Tipping Point

Tipping Point

Robyn Horn’s steady, diligent execution yields precariously balanced sculptures that seem to defy physics.
Robyn Horn Using Chisel

Most of Horn’s sculptures begin with the rough cuts of a chain or band saw, which she later refines using hand tools. Here, she uses a chisel for finish work on a maple Slipping Stone.

Mark Jackson

Robyn Horn has always loved those lyrics from the James Taylor song “Walking Man,” which he recorded in 1974. They even inspired the names of two of her sculptures, Walking Man (1996) and Hypothetical Destination (2003). A one-time singer and guitarist herself, she’s been a fan of Taylor for a long time.

“He had a series for a while that had a lot of restlessness and movement in it, like he could never really settle down. Or at least it sounded that way in his music,” says the Arkansas artist, 65. That sense of motion and volatility – the urge to wander, break free, even fall apart – is what Horn captures powerfully in her Slipping Stone series, rocklike forms she’s been carving out of wood for more than 15 years. Ranging from pedestal-sized sculptures to 10-foot outdoor monoliths, with such titles as Slip Sliding Away, Slightly Off Course Again, and Approaching Collapse, the works are geometric abstractions that suggest moments when something’s got to give: a pile of blocks, a stack of dominoes, a gust of wind, a wave gathering momentum before crashing ashore. They lurch, lunge, whirl, teeter, tilt, and shift – and, as she says, “you’re not sure exactly where they’re going.”

Even as they hint at impending chaos, the Slipping Stones radiate beauty and grace, while celebrating the figure and grain of the wood and the iconography of stonework. “Tangible vestiges of movement in a ballet” is how David McFadden describes her work in The Sculpture of Robyn Horn, to be published this year by the University of Arkansas Press. The former chief curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, McFadden goes on to discuss her sculptures’ “engaging ‘stop-motion’ quality,” comparing them to the sequential structure of a movie and the famous movement studies by 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

Horn’s works can look animated and precarious because they’re so sturdy and expertly crafted. Most begin as a single hunk of wood that she cuts with a chain saw (if it’s a softer species such as redwood, which she uses for her big pieces) or band saw (for hardwoods such as cocobolo), then refines with power and hand tools. Their curves, angles, and textured surfaces can be smooth and subtle, or rough, gnarly, and chunky – again, depending on the properties of the wood. Her genius is making one sculpted whole look like a collection of separate components improbably joined together, layered and overlapping, with artful touches of negative and positive space. She’ll create a brickwork-type arch in which the keystone – the segment at the top that holds the structure together – has slipped and lost its way, so that the other bricks appear about to tumble down. Sometimes she’ll cut a piece out entirely, let it hang in midair or sit on the ground. “It fools the eye, which I enjoy,” she says of the illusory aspect of her work. “People have to look hard to determine if it’s all one piece. They want to believe it’s assembled. I like messing with them a little bit – that’s kind of fun.” The fact is, her designs couldn’t physically hold together any other way. Maybe it’s a metaphor for life: To show weakness, to be open to disruption and change, requires strength and stability.

“An artist and a gentlewoman” is how a local newspaper once described Horn, who in conversation is as down-to-earth and genuine as they come. She was born in Arkansas and has lived there all her life. Hers was a “comfortable, typical 1950s-’60s” small-town childhood, with an artistically inclined mother who painted the window signs for the family’s chain of shoe stores (and at 91, still paints today). In high school, Horn focused on music, playing in an all-girl rock band called the Opposite Sex. As an art major at Hendrix College, she started painting and got interested in modernist abstract art, especially cubism. She remembers being fascinated by Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), drawn to its woody palette of brown, gold, and black, “but mostly the implied movement of this figure coming down the stairs.”

After graduating in 1973, she worked various jobs – she was a photographer for the state parks and tourism department – before marrying her husband, John, a letterpress printer, in 1979. When his brother started turning wood on the lathe in the early ’80s, Horn was intrigued and took up the craft, just in time to become part of a new woodturning movement. She made a name for herself turning round sculptural forms called Geodes, followed by a series of Millstones. “I’ve always enjoyed stones,” she explains, “stone cuts and stone walls, standing stones, stone circles.” By the late ’90s, though, turning no longer satisfied her creatively. On a visit to the home and studio of Barbara Hepworth in England, Horn was captivated by the late sculptor’s monumental outdoor pieces. She had already been sculpting and carving, though not on a large scale. Seeing Hepworth’s work inspired her to pursue that direction, leading to the Standing Stone series and, since 2001, her Slipping Stone series.

Horn and her husband live on a large rural property just outside Little Rock, near a state park. “We’ve got a lot of deer hanging out, coyotes and bobcats. That’s part of the joy of being out here in the woods.” There’s a stone circle on the grounds and a line of 10-foot stones heading down a hill. “We had a big party when we were planting these. A bunch of friends came over and helped us, and it was fun,” she says. “I love the way it looks. There’s something figurative about the stones standing there, so massive. It’s wonderful to have them around.” She and John have a big metal building that houses their studios, along with storage space for her wood and the printing presses he collects: “He had one press when we got married. He now has over 200. Moving big, heavy things is something we’ve done together for 30-something years.” For one wedding anniversary, they gave each other a forklift, which she uses to hoist herself up on a pallet and chainsaw her big pieces outdoors.

Hand in hand with the couple’s artistic pursuits is their support of the craft field. Robyn Horn is on the board of the Windgate Foundation, which has given grants to the Arrowmont, Haystack, and Penland schools, as well as to the American Craft Council, and sponsored fellowships for up-and-coming makers through the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design in Asheville, North Carolina. “Being able to give students some early assistance in their careers through classes or residencies at these nonprofits is a valuable and worthwhile experience,” she says, adding, “We also believe the arts can be helpful in teaching core subjects in public schools. More than half of us learn visually.”

Grounded at home and happy in her studio, Horn finds herself on a roll creatively these days, confident enough with her material and tools that “I can get them to help me do what it is I want to do,” as she puts it. “Sometimes I have a piece designed, and the wood says, ‘Really, you should go in this direction.’ And if you listen, it can help you. You don’t want to let it overpower you, but it’s important to respond to the surprises you find in wood.” She keeps moving toward her hypothetical destination.

“My advice to young artists is get in a shop and work. Make things. The act of doing it is what inspires you. Picasso said it well: ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ ”