In grand gesture, Bucks sculptor’s towering work takes root at Doylestown museum

A Bucks County artist known for sculpting massive tree-root systems is spreading all throughout the Michener Museum in Doylestown.

Before you reach the parking lot of the museum, there they are, 30 feet high — a pair of swooping steel abstractions of natural root structures by sculptor Steve Tobin. One painted white, the other black.

Near the entrance of the museum stands another pair of steel branching structures, cast from actual tree roots, with a red patina. They are “Romeo and Juliet.”

The museum is on the site of a former prison, surrounded by the original stone wall rising 23 feet. In the museum sculpture garden, more root sculptures rise higher than the prison wall, which is also outfitted with arched portals – bronze reliefs of cornstalks, swimming fish, a forest floor.

“His work calls for space, scale, and visibility,” said curator Lisa Hanover, also the director and CEO of the museum. “We have the right facility for that, being the original prison. We’ve got lots of wall space, lots of property. We really wanted this to be a grand gesture.”

Inside the museum galleries, Hanover is arranging Tobin’s smaller works, including clay shaped by explosives, paintings, maquettes, and more of those stylized root structures.

Tobin, 57, designs and fabricates all his own work by hand; he has a bronze forgery in his studio in Quakertown. He started working in glass, but moved to bronze to make casts of natural structures such as termite hills and tree root structures.

Most famously, he created “Trinity Root,” a bronze cast of the root structure of the sycamore tree that, on Sept. 11, 2001, shielded St. Paul’s Chapel of the Parish of the Trinity from World Trade Center debris.

That piece is installed on Wall Street, in front of the church near Ground Zero.

“After that, I didn’t want to work in bronze anymore. That piece could not be topped,” said Tobin. “I like the metaphor of roots. So I continued with metal roots.”

He now makes stylized, expressive rootlike sculptures from bended steel. Some are paired – two roots entwined in a kind of dance. Others are 3-D abstractions of Asian calligraphy.

“If you read Japanese or Chinese, you can read the calligraphic words in the pieces or their shadows,” said Tobin, who foresees roots informing the rest of his artistic career.

“The steel roots are the essence of all that I’ve been trying to exorcise from myself and translate from the world around me,” said Tobin. “They are the most simple, and simplicity is very powerful and very difficult.”

The mission of the Michener Museum is to spotlight Bucks County artists and its long history of impressionism and landscape painting. Tobin is a modern extension of that legacy.

“Many Bucks County working artists today focus on the literal landscape – the river, the farms, the physical structures,” said Hanover. “Steve looks at those things, too, and then he boils them down to the minimal, elegant essence of the landscape.”

“Out of this World: Works by Steve Tobin” opens Saturday and continues through Oct. 26.

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