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Signposts for sculptor Robert Crowell’s artistic journey started showing up in childhood.
“My parents were determined, I guess, to expose us to the arts,” he says, and in retrospect, he can pinpoint early indicators of what would later become a passionate pursuit.
There were the art lessons spent drawing and painting that ubiquitous Mississippi default: magnolias. Or better, that long-ago school project, where plywood, chicken wire, plaster and paint came together to illustrate erosion.
“I really, really liked that,” Crowell says. “I like figuring things out for myself. And, I like the outdoors.”
This day, outdoors at his Jackson home, large sculptures are the expressive outcome of hands plus curiosity, imagination, intuition and artistic drive. A trio of Swiss cheese columns have a field day with light and shadow. A tall, slim pair of red brackets, their straight sides nearly back-to-back, seem to sustain each other in flirting comfort as they open outward to possibility. Smaller pieces, with sensuous curves and the same magnetic appeal, crowd Crowell’s living room as he prepares for a major retrospective.
“Timeless: The Sculpture Work of Robert Crowell,” an exhibition of approximately 50 works spanning 20 years, is open through May at the Arts Center of Mississippi and the Art Garden at the Mississippi Museum of Art.
Crowell’s sculptures are in private collections and public places, including the Mississippi Public Service Commission, Mustard Seed and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Upper School. His art has been in galleries, fundraisers and displays over the years, but this is his first solo exhibition.
Artist Jerrod Partridge, exhibition curator, was on board at first mention.
“I think he has such a remarkable sense of design and his application is very sensitive — all these things that you look for in a piece of work,” Partridge says. “He’s creating these pieces that not only will outlast him, but also, in his application of them, they don’t feel solely contemporary. They don’t fit into any kind of specific genre that will ever be dated. So, in that aspect, the pieces are timeless.”
Crowell always liked art — sculpture in particular.
“It was not necessarily encouraged,” he says. But, it was around — with his architect uncle who did renderings in watercolor, with his artistic siblings, and with his dad, Dr. Robert Crowell, who started painting watercolors and taking art lessons in his 60s (sometimes with his adult son along).
When the house neighboring his father’s came on the market, Crowell and his wife, Mona, an architect, bought it and moved in next door. “And then, six months later, he died.”
The loss quickened Crowell’s own resolve. Then in his mid-40s, “I got to thinking, I’m not going to wait around until I’m 60-something years old, and then start trying to do what I do.
“I’m going to learn everything I can about it. I better start now. Because by the time I get where I am now, in my 70s, then I’ll be better.”
Museums, exhibitions, books, experience and experiments fueled that pursuit over the years, as he turned a wide array of materials into art. He learned how to carve Carrara marble in Italy and how to weld at Hinds Community College. He had sculptures of his soccer-playing daughters cast in bronze.
“When you first start with art … you’re just like a damn kid in the 5th grade, ‘Look, Mommy, what I did!’” he says, laughing as he recalls the female torso he took to a Neshoba County Fair art contest years ago — where the display was set off by chicken wire and the competition included a painted tire. “I didn’t win a ribbon,” he shrugs. “It was probably a nude, so I certainly wasn’t going to do that.”
Crowell’s wood-carving start came on a piece of cherry with chisels from his sculptor sister.
“It was an abstract, I just got into it.”
Next, he sought different kinds of wood. Black walnut grew on his family’s farm, and one was felled for the art harvest.
“They brought me this tree!” Crowell says, eyes and arms wide to convey its massive size and his own excitement. He took off the bark and sapwood by hand with chisels and gouges and “I carved up that whole tree. … I didn’t have a studio then. I got some sawhorses and plywood, and I carved right there in that garage. Drove my family crazy.”
He had wood sculptures cast in bronze, too.
“Over a period of time, you become more and more spiritual,” Crowell says. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, he saw the form in the stone or the wood.’ That’s B.S. for me. I don’t know whether other artists really see anything or not. I can have a rough piece, but I haven’t totally visualized it. The outdoor work’s different … but all my wood pieces are totally intuitive.”
Shapes may start as human forms that become more organic, metamorphic or geometric as he carves.
“I touch the wood. I touch it. It’s there. It’s hands-on. I feel like, now, at points, that they’re alive … that sometimes I’m actually working together with the wood.” Perhaps he’s lonely and has no one else to talk to, he muses with a chuckle. “I’ll say, ‘This is gonna hurt,’ whack!
“That took a long time to get there,” he says of that connection.
Other materials have their own stories of exploration, experimentation and execution. Metal, concrete, marble and terra cotta also fell under Crowell’s hands and his spell, emerging as original art.
“If I couldn’t learn it or I didn’t know it, I found out about it. I found the best way to learn is put your hands on and do it.”
A lot of artwork is just that: work, he says. Hard work. A sense of humor, too, comes into play in pieces, such as a 6-foot fishing lure and a huge prescription bottle for a patient named N.D. Nile. There’s a playful intellect at work, too. Big, concrete-covered balls hold a beguilingly massive presence in his pine-bordered backyard, but will roll with a nudge. Large discs’ teasing mix of corners and curves amp up the visual appeal.
“You walk the face of the Earth with your ghosts and everything else — and you only get one chance at it, from what I know now. So, I don’t copy anybody. Ever.
“My work, like it or not, it’s me.”