When you think “fine art,” your mind doesn’t usually jump to “plywood.” That is, in large part, why Robert Hargrave’s sculptures are so intriguing. Born in Ohio, raised in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and now based in Portland, Oregon, Robert handcrafts exquisite creations from layers of richly colored plywood. At first glance, you’d never guess the material—and, in a way, that’s the point. “In a homogeneous world of sameness, diversity is something to strive for,” Robert says. “My goal is to make products that are a joy to look at, a pleasure to touch, and an honor to own.”
After taking an up-close-and-personal look at Robert’s Layered Hardwood Magic Lamp Sculpture (albeit in the comfort of our Brooklyn office), we here at UncommonGoods knew we just had to find out a bit more about him, like how he manages to make two-by-fours look so darn fancy. Read on for more insight into Robert’s background and day-to-day as a creator, including a breakdown of what motivates him—and a tip o’ the hat to the sculpture that started it all.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist, and how did you decide to focus on plywood?
I began my venture into art during my college years (1969-1973). I just had to know what kind of art would come from my efforts. I would scour art history books for ideas. I found a wood sculpture by H.C. Westermann (1922-1981) that had a melting steering wheel made in plywood with the veneers carved back. This intrigued me and I used this technique in my figurative sculptures. My well-respected Sculpture professor told me that it was “a very intelligent use of the material.” This gave me the courage to pursue the artistic exploration further and I never looked back. Plywood is a fascinating material… the key is to make the finished design not look like plywood. A writer once said that my work “belied the material’s utilitarian origin.”
What was the most exciting thing about becoming a professional artist?
The most rewarding thing about being an artist is the freedom to explore… to follow an idea to its end. The satisfaction from realizing an idea and executing it with my own hands has given me the motivation to create an artistic life. But alas… with that freedom comes responsibility and the realization that the buck stops with you. Since 1973 I have managed to maintain my full-time craft career, despite all the ups and downs, and I see no end in sight.
Is there a trinket or other inspirational object you keep near you while you work? If so, what is it and what does it mean to you?
I have a small clay sculpture that I made in an Art Appreciation class when I was an 18-year-old freshman. My teacher asked if it was a self-portrait… perhaps it was an unknowing psychological self-portrait. This was before I studied art and the teacher was so impressed with it, he asked if I had thought about majoring in art. I said no, I was going to be an accountant… but things changed. This little sculpture reminds me of my pre-art days and how far I have come.
Describe a typical day in your workshop. How do you get from raw material to finished product?
Each day is different depending where I am in the process of an order. If I have procured the wood and other material, then I will cut and glue it into the shapes required. Then the carving and sanding with power tools leads to hand sanding, then finishing with sealer. There are usually several pieces going at the same time. The morning hours are usually my most productive hours where the heavy machine work occurs. The last step is assembling, then packing, delivery to UPS, and invoicing…. Repeat.
Where do you turn for inspiration?
In the beginning art history was the well I drew from; now my ideas have evolved and one finished piece will suggest another. The internet is a plethora of ideas. I look for shapes that will work well [with] the lamination lines, that have some movement and have an application to my line. Occasionally someone will suggest an idea and I may feel like trying it. But mainly inspiration will come by keeping an open mind to the world around you and in you.
If you showed your work to a kindergartner, what do you think they would say?
Finally, what quote or mantra keeps you motivated?
“Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.”