On the eve of his first lecture at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, a Division of Ringling College of Art and Design, Malcolm Robertson is locked out of the gallery. His wife, Kathryn, waiting patiently in a mini van, is hungry. With an hour-and-a-half to spare before patrons start arriving, Robertson asks his wife to comb the Key for some takeout and takes a seat at a picnic table in the courtyard.
“It does look quite nice in there,” he says, peering through the windows.
Inside the dimly lit gallery, 64 metal works in various shapes of waves seem to spray off walls and pedestals. In a sea of silver, only one piece is colored — four fish mounted to a rock painted metallic shades of pink and blue. The title of the piece is “Stuck in a Rut.”
“Gee, for the most part they are all colorless,” Robertson says, surprised by the revelation. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
It’s as if the 58-year-old sculptor, whose exhibit, “Making Waves,” opened Jan. 14 inside the Joan M. Durante Gallery, is observing his work for the first time — a humble reaction from an artist who is accustomed to seeing his sculptures from the inside looking out.
“The whole exercise of doing a show is totally different for me,” Robertson says. “I usually just throw my work on a sidewalk.”
In an art career that has spanned 36 years, this is Robertson’s first gallery show.
A native of Scotland, Robertson graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 1974. After spending three years as a high school teacher, he was hired by a development corporation to work full-time as a town artist — an enviable and rare position for a sculptor.
For 12 years he designed and built public sculptures in Glenrothes, Scotland.
“The work was meant to be integrated into the environment,” Robertson says. “It was part of the landscape and not seen as ‘on display.’”
The words “on display,” which Robertson says in a clipped Scottish brogue, sound unnatural on his tongue.
“The context was not like, ‘OK here’s a work of art,’” he continues. “A lot of what we were doing was a design exercise to incorporate art in a social-and-environmental context. The artists on staff had the same stature as an architect.”
Twenty-five years ago, Robertson was sculpting animals for children’s parks, giant flowers for village roundabouts and king’s crowns for shopping malls.
“The whole place had a buzz about it,” he says of Glenrothes, explaining that after the town reached its target population the art commission disbanded. “It was a good springboard for me.”
From there Robertson went on to produce commissioned public-art pieces for cities all over the world. He worked in a variety of materials and subject matter, from life-size figurative statues to abstract arches.
In 2003, he sculpted “Open Book Gateway” for the Fruitville Public Library, a project that earned him a residency at the Hermitage Artists Retreat on Manasota Key and a spot on the bayfront in two Sarasota Season of Sculpture shows.
Like many new artists in town, Robertson, who bought a house off University Parkway in 2004, was enamored with the Gulf of Mexico.
“It started at the Hermitage,” he says. “The waves were constantly coming in and going out. And there were these stunningly romantic sunsets, and I started to think about horizons and journeys and how the Gulf Stream starts here and ends in Scotland … ”
Just as Robertson starts to suggest stuffing a message in a bottle and tossing it out to sea, his nose is carried away by the smell of Hawaiian pizza that his wife is bringing over.
“Where was I?” he asks between bites.
“The waves,” Kathryn Robertson replies, smiling. A former elementary school teacher, she left her job three years ago to help her husband grind and sand sculptures.
“Right,” Robertson mumbles. “I’m fascinated with them. I wanted to explore the ethos of how people feel about water, especially here. The Gulf is like a magnet, and I see these poetic, sinuous pathways that sometimes coincide and sometimes part ways. I noticed that very often we take similar paths.”
If You Go
Malcolm Robertson’s “Making Waves” exhibit is up now through Feb. 11, at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts. For more information, visit http://www.ringling.edu/LBKCA.html or www.malcolmrobertson.com.
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