|FOWL PLAY, BRONZE, 15 X 15 X 6.|
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
One recent morning, sculptor Robin Laws’ three favorite models went wild for no reason at all. Jennifer, Elizabeth, and Libby suddenly charged through a nearby cluster of chickens. “There was a real chicken explosion,” Laws recalls. The models, she notes, were unrelenting in their antics. Each time the birds came back together, the trio charged at them again, forcing them to scatter. Chickens aren’t too smart, Laws explains, and the whole scene played itself out over and over again for the next 30 minutes.
As for her models, there is no explaining their wicked animal behavior. Burros are simply given to such playful routs. And this “burros gone wild” episode is typical of the many animal scenes that have inspired Laws’ bronze sculpture over the past 20 years. After witnessing the burros scare the feathers off the chickens, the Wyoming sculptor created the amusing piece FOWL PLAY. It captures the spirit of the “chicken explosion” as she shows a burro kicking up its hind legs and scattering three squawking hens.
Laws is known for her ability to capture both the humorous and the sensitive sides of animals, freezing their relationships, movements, and behaviors in bronze. She has been studying animals since she was a little girl living on the windswept plains of Northern Colorado. “I grew up with a deep appreciation and respect for the rural way of life and the animals that are an integral part of it,” Laws says. Her roots, in fact, are buried deep in the heart of the West—her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were born and raised in Colorado and Wyoming. And her attachment to the land and the natural world that has surrounded her family for generations echoes through all of her bronze creatures.
Laws’ sculptures have appeared in prestigious museums and shows throughout the country, including the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, MT; the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI; and the annual Sculpture in the Park show in Loveland, CO. In December 2003 her work was exhibited at the prestigious Biennale Internazionale dell’Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy.
Today she shares an 80-acre ranchland home near Cheyenne, WY, with her husband, Myron, the burros and chickens, three Angora goats, five geese, four ducks, two ponies, two horses, 10 cats, and a dog. She is surrounded by the wide-open spaces, high plains, creeks, and sprawling beauty of the grasslands that is so much a part of her cowgirl heritage.
Laws’ studio is an improvised work area in the pastureland that is her front yard. She sets her clay on an old Lazy Susan that sits atop a 55-gallon trash barrel turned upside down, then she settles into a tall director’s chair and waits for her models to come to her.
“Animals are very curious,” Laws explains. “If something is going on in their pasture, they want to find out about it. And since the animals know me, there is always the chance they could be fed, and they don’t want to miss that opportunity.” Thus, she usually has an audience of goats, burros, horses, and sheep watching while she works. “They are in their natural surroundings and comfortable, and it’s the best place to study the tiny nuances of their behaviors,” she says.
If it’s cold outside, Laws occasionally brings the chickens, rabbits, and other small animals inside to sculpt. Her husband is patient with her house guests, she says. About the only time he got his feathers ruffled was when he caught his wife shoving goats, chickens, and rabbits into their new Lincoln Town Car. She needed to transport the menagerie to an elementary school 75 miles away for an art class she was teaching. “He said, ‘What do I buy you a nice car for if you are going to stuff it with goats?’” she recalls. He soon solved the problem by presenting her with a special gift for her future excursions—an old, tattered, faded blue Cadillac limousine he purchased from an auto auction. These days Laws travels with her brood in style.
|UTTER LOVE, BRONZE, 10 X 12 X 8.|
There is something arresting about the way Laws conveys tender relationships between animals. In UTTER LOVE, for example, she depicts a parenting scene—a beefy bovine appears to hug her calf. The mood of a Laws piece is sweet and subtle without being cloying or saccharine. An art critic for the Denver Post once observed that Laws’ work is “quietly striking.”
But perhaps what really distinguishes her sculpture is Laws’ talent for evoking a smile or a chuckle from her viewers through a humorous scene or even the title of a piece. In TWO GRAY HARES, a couple of rabbits huddle together like old girlfriends. In HOG WASH, two delighted pigs take a swim in a bucket of water. In RECLINING NUDES, two pudgy porkers appear to be sunbathing as if they were teenagers on a beach. And what makes some of her pieces so amusing is that the animal antics often reflect human behaviors. In fact, Laws says she created RECLINING NUDES after several artist friends told her that she wasn’t an artist until she portrayed nudes.
Laws’ keen observations and depictions spring not only from two decades of sculpting animals but also from her early years growing up in the West. She was born and raised in the farming community of Brush, CO, and attended school in nearby Woodrow, which had only 10 residents. Classes were held in a two-room schoolhouse, where a galvanized bucket and dipper served as the drinking fountain and outhouses were the only bathrooms.
Laws remembers one thing about the experience above all else. If the children completed their lessons early, the teacher allowed them to work on art projects in the back of the classroom. Here they mixed up plaster of Paris and poured it into molds. When it hardened they drew on it with crayons and colored pencils. “We didn’t have any plumbing, but we had art,” she says.
While she loved fashioning these pieces, her interest in art waned as she graduated from high school, married, and settled into a position as a secretary at an oil company. It wasn’t until 1984, when she was laid off from her position, that her interest was piqued once again.
|STANLEY, BRONZE, 13 X 11 X 6.|
Her husband spotted an advertisement about the now-defunct Artists of America show in Denver, CO. He encouraged her to check it out. Laws resisted at first, since she had not really pursued art since high school, but later agreed. There she met Colorado sculptor George Lundeen during a workshop, and viewing his work literally took her breath away. “This was the most wonderful day in years,” she told her husband when she returned.
And so Laws’ career began. Since that fateful trip to Lundeen’s studio she has studied with Herb Mignery, Sherry Salari Sander, and Grant Speed as well as Hollis Williford, who gave her a valuable piece of advice that she still lives by today: “Art is not a destination but a journey.”
When Laws isn’t busy sculpting in her pasturelands, she spends time bringing her art to second graders—teaching art is her other passion. She piles her animals into her limo and herds them into the classroom. “So many kids have never touched a real rabbit or given a baby goat a bottle,” she says. “It warms your heart to see them.” During the classes, children have the chance to experience the animals—feel their joints, watch how they move, and pet their fur. “It all helps them get a feel for what they are going to create,” Laws says.
Then the second graders are given a hunk of clay, and they fashion their sculptures. Laws’ foundry, Joseph Studio in Fort Collins, CO, casts the children’s pieces, and Rocky Mountain Cultured Marble, also in Fort Collins, makes a base for each sculpture. A show of the works, complete with a catalog, follows at the school. “The thing that really touches my heart is that they will have this thing for a long time,” she says. “Even if they bury it in a box of sand it will get a patina.”
Laws is quick to point out that while many art programs are being cut from the schools, it really doesn’t take much money to spark a child’s imagination. “It only takes a lot of money to spark an adult’s imagination,” she explains. “The children just need the basic tools and someone who cares.”
In many ways, this is where Laws’ own story began some 50 years ago in Mrs. Gilchrist’s first-grade classroom. And in so many ways the sculptor hasn’t strayed far from those days—she still sculpts and lives on the plains of her ancestors with little thought of leaving. “All the inspiration for my work is right here,” she says.
Featured in June 2004