In June, the Arboretum at Penn State University unveiled its first ever seasonal art display – an exhibition of large-scale sculptures spread throughout the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens.
While these colorful sculptures of seed pods floating in a pond and armchairs hidden amongst flora appear to be weightless plastic forms, they are actually inflated steel creations of Sturgeon Bay metalworker and artist Rob Anderson.
Anderson is best known for his garden kaleidoscopes, inflated steel pieces and metal sculptures. His public installations can be found across the country at hospitals, botanical gardens, schools, churches and museums, and at the Sendai Kaleidoscope Museum in Miyagi, Japan and Havergal College in Toronto. He is the solo artist in the Penn State exhibit, which will be on display through October.
His foray into art two decades ago was inspired by his work as a maintenance engineer at an industrial plant in California, where he developed a foundation in welding, steel work and working in large-scale formats. When his wife, Ann, brought him along to art shows, it inspired him to shift his career trajectory.
“I liked to make stuff but I wasn’t really an artist. It was fun to make stuff,” Anderson said. “I’d see things and I thought, I can do that. So I’d make stuff and she collects kaleidoscopes so I got into kaleidoscopes. Then I started making more sculptural pieces. I took a couple classes in art at Sacramento State University and some welding classes then started selling more and more work. I finally just quit my job and this is it.”
The garden kaleidoscope is an original concept Anderson developed in 1997 that incorporates a rotating steel bowl, lens and flowers that, when in use, form kaleidoscopic patterns. Many of them feature multiple scopes, allowing users different perspectives of the same plantings.
His steel sculptures, which began as flat silhouettes of flora and fauna, have taken on new life since he stopped doing art shows and was no longer constrained to creating smaller works.
“I started inflating my work,” Anderson said. “These are all made flat with no volume to them and then they get blown up with air pressure.
“You start changing things and it has an entirely different feel to walk among them instead of looking at them on the ground,” Anderson added. “With the bigger pieces, that’s what I’m finding. It’s different to be standing next to something.”
His award-winning work has found its way across the country primarily through word-of-mouth. Representatives from children’s hospitals and botanical gardens have seen his work at other similar locations, prompting the permanent installation of pieces in public and private locations. He is currently working on a number of kaleidoscopes for the Minnesota State Fair in late August, bringing his work to the forefront of another large audience that, he hopes, will be brought together by the interactive quality of his functional art.
“It gets people interacting a little bit more and I like that,” Anderson said of the kaleidoscopes. “The chairs…people sit down and maybe talk to someone they wouldn’t normally talk to. I enjoy doing the work.”
For more on Anderson’s work, visit RCAndersonDoorCounty.com.