Striking a balance between nature and art
● By J. Chambless
Artist Rob Sigafoos with the two-story metal sculpture/stairway in his Kennett Square home. (Photo by John Chambless)
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By John Chambless
The gentle, inexorable climb of a vine.
The elegant curve of a root as it wraps around a stone. The balance
between gnarled wood and metal that has been worked so expertly that
both seem to be living. Sculptures by Rob Sigafoos are immediately
identifiable, and they reflect his lifetime love of animals and the
His home, nestled in the woods on the property of the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, is filled with his artwork – lighting fixtures seem to grow out of the ceiling, a sinuous dragon grips a lamp base, and a spiral staircase wrapped in vines seems to have sprouted in the basement and taken over the kitchen.
It's been a long road from his childhood in northern Virginia, but Sigafoos seems grounded and satisfied, and he's just as busy as ever.
His parents were college professors who taught botany, but Sigafoos said he grew up “with a hysterical indifference to plant life.” He left home at 16 and has supported himself ever since, initially studying art at a Virginia community college before being drawn to a job at a polo club, where he worked as an apprentice farrier. Drawn to the gentle grace of horses, he was a regular rider and horse owner, and enjoyed making horseshoes at his own business before deciding to take an advanced farrier course at the New Bolton Center. In 1983, he was offered a job at the renowned facility, and he worked there for 25 years as a chief farrier, eventually making his mark with a glue-on horseshoe made of polyurethane that is still used to treat horses with injured hooves or legs. The shoes offer gentle support, and have been used successfully on million-dollar horses and beloved family pets alike. The last horse he worked with was the legendary Barbaro.
“I've always loved horses. Movement is a fascination to me,” Sigafoos said during an interview. “The way things move, whether it's people or dogs or horses – locomotion is fascinating. One of the things that attracted me to the farrier business was dealing with how you could affect locomotion in horses.”
Sigafoos pursued his artwork while working with horses, dogs other animals at New Bolton, but his schedule there restricted his personal time significantly. In 2006, plagued by the injuries associated with the hard work of making and applying horseshoes for so many years, he retired from New Bolton, but still lives within sight of the facility.
The Sigafoos Shoe is still sold worldwide. “There are three partners in the business and I'm sort of a silent partner,” he said. “I know nothing about running a business. I come in and do some technical consultation occasionally. But that's my former life.”
In the last couple of years, Sigafoos has cut back on making functional objects such as hinges to pursue work he truly enjoys. “I will occasionally do railings that kind of turn into garden sculptures,” he said. “I do things that have a strong sculptural component.”
In his lamps, which are metal vines entwined over gnarled wood, “I try to hide the technical parts of it,” he said.
“The bittersweet vine is a really fascinating vine. You can walk through the woods around here and find bittersweet and grape, which are both invasive,” Sigafoos said. “The property adjacent to New Bolton Center is a wildlife refuge, and the guy who owns it is thrilled to have me take the vines because they kill the trees. It's great to walk through the woods and see this very slow-motion life and death struggle between the vines and the trees. They're both competing for the canopy.
“The vines don't invest anything in their own structure. Basically, they depend on the tree,” he continued. “So if the tree dies, there's nothing left for the vine to hold on to, and it eventually dies. As I walk through the woods over the years, I can watch these vines get bigger. I can sort of try to predict who's going to win.”
Still a confessed workaholic, Sigafoos is in his downstairs studio every day. “Fortunately, I'm married to a woman who's tolerant of that,” he said, smiling. His wife, Susan, is a law professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, where she specializes in aspects of animal law. The couple's love of animals extends to the two dogs they now own, which curiously inspect visitors to the home.
Aside from embellishing homes with his commissioned work, Sigafoos creates artistic statements in metal and wood that emphasize how plants interact with seemingly impenetrable materials. A plant twined around a boulder moves to place a tiny version of itself in “Planting Time,” and a stone seems to hover in mid-air, supended by a chain, in “Balance.”
In downtown Kennett Square, the sign for the Philter coffee shop is a creation by Sigafoos and local artist Katee Boyle. The sign, which is equal parts artwork and advertising, is now joined on State Street by a new sculpture by Sigafoos that was recently installed on the Genesis Walkway.
“It will be the first public art piece in Kennett,” Sigafoos said of the striking metal sculpture, titled “Kennett Squared.” “I didn't want to do something so radical that people wouldn't get it. I worked with the borough and the people there.
“Now, there's a big move to do more public art in Kennett. What I want to do is copyright the image of this new sculpture and lease it to Kennett for $1 a year, with the provision that any money that comes from it – if it ends up on T-shirts and coffee mugs, that kind of thing – that money goes to support public art in Kennett by Chester County artists. There's a tremendous amount of incredibly talented artists in this county. We don't need to import people from New York. We have so many artists here that it's well worth promoting their work.”
Sigafoos worked with Boyle in his own home studio before she opened her work space at nearby Scarlett Thicket Farm. “I love to teach,” he said. “Katee was the apprentice I worked with the longest. I'm really particular about who I take on. What I look for is enthusiasm and talent, and Katee had both. She was an excellent student and she does beautiful work.”
On July 16, Sigafoos plans to begin opening his studio to local artists each month for “A what-can-you-make-in-a-day challenge,” he said. “It's going to be everybody from very experienced metal workers to people who have never done any metal work at all. The only consistent thing is that everybody will be an artist. They will start at eight o'clock. I'll start with a demonstration of blacksmithing, and then turn everybody loose to use whatever equipment they want. At six o'clock, we'll sit down and talk about what we made. That should be really fun.”
One theme in the work created by Sigafoos is a clear message that can be grasped by the viewer who spends a few moments. “I go for the 'wow' factor,” he said. “I want people to be stopped by it, but not offended by it. I want people to be awed by it, but also give them a positive feeling as they're walking away from it.”
Sigafoos is tied into the local arts scene as a board member at the Oxford Arts Alliance, and he is a champion for the informal community of artists across the county. He will have a co-exhibition with local sculptor and painter Lele Galer at the Palette and the Page in Elkton, Md., in November, and he will also be part of the upcoming Members Show at the Oxford Arts Alliance.
For more information, visit www.vinewoodsforge.com.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.