Sam Robinson

Story by the artist.

The first phase of Building Cultural Legacies was the book Climbing The Cold White Peaks : A survey of artists in and around Hamilton 1910-1950 , commissioned and published by Hamilton Artists Inc. in 1986, and written by Stuart MacCuaig. The very first line of text (in the Preface written by Bryce Kanbara, for the Board of Directors) is: “When we began this art history project over two years ago, Sam Robinson (our gallery Administrator at that time), wrote in a grant application that ‘our interest is not only in individuals and their influence but in the ebb and flow of artists’ groups which have affected the cultural make-up of our community.” The idea for that project was ignited in me after an informal conversation with Julius Lebow, the founder and owner of The Westdale Gallery, who had studied art in Paris after the Second World War. Julius’ description of the vitality of Hamilton’s 1940s and ’50s art scene, its artists, and their stories, in Hamilton and beyond earlier in the 20th century begged for a permanent record.

I was born in Hamilton, in 1945, into an extended family that had been active in the visual arts during that earlier period and afterwards, in the world beyond Hamilton after growing up here. Each of my artist relatives influenced me. Among my mother’s sisters, one was the painter, Helen Frank Protas, who studied at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD), then moved to New York City from the mid-1930s to the ’50s. She studied at the Art Students League of New York, and then with Hans Hofman, precursor of and major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. At both those places, among Helen Frank Protas’s fellow students was the iconic first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Aunt Helen became an abstract expressionist painter. She married Jay Protas, a portrait painter, from New York City. They eventually settled in Sarasota, Florida and opened an art school in their home. I visited their studios in Sarasota in 1953 and became enamoured with the working life of artists. Another of my mother’s sisters, my Aunt Reva, married Joe Bernstein, a Hamiltonian who had also graduated from the Ontario College of Art in the 1930s. They eventually settled in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, after first visiting there in 1939. Uncle Joe designed a house along with his own foundry and produced graceful bronze sculptures of dancers and musicians. My father’s cousin in New York City, Harry Rein, was an artist associated with the socially conscious group known as the Ash Can school of artists in the 1930s. Some of Harry Rein’s works are in the collections of the Chicago Art Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the National Gallery in Washington. A generation later, my sister Joan’s husband was the highly respected architect and teacher, Saul Herzog, who won two Massey Silver Medals for architectural excellence in 1961. Saul also taught design to urban planning students in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of Waterloo. My father, David A. Robinson Q.C., was a lawyer in Hamilton and very active in numerous community organizations. He was the President and Chairman of the Board of the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the AGH Foundation during the 1960s.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home with a number of fine Canadian paintings and prints, including works by Arthur Lismer, Hortense Gordon, Ernst Newmann, Kenneth Saltmarsh, George Wallace, and the sculptor Thomas Kakinuma. My own home now has only works by Hamilton artists Bryce Kanbara, Wayne Allan, George Wallace, Robert Yates, Brian Kelly, Ruth Nabb, Andrew MacPhail, Janice Kovar, Annie Frazer, and former Hamiltonian Brenda Kennedy.

Although I have painted and made sculptures most of my life, I was resolutely self-taught because I felt that teachers and pedagogic critiques would mess with my imagination; and I felt that there was too much emphasis on technique and not enough on raw spontaneity. I’ve always been an admirer of folk art and outsider art. But in 2016, while living in France, I decided to study clay portrait sculpture with the dynamic 85 year old, Canadian ex-pat sculptor Ursula Haines who has lived and been admired in Europe for almost 60 years. To my surprise, I immensely enjoyed the student experience. As a kid, I enjoyed sketching with my father and followed him into an interest in arts administration. I was the first Hamilton representative (1973) of Canadian Artists’ Representation (now CARFAC); a founding member of Hamilton Artists Co-op (1975) that later, for legal reasons, became known as the Hamilton Artists Inc.; the Administrator of HAI (1981-85); a Board Member of the Hamilton Arts Council; and an early member of the steering committee of Building Cultural Legacies.

I began making sculptures in 1975 motivated by the Inc’s themed group shows (for instance, The Rose Corner Bakery Show with my erotic ginger bread cookies and my multi-coloured squares of mouldy corn bread looking like a quilt; The Easter Show with my yellow 13′ long plywood piece “Yellow Godhead: The Ghostess with the Mostest”; and The Hamilton Postcard Show, where my piece showing former mayor Victor Copps in the Around the Bay Road Race, suffering a heart attack, with his image falling out of the card’s perimetre. His successor as mayor, who was officially opening the show, marched out in disgust after asking and being denied that the card be removed from the show. I also have exhibited at Bryce Kanbara’s You Me Gallery’s opening exhibit in 2003; in all or most of the Vormittag Biennials at Toronto’s Arcadia Gallery (2007- present), created and curated by HAI co-founder Irena Vormittag; and at Ellis Bateman’s Gallery 435. I publicly exhibited only sculpture, although I do paint occasionally. I have always worked in inexpensive and found materials—plywood (both standard and bendable ‘snake ply’); corrogated cardboard; fibreglass; found wood and other materials such as tree roots and broken chairs; and cellulose fondue (sawdust and wood glue) spread over a sculpted core of styrofoam. Most of my work has been large and figurative, somewhat or entirely abstracted, and some of it is what I think of as “symbolic” (that is, attempting to suggest grander themes than the “mere” visually perceived subject matter, which of course has a grandeur in and of itself).

Around 1995, I began to write fictional stories and later published some in Frances Ward’s local, wonderful-but-now-defunct, Hammered Out literary journal. In 2017, I collected eight stories together and self-published a book called Neither…Nor. I continue to write, hammering it out one word at a time.

Prior to an active involvement in Hamilton’s art community, I received a Master Degree in Anthropology (teaching an Introductory Course at McMaster) and later an M.S.W., spending about 25 years as a Family Therapist in the field of children’s mental health.

Sam Robinson. “Cosmos Mariner: Destination Unknown” (1997),  Dimensions including the bed: 190 x 101 x 122 cm. Materials: bed, black sheets and pillow, fluorescent lights, bendable plywood (“Snakeply”), ship’s interior lighting, cardboard tubes, paint. Courtesy of the artist. 

Sam Robinson. “Pyre Video”, (1999), digital video. Courtesy of the artist. Video produced by Morpheal Productions. In the Community Collection of the National Library of Canada.

COSMOS MARINER: This project began the week after my dear friend, Rev. Norma Harder died of cancer at age 41. It took about 4 or 5 months to complete. It was only after the sculpture’s completion that I felt that I’d worked through most of my grief. Some will always remain. I showed the piece initially at Gallery 435. None of my previous sculptures received the “adulation” that “Cosmos Mariner” received. I guess that’s one of the pleasures of creativity, though public exhibition or response was never one of my motivations. But it gave me an opportunity to tell people about Norma. She was a genuine “feet in the shit” person, raised on a working farm, helping cows to give birth, unpretentious, down to earth, one of the most frank people I’ve ever known, who went on to care for people as a nurse and a minister in the United Church. The title of the sculpture comes from the inscription on the tombstone of the great American poet, Conrad Aiken. Aiken grew up in Savannah, Georgia. He frequently walked to a site in the Bonaventure Cemetery above the busy Wilmington River to watch the cargo ships below. He found his epitaph quite by accident, in a Savannah newspaper, while identifying a ship he’d noticed on the river. It appeared in the daily list of port activity and read simply: “Cosmos Mariner – Destination Unknown.” Aiken had that phrase inscribed on the granite bench that is his tombstone. The last time I saw Norma Harder, she was in her deathbed at home a couple of days before dying. She said, “I’ve made my peace. I’m ready to die. But I feel like one of those big ocean liners trying to turn and it’s taking so damn long.” My intention was to burn the ship on a pyre as a final departure for Norma on her cosmic journey. That event took place at the farm of Ellis Bateson on a freezing cold day. A video commemorates that event.

Sam Robinson. “Paleo Fire: Dance ‘Til You Drop”, (circa 1997-1998), approx 72″ H. Wood, styrofoam, glue, sawdust, root of Rose of Sharon, sculpture. Courtesy of the artist.

PALEO FIRE – DANCE ‘TIL YOU DROP: Bright red sculpture of an elderly woman dancing with her cane in hand. (Originally seated in a wheelchair.) The idea for this sculpture came to me from two sources. I, and many friends, love to dance. I also had a beloved relative who was disabled in midlife, and was very musical. I imagined that my relative could get up and dance his heart out. The theme of this sculpture is the effervescent playfulness of the elderly. Using the root of a Rose of Sharon bush that I had dug up was serendipitous. I subsequently made other, smaller sculptures using the woody roots of plants.

Sam Robinson. “A Life (for Z.R.)”, circa 1984-85, approx. 157 cm  x 36 x 36. torn corrugated cardboard, central dowel. Courtesy of the artist. 

A LIFE (FOR Z.R.): This sculpture was made after my mother died. It is an example of those sculptures that I view as both figurative and symbolic. I was trying to capture my mother’s range of experiences, talents, and interests as well as suggesting a general view of human life by visually alluding to the accumulation over time of layers of rock in a geological formation.

Sam Robinson. “Laughing Canela”, circa 1981, 132 cm. x 48  x 55. Plywood, wood, fibreglass, resin.  Courtesy of the artist. 

LAUGHING CANELA: The image of a dead dog obsessed me for eleven years before I made the sculpture. I was an anthropology grad student at McMaster in the late 60s and early 70s. In 1970, I took part in a course in the methodology of ethnographic fieldwork, led by the curator of the South American collection at the Royal Ontario Museum, among the Wayuu people of the Guajira Peninsula of Venezuela and Colombia, led by the curator of the South American collection at the Royal Ontario Museum. One of the boys, in the family with whom I lived, named Remijio, hunted birds with a bow and arrows, accompanied by his beloved dog Canela [Cinnamon]. Canela was killed by a truck, probably carrying contraband drugs, driving along a dry-season river bed (the only roads at the time). For spiritual reasons, the dead dog was never approached by any of the Wayuu. When Remijio pointed at the dog’s rotting carcass, being pecked apart by vultures, and told me of the accident, he was laughing, although he was heartbroken. Canela definitely was not laughing. Yet I called the sculpture “Laughing Canela” because that name attached to such a gruesome image still seems to me a dramatic and interest-inducing title. As I am writing this, it occurs to me that perhaps I’m a “sculptural illustrator” or a “story sculptor”.

Sam Robinson. “Kimono”, circa 1991, 133 cm x 91 x 33. Unfinished bendable plywood (“Snakeply”), bolts/nuts. Courtesy of the artist. 

KIMONO: The sculpture labeled as “Kimono”, is properly named “Kaslo, New Denver, Roseberry, Slocan City, Lemon Creek, Sandon, Greenwood, Tashme”. These were the names of the Government of Canada’s Internment Camps, where 23,480 Canadian citizens of Japanese heritage were held in terrible circumstances throughout World War II, after having all their property “legally stolen” and auctioned off at a pittance. In the summer of 1990, while on a visit to New Denver, B.C., I saw the internment camp that had been renovated and was open to the public as a memorial. Several of my sculptures are motivated by profound emotions. This sculpture expresses my sadness and anger at only one example of the historical acts of bigotry perpetrated by the Government of Canada.

Sam Robinson. “Neither...Nor (Beware Binary Opposition)”, 1987, approx. 128cm x 19 x 7. Wood, bird skull, fish spine and ribs. Courtesy of the artist. 

NEITHER….NOR: This sculpture was exhibited only once, in 2003, at the Grand Opening of Bryce Kanbara’s You Me Gallery. Bryce needed a small sculpture, due to the number of contributing artists, and this was the only one I had. But, the sculpture was made in 1987. This sculpture provided the name for my book of stories, “Neither…Nor” (2017) and its photograph is on the front cover of the book.

Sam Robinson. “Unfinished Hanging Man”, (circa 1986). Approximately 95 cm. X 46 x 35. Wood, corrugated cardboard. Courtesy of the artist.

HANGING MAN: “Hanging Man” was begun after I’d made the corrugated cardboard sculpture “A Life, for Z.R”, my memorial sculpture for my mother. I was, and still am (in 2021) fascinated by corrugated cardboard as a medium. I am including this sculpture to show the meticulous work involved in building a human figure in one-eighth inch layers. The theme of a hanging man has rather obsessed me since I was a teenager. In a ferocious rain, thunder and lightning storm, I was running across the McMaster campus. I took refuge on the second floor balcony of the Student Union Building. In the shifting shadows between lightning strikes, I was scared out of my skin by a man who was swinging by his neck at the far end of the balcony. The man turned out to be the first George Wallace sculpture that I’d ever seen, his great welded metal “Hanging Man”. Although I didn’t study under George Wallace, I had come to know him and was very pleased to be the Administrator of the Inc. during the time of Wallace’s one person exhibition at the Inc. in 1983.

Sam Robinson. “Harlequin”, (circa 1989-2002), approx. 162 cm x 142 x 35. Bendable plywood (“Snakeply”), custom fabricated steel supports, regular half inch plywood, concrete interior base for stability, oil based paints. Courtesy of the artist. 

HARLEQUIN: I became entranced by a non-representational print, made by Sally Glanville, that hung in my sister and brother-in-law’s home. I’m still entranced by it 40 years later. I decided to try to create a large, 3-dimensional sculpture based on the 2-D print. It was the most difficult sculpture I’ve ever made. But I really liked the results. Except it was too heavy to move for exhibitions, and it took up a lot of room. It was in our living room for a couple of years, but finally I figured out how to move it outside. Bad decision. It was ruined by the elements after a few years. Among the biggest problems with large sculptures are finding storage space and considering mobility. I enjoyed making large sculptures. My dear friend, the late sculptor Wayne Allan, advised me to make maquettes, in part to solve design problems prior to making a big piece, but also to learn to become comfortable with making smaller sculptures. I didn’t follow Wayne’s good advice, unfortunately.

Sam Robinson. “Buzzbud”, circa 1981-1982, 156 cm x 24  x 14. Plywood, acrylic paint, fibreglass, dowel, steel base. Courtesy of the artist.

BUZZBUD: An early sculpture representing an iris bud. I strongly sensed the eager internal energy of the bud about to burst in bloom. In some light conditions, the sculptural expression is partly translucent. A sculpture that is now 40 years old seems almost disrespectful to the exquisite delicacy of a garden flower.