Moments in Bronze
Randolph County native Robert Hogan found his calling in a 4,000-year-old art form.
Photographed by Ed Kruse and Robert Hogan
Somewhere in Dallas, Texas, in an otherwise unassuming garage on a quiet street, a man carves the delicate fold of an eyelid out of warm clay. His tools reveal the bow of lips, separate teeth from earth, and smooth the curve of a cheek. Sometimes hours, sometimes days later, a figure emerges as if it had always been there, breathing just under the surface. The clay visage has a short lifespan, however. Once cast into a limited number of bronze editions, the form and subsequent molds are destroyed to preserve the value of each piece. Much like the people and animals after which these bronze figures are patterned, each is unique. Self-taught sculptor Robert Hogan, a man with hands that can pull seemingly living things out of mud, says, “It’s a God thing. It’s no greater or less than that. It’s the same as the gift of salvation. All I had to do was accept what was given.”
Robert stumbled into his talent later in life. The youngest of 15 children, he grew up on a small farm in Monterville in Randolph County surrounded by the yawning wilderness of the Monongahela National Forest. As a boy, Robert spent many days on his father’s heel watching him transform the landscape and build many things from scratch. “My father always made a lot of things for us like sleds and farm tools. He was very handy at making things. If I think about it, maybe part of what I gained from that was something I didn’t even realize at the time.” What Robert gained was the ability to force a static object like a lump of clay to mimic life—to emulate the way folds of cloth move across skin or the way a feather turns just so as a bird dives for its prey. With the aid of a photo or two, a mirror, some measurements, and a load of patience, Robert can sculpt just about anything. He then turns his sculptures over to a foundry and has them cast into bronze, preserving them for countless generations.
What’s more, Robert claims he’d never set foot in an art class when he took up the trade at age 45. In fact, Robert’s early life was more indicative of an entrepreneur than an artist and he happily plants one foot in each category. He entered the Air Force and shipped off to Montana at age 17, where he learned to target Minuteman missiles and worked as a stock boy in a men’s clothing store during his free time. From there, Robert moved up the ranks of his part-time job, eventually taking over as the vice president of merchandising for some 90 stores. Bouncing around from Montana to Denver and finally to Dallas, where he moved from retail to wholesale, Robert and his wife settled in Texas, never thinking the move would propel him into a genre of ancient art. But while living in Dallas, Robert happened to watch a sculpting demonstration and something clicked. “It wasn’t a question of whether I thought I could do it. I knew I could,” he says. Soon after, Robert sought the advice of a man who worked at a local art supply store—should he take classes or read books? The wise, elderly gentleman advised him against both, handed him clay and tools, and told him just to try it.
Robert’s first piece, “The Party’s Over,” could have been an image straight from his childhood—an overly confident rooster leaning against some fallen garden produce, declaring himself the unchallenged lord of the farm. “When I was nearly done, I took the piece to a foundry to be cast in bronze, and while I was there doing a touch up on it, there was a group coming through touring. They asked me how long I’d been doing it and I said, ‘Two months or so.’ They asked, ‘No, when did you start sculpting?’ I said, ‘This is my first piece.’ They were shocked.”
When Southwest Gallery in Dallas immediately scooped up his first piece, Robert was hooked. “The gallery owner told me to quit my day job and just sculpt,” Robert says. So he did, converting his extra bedroom into a workshop and keeping his garage for larger pieces. His hands have rarely left the clay since. Working largely on commission, Robert has become nationally recognized, especially for his work on sports figures. He has brought to life a golfer mid-swing, eyes on the fairway; a surfer bravely riding the curl of a massive wave; and figures as famous as Baltimore Orioles’ Brooks Robinson, dipping low for a ball. His ability to capture action, to seemingly freeze and immortalize moments in time, has gained him attention in both the United States and abroad. “Once I have the idea, I try to bring out some kind of movement in the piece.” But Robert still believes his focus on people is just as important as his talent as an artist. “I combine the feeling with marketing. With my experience in the clothing business, I am able to do more public relations and get more into marketing. I had that background, which just gives me a leg up on working with people. Half of commission work is trust. If people like what they see and trust that you’ll treat them right, they’ll tell others about you.”
Today his work has been purchased by collectors in Tel Aviv, England, and South Africa, and his monumental pieces are on display in multiple locations in Texas. In order to keep his mind fresh, he and his wife Nora travel regularly, partly for inspiration and partly to make connections. “When I travel, I’m talking to people, seeing galleries, and getting ideas,” he says. “Sculpting has connected me with people I might never have met before. I’m hoping to have my works carried more internationally.” On one trip to Italy, a painting of Abraham and Isaac in the Vatican sparked his interest. It would later become one of his most emotional pieces. Abraham’s anguished face looking skyward as he holds the sacrificial knife over the body of his son evokes an almost gut-wrenching reaction to reach out and stop him. It’s that sort of emotional connection that makes Robert’s work so human even as it depicts an angel carrying the body of a fallen fireman. “I don’t really feel anything until it’s over,” Robert says. “But when you’re standing there next to a sculpture like the one I did for the fallen police officers and firemen in Dallas County, and beside you is a grieving mother whose son is buried there, and she says, ‘That is how I see my son going to heaven,’ that’s the point when it really hits you. I was there for the dedication, and that same fireman had said it would be an honor to be buried there.”
For Robert, the most important pieces are the ones that tell a story or capture a memory. To this day, his favorite work is one he did of his grandfather, Allen Simmons—an older mustached gentleman in a hat and suspenders holding a hunting rifle in one hand, the other poised as if to smooth the fur of the loyal dog by his side.
“On Sundays I used to sit and listen to my grandfather tell hunting stories. It was one of those things you did growing up in West Virginia. Sunday afternoons were for sitting around and talking.” Even with a sculpture of Pope John Paul II on his résumé, one of Robert’s biggest goals is to complete a sculpture of his mother and father. As always, his memory and a few photos will be all he needs to complete the work. “My mother will probably be sitting, peeling apples or shelling peas, with her dress making a pocket between her legs to hold them. That’s how I remember her.”
After nearly 20 years, Robert has an impressive number of sought after pieces with his name on them, and he has enough commissions to keep him busy though 2015, but he’s happy to take on new challenges at every opportunity. As soon as he’s finished capturing one moment in time, he’ll be elbow deep in the next, transforming red brown clay into a galloping polo horse or a football star with a touchdown in his eyes. “There are still many more sculptures in me,” he says. “I never plan on retiring. Why would I?”bronzeartbyhogan.com