Ironclad Art by Bob Cage

Vintage farm relics finds new life as sculpture.

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These attached discs bring centipedes to mind. Of course, what the piece is remains open to interpretation, just as the artist intended.

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A passion, almost a purpose in life, has led Bob Cage of South Boston, Va., to sculpt. Bob, a sculptor, painter and world champion tobacco auctioneer, recycles farm machinery: tools and parts that might otherwise head to the scrap yard or rust away without ever being used again.

"If I get enough of any one kind of material, I put it aside and some idea will come and I'll end up making something interesting out of it," Bob says. "But it won't necessarily be something you can relate to right off the bat. This is not an objective thing. The work calls for creative viewing."

Several times a year Bob conducts tours for students, teachers and art clubs. While visiting his sculpture farm, they view two fields of enormous sculptures made from farm machinery and other useful objects long forgotten by their users. The sculptures highlight new uses for hay rakes, wagon wheels, wrenches, plow points, round discs and tobacco carts.

Each person who views Bob's artwork sees something both familiar and unusual. "When kids come over, the teacher will tell them 'Write me something about it when you get back in school.' If the kids give five different answers as to what a piece is, it's more successful, to me, because that calls for the imagination of the individual," he says. "It's like an abstract painting. It's not supposed to tell you anything anymore than the song of a bird would tell you something."

Bob's work is on display in South Boston outside The Prizery arts building, as well as at locations in Richmond, Va., Washington, D.C., Danville, Va., Baltimore, Maysville, Ky., and Raleigh, N.C. He has shown his work at museums from Georgia to Maryland and has an international following.

Keeping an even balance

Bob works to maintain balance in his art. That is why he appreciates the circular shape of old wagon wheels and discs, the straight tines hanging from hay rakes and the angular lines of plow points.

He works intuitively and his vision sharpens even after a sculpture is finished. For instance, he may haul the sculpture to the farm field and set it up horizontally. To his surprise, he realizes it might look more appealing as a vertical piece. His work takes him on a sweet journey of surprise.

"My stuff is pretty abstract," he says, "but everything is an abstraction of something. A lot of times, I don't know when I'm finished. You think you're finished, but you might turn it over and say, 'Gosh, I like this better.' You may sharpen things up a little bit in different areas. In fact, I've sold stuff and then wanted it back. It's always a work in progress."

Life experiences shape art

Bob's journey into the art world began in a Washington, D.C., art class. The instructor, a noted artist, chose the paintings of several students for an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. Bob's still life of a rifle and duck decoy didn't make the cut. But Bob had faith in his work and decided to enter it himself. The Smithsonian accepted his entry. "That gave me some confidence," he says.

In the 1960s, Bob worked for six years as a tobacco auctioneer in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa. While there, he earned a degree in fine arts at the Salisbury School of Art. One day his professor, a Catholic priest, handed Bob a piece of soapstone and asked him to carve. Bob's first sculpture was of the Madonna and a child. The assignment rekindled his interest in art, and he went on to study at the American Students and Artists League in Paris.

Today, Bob's artwork has found an eager market. Each piece is unique. "I can't make another one like it," he says. "Nobody can." His passion is fueled by the varied pieces of metal he finds. Sometimes people give him their cast-off junk; other times he buys it. The more interesting the material, the more he enjoys working with it. He doesn't worry about using a piece of farm machinery that a collector might need. He figures his creativity leads to a new life for something cast aside.

He paints some of his sculptures, but leaves others in their natural state of rust and decay. "It's my call," Bob says. "If I get bored with it, I'll paint it and give it another look. A lot of times I'm pleased I did that." Sometimes he'll paint a piece just to keep it from becoming invisible. Return visitors sometimes take for granted what they're seeing. Moving the piece, or giving it a fresh coat of paint, can help viewers see it anew.

Now in his 80s, Bob prefers to paint or sculpt something that is uniquely his, but he says artists are like sponges, absorbing all the knowledge they can to be creative. "It's playing God to be creative," he says. "You know you are coming from a place that you didn't know you had in you, so you're looking for yourself. I never really start out with a particular thing in mind, and I paint the same way. It's the only way it's any fun to me. Picasso says when you go into your studio, you leave your mind outside. That's the way I feel about it. You work from your heart more than your mind." FC

For more information: View more of Bob Cage's work and read about his life at www.oldhalifax.com/cage  

Rocky Womack is a full-time freelance writer, editor and publisher in Danville, Va. Contact him at rockyagwriter@aol.com