Steve Tobin (1957-present), Dancing Steelroots, 2002, James A. Michener Art Museum. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.
About the Artwork
Trinity Root was one of Steve Tobin’s last times working in bronze. He now primarily uses steel to create sculptures for his ‘Steelroots’ series. The ‘Steelroots’ sculptures like Dancing Steelroots are a more abstracted linear interpretation of a root system. The limbs of the roots resemble the arms and the legs of a figure outstretched to show movement and fluidity. Dancing Steelroots suggests two figures intertwined gracefully as if they were dancing.
- What do you see?
- Describe this sculpture in terms of form and color.
- Have you ever seen anything like this before? Where?
- What material do you think it is made of? Why?
- How might the environment effect this sculpture?
- Would you consider this sculpture realistic or abstract? Explain.
- How does the artist create movement in his sculpture?
- If you could move like this sculpture, what shape could you create with your body?
- How is this sculpture both similar to and different from Romeo and Juliet? Explain your answer.
- This sculpture doesn’t have any colors. If you were the artist, would you paint this a different color? If so, how would that change the meaning or feeling of the sculpture?
About the Artist
Quakertown artist Steve Tobin received international acclaim for his massive work, Trinity Root, installed at St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan, New York, in 2005. During the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the chapel had been partly shielded from damage by a 70-year-old sycamore tree. Tobin’s bronze sculpture of the tree’s stump and roots has attracted millions of visitors and is permanently sited on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. In museum and gallery installations around the world, Tobin has exhibited work in metal, glass and other media – works he describes as “monuments to the meeting of science and art.” Wondrous nature, order versus chaos, and cause and effect are central themes of his sculptures, enabling his works to resonate across a wide variety of audiences.
Tobin was first known for his glass work. However, he later began constructing his epic sculpture using bronze, steel, and found objects. Specifically, he has evolved his most famous Roots to stylized and graceful linear elements. Tobin is also recognized internationally for his strong yet elegant interpretations of elements from the natural world. Tobin declares that the objective of his art is to redirect our attention back to the life of nature. Projects such as Earth Bronzes, Termite Hills, and Exploded Clay epitomize his fascination and success in capturing overlooked and hidden aspects of nature. Tobin furthermore incorporates his scientific insight into projects such as Exploded Clay through his manipulation of explosives to haphazardly transform a solid block of clay into a fragmented, hollow form- a process and result which Tobin views as a microcosm of the natural world and universe.
Tobin has exhibited extensively in the United States, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, France, and Belgium. His works are in several permanent collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the White House, Grounds for Sculpture, the Phillip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art, and the Museum of Art and Design in New York.
Tobin was recognized by the James A. Michener Art Museum during the summer of 2014 in an exhibition titled Out of this World: Works by Steve Tobin, in which his monumental Steelroots, Exploded Earth vessels, his Doors exploded glass sculptures and intricate Forest Floors bronzes from the Earth Bronzes series was simultaneously displayed in the Museum’s galleries and in the outside sculpture garden.
“If I can catch the viewer off guard with my presentation, the effect of the work may enter the subconscious before reason dissects it. By dramatically impacting or assaulting the viewer with the presentation I can throw him off balance and move his mind and emotions. For that fraction of a second the unreal becomes real. Once this door is opened it can never be closed.” -Steve Tobin
Science and Math
- EXPERIMENTING WITH OXIDATION. Look at Tobin’s root sculptures and then view Google Art Project’s gigapixel photographs to look even closer at the surfaces and patinas of other metal sculptures in the Michener’s collection. The patina is the color and texture of metal caused by a chemical reaction. Patinas are usually coated with a layer of wax or other sealant to protect from oxidation. Oxidation is when an element looses an electron from exposure to water and oxygen. Choose items made of different types of metals and alloys (paper clips, coins, hardware etc.) and put them in little paper cups of water for a week to see what metal rusts (iron oxide) the most. Make predic ons. Experiment with different coatings (vaseline, rubber cement, white crayon, paint etc.) and repeat the experiment with the object that rusted the most to see which coating protects from oxidation the best.
- ALL ABOUT ALLOYS. Bronze is an alloy which is a combination of two metals (copper and tin). Copper and tin are pretty soft by themselves but when they are melted together, they create hard bronze. Distribute samples of metals and alloys for students to observe and describe. Demonstrate the concept of alloys by mixing play dough (plasticide) with various amounts of sand. Use a different color play dough for each mixture. How does the strength, ductility, malleability and brittleness of the dough change as you add more sand. Make a sculpture using the dough you think is the strongest. Optional: Discuss the alloys mathematically in terms of addition, ratios and percentages.
- FORM. What is a form? Learn about different three-dimensional shapes. How is creating a three-dimensional sculpture different than creating something two-dimensional? Use CAD technology such as Sketch-Up or Leopoly. Construct a model of the sculpture with clay or play dough so that it is visually interesting from all angles. If the technology is available use 3-D printing to print the models. Discuss the calculations involved with enlarging a model to a full-size sculpture.
- SHADOWS. Look at the shadows cast by Steelroots and shadows in different paintings from the Bucks County Artists’ Database. What are some ways an artists depict shadows in their art? Discuss the science behind shadows and light. Choose an interesting three-dimensional form such as a tree branch. Place the object on a large sheet of paper and trace the shadow at several times throughout the day and label with the time. Discuss the position of the sun in the sky. Optional: Visit the Michener and sketch the shadow made by Romeo and Juliet or Dancing Steelroots. Note the time of day. Compare sketches.
- BOTANICAL ILLUSTRATION. Bronze casting is a great way to replicate and document the details of an organism like a plant or animal so that others can learn about and study that organism. Photography and drawing are other ways to document. Create a very detailed illustration of a plant using colored pencils. Include the scientific name of the plant and label the parts of the plant in a visually interesting way. Optional: Draw an imaginary tree or plant, give it a scientific name, and label its parts.
- SCALE. The grand size of the root sculptures is very important to Tobin. Discuss scale and the difference size makes in an artwork or structure. Work in small teams to create a tree structure using leaves and wikki sticks or pipecleaners that is at least one foot high. Use a ruler to measure the sculptures. What challenges did you face as you built it higher? Try making the tallest structure possible. What methods did you use to make it sturdy?
- ROOT SYSTEMS. Learn about different root systems and their purpose. Why are they shaped the way the are? Demonstrate how roots absorb water and nutrients from the ground by cutting the stem of a white carnation in half vertically and putting one half in a jar of colored water and the other half in a jar of a different color. The carnation will absorb the colors through the stem and the colors will travel to the ower where they will mix together.
- PLANT DESIGN CHALLENGE. Create your own plant with unique root systems that you think will be able to retain the most water. Use materials like fabric, yarn, paper towels, paper, sponges, vaseline, tape, etc. Test the theory by sittng all ofthe root systems in a bowl with one cup of water for several hours. Remove the plants and measure the remaining water. The person with the least amount of water remaining created the most absorbant plant. Check back the next day to see which plant retained the water the best without drying out.
- ENVIRONMENT. Tobin’s root sculptures have been installed in many different locations. Discuss how the environment where a sculpture is installed changes the way we feel and think about that sculpture. Use photo-editing software such as SumoPaint or Pixlr to cut the root sculpture from an online image and preview it against different backgrounds. Discuss how each background changes the feel of the sculpture. How does the environment like weather, atmosphere, temperature effect the sculpture and its material?
- PROTECTION CHALLENGE: When Tobin exhibited his sculptures at the Michener in 2014, his pieces were transported very carefully. Some were even taken apart and assembled on the Museum’s grounds. Tobin’s Trinity Root sculpture was moved from its site near Ground Zero in NYC to Connecticut without his permission and it was damaged in transit. How would someone move a large sculpture like Trinity Root or Steelroots safely? Using a variety of materials, work with a team to design a model of a protective case. Test the protective cases by putting a raw egg or a fragile toothpick sculpture in the case and dropping it from a certain height.
- METAL MANIA. Tobin uses many different kinds of metals in his sculpting. Look at samples of different metals and alloys. Make sketches and record observation notes. Research common uses for the metal and discuss its properties. Find the metals on the periodic table of elements. Explore the magnetic properties of the different metals. Work with a partner to build a sculpture held together with magnets and small metal objects.
- MOLD MAKING. Most bronze sculptures start by creating a mold of an object (ie. tree roots or clay object) with plaster that is then filled with wax. Discover a creative way to make a mold and replica of something from nature such as a branch, seashell, pinecone etc. For younger students: use materials such as masking tape, newspaper and paper mache paste, saran wrap, aluminum foil, rubber cement, play dough or chocolate. For older students: use materials like plaster of Paris, wax, clay, resins, polymers and sand.
- PAPER ROOTS DESIGN CHALLENGE. A sculpture needs to be strong enough to support its weight and balanced enough so it won’t fall over. As a team, use a newspaper and masking tape to create an abstract sculpture inspired by Tobin that is strong enough to support weight and balanced enough that it won’t fall over. Test the strength by sitting a wood block on top. Then let other teams try to blow it down. The team(s) that create a structure that can support the trunk and do not fall over are the winners. Reflect and adjust.
- COLLABORATIVE OUTDOOR SCULPTURE. Tobin works with a team of people to create his large sculptures. Work with a team to design and build a big three-dimensional structure using only tree branches and sticks. How will you assign roles and divide the work? Use creative problem solving to build your structure without using any glue or tape. Install sculptures somewhere outside. Observe how the environment and weather effect the sculpture over time.
- YARN BOMBING. In 2015 for the Michener’s exhibit Blanket Statements, Philadelphia artist IshKnits wrapped Tobin’s sculpture Steelroots in yarn. Learn about street art and yarn bombing. Work in teams to create a method to figure out a way to approximate the surface area of Steelroots and estimate how much yarn you would need to wrap the entire sculpture. Try using the surface area of a cylinder A=2πrh+2πr2 or cone A=πr(r+h2+r2). Work in small groups to yarn bomb an object in or outside of your school. Optional: focus on color schemes (primary, secondary, complimentary, warm/cool, monochromatic) or try weaving/knitting some of the pieces. Optional: Post a photo your yarn bombing on Instagram and tag @Ishknits and @michenerart to share.
- YOUTH AUDIO TOUR. View and research several Steve Tobin sculptures. Work in teams to create an audio tour introducing the sculptures in a personal, creative and engaging way. Share some factual information about the artist, title, date, material and process as well as discussing the elements and principles of design like shape, form, color etc. Listen to sample audio stops then use Podcast technologies such as Fotobabble or Vocaroo to create an audio tour with several stops. Share with classmates or with family.
- RECYCLED ART DESIGN CHALLENGE. Tobin creates his Steelroots by connecting several pipes and shaping the joists to curve the forms. Work in small groups to create a recycled material sculpture with curved lines. Connect paper towel and toilet paper rolls with masking tape to make curves from straight objects.
2014 Exhibition Out of this World: Works by Steve Tobin