In many faiths from around the world, mankind was created from clay — in Chinese thought, Nüwa moulded figures from the yellow earth. In Genesis, “Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground.”
“I was raised in a very strong spiritual tradition, and I think that has informed my sense of vocation,” says Canadian sculptor David Robinson. “Many traditions impart a sense of coherent meaning and purpose in the cosmos,” he says.
He contemplates this meaning especially through his sculpting of the human form, which is seen in the creation stories as the image of God.
“That informs something of the contemplation in my work of the human image as a vessel of meaningful interaction with the cosmos,” he says.
Robinson, who has earned acclaim for 30 years, is a sculptor tackling life’s greatest mysteries, struggles, and ultimately, purpose — what it means to be human.
“I’m a studio mystic,” he says with a laugh. “As an artist,… you can have this kind of epiphany moment — what you have to call revelation — when the thing transpiring underneath your hands is in some way larger than your own intentions. Then it’s natural, perhaps, to reflect on that as a coalescence between nature and the divine.”
Robinson, and likewise his art, could be best described as authentic. Despite trends in art, when he was just a budding artist he already knew who he was — or at least what he loved doing — and then had the gall to follow his gut.
From his early childhood, he says, “I was always very compelled to be making, doing, creating, drawing and sculpting every chance that I got.”
“As an artist,… you can have this kind of epiphany moment — what you have to call revelation — when the thing transpiring underneath your hands is in some way larger than your own intentions.” –David Robinson
Robinson recalls a particularly pertinent mantra, the maker’s credo, “When my hands are thinking, my head disappears.”
In art school, Robinson was drawn to figuration — that is, representational art clearly derived from real sources rather than pure imagination. “It was imparted to me that the figuratives and representational idiom to which I felt very compelled was an outmoded way of thinking about making art,” he says.
“But I was young and arrogant enough to not listen to that common advice and stayed the course of my own practice — I stuck with my own voice, my own sense of what it is that I needed to be doing.”
It’s both impressive and rare to be so in touch with one’s calling at such an impressionable time in one’s life. That special connection, that intuitive trust would continue to serve Robinson in creating his art.
Although the technical methods for creating proportions in sculpture or painting are important, Robinson says, “It becomes important to set all of that aside and start responding to what is happening.” Intuition and pure creative spirit must also have free reign.
Using the analogy of a pianist, he says, “You’ve done your scales and now you get to improvise freely.”
“With Michelangelo’s figures, there’s a vitality in the way that he moves his materials and responds to them, which is just completely unparalleled,” he says. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were the first figurative sculptors to really captivate Robinson. “Seeing the terracotta studies of Michelangelo, they can, to this day, just make me weep,” he says.
Despite his appreciation, and even adoration, for the genius that came out of the Renaissance, Robinson isn’t trying to replicate the style of that era.
“I have the classical tradition in my bloodstream, but I have this other array of sensibilities that are informed by many dimensions in life,” he says.
“Where you’re watching and attending to what’s happening at your fingertips, you’re very much in the moment,” he says. “[You’re] watching and waiting for the moments, for the authourings of the process itself.”
In describing his artistic process, he strives to put into words the act of creation, something profound for him and very much related to the great mysteries he contemplates through his work.
Standing between opposites and staring into the void
One of Robinson’s pieces, Corpus Callosum, explores the theme of duality — the opposing forces in life, whatever they may be.
A human figure stands between two halves of a sphere cleaved down the middle by a plinth. The term “corpus callosum” refers in science to a connective tissue between the left and right sides of the brain.
“That plinth has actually physically sunk into the Earth and cleaved the globe form in half. The figure is in a completely different and troubled relationship to that sacred square [the square-topped plinth], that fixed idea. It’s renegotiating,” he says. “There is this wholeness, this unity in the piece that was being split apart; then there was this connective tissue of this human figure, this human agency that had a role to play.”
“I think you get from that figure this sense of a will to connect this wholeness that is being driven apart,” Robinson says. He see an interconnectedness and unity in the “various polarities that seem to be the abiding status of the world, the cosmos, the human mind, consciousness itself.”
Robinson was in a rehabilitation facility at Vancouver General Hospital following cardiac surgery. He stared into a void — an eight-story glass atrium “void,” he says — and in that emptiness he found inspiration. He created Windward Calm, a sculpture that will be displayed at the hospital.
“As you go back into the history of the Church and lots of sacred practices, there was a hand-in-hand relationship between the visual arts and healing.” –David Robinson
“As you go back into the history of the Church and lots of sacred practices, there was a hand-in-hand relationship between the visual arts and healing,” he says. Some 10,000 people will see this sculpture daily at the hospital, and Robinson feels that it can have a deeper impact there than in an art gallery.
When you’re in a gallery, you’re expecting a certain effect from viewing art. But when you’re in a hospital your “defenses are down,” he says, and when you encounter a sculpture, the impact can be more immediate.
“If there’s a piece that can speak to the possibility of meaning in the cosmos, when you are at the existential throes and potentially in that place where you are standing in some newly found relationship between the finite and the infinite, that’s a powerfully exciting prospect for me,” he says. “It makes all of my previous aspirations about getting my work into fine galleries pale away into insignificance.”