows. But visually I really like that undulating feel. The coil shapes are reminiscent of shells and that’s where you see those shapes in nature. That’s a very geometric almost man-made looking shape.
Will Robinson, Gawain, detail, basalt, 80 x 33 x 17 inches
F/WG: This has been a difficult and in many ways emotional season. Has your approach to your work had to change during our shelter-in-place order? How do you maintain a positive perspective and find joy in each day?
WR: It has had no physical effect on my work, I can do everything the same, so there’s no effect in that sense. Certainly emotionally it’s had an affect. I really didn’t work on sculptures for about the first month of the coronavirus shut down. I stayed at home, I built a treehouse for the kids. I was doing creative things, but just at home. When I got back to work, it was enjoyable – the reality for me is I enjoy making work, I enjoy making things, so it has been as enjoyable as it ever has been. It’s pretty isolated anyway, it’s not a team thing. I might need help sometimes, but most of the time it’s just me. State of mind has a big effect. I think that’s true for most artists. If you’re having a bad day, it will directly affect your work, because it’s all coming from you, your heart and soul. If you’re in a bad place it’s hard to want to go work.
All things pass, I might have 3 days out of 30 days that I’m in a bad mood, when I don’t want to do what I have to do. Sometimes I do what I have to anyway, or maybe I’ll take the day off. But I do like to work – it’s enjoyable for me. I enjoy reading. I play soccer. I play in a couple leagues – one that is open, which is hard because I’m old (laughs), and an old man league. I still enjoy that – and I feel like I have to do it while I still can, while my knees are good. I want to be able to be active with my kids with whatever they do. Time doesn’t allow much else hobby-wise, beyond landscaping the house.
But state of mind is a big factor. If I know I need to work I’ll sometimes avoid certain people or things that I know might be stressful. It all has an effect and a wearing and we want for a better world don’t we. It affects my work and all artists’ work. My family hasn’t had any issues, and it hasn’t touched me closely personally, but of course it affects us.
As told to Foster/White Gallery