You may not know it, but they are in our midst— three creative lights whose work transcends its local origins.
As he’s signing off on an hour-long tour of his Bucks County art studio, Steve Tobin is pleased, really, to see a piece of his sculpture dumped—both ceremoniously and unceremoniously—by forklift into a metal dumpster.
“I didn’t like the way it turned out,” he says, explaining how he hopes it will break when it hits the bottom. But he’s also wise enough to know that the hunk of clay will end up in his backyard—or someone else’s—if it doesn’t shatter.
An internationally known non-commercial artist, the Villanova native moved to Bucks County 20 years ago, bucking (so to speak) the mass artist-exodus-from-Bucks trend. He works out of a 200-year-old farmhouse/barn studio on 14 acres in Pleasant Valley and a 23,000-square-foot Quakertown warehouse he outgrew in just three years.
Once a haven for artists, Bucks was losing many artists as Tobin was arriving. As with his life-like tree-root projects that have again reinvented his work, the 49-year-old says he’s feeding a resurgence of artists in the area. Through his studios, he’s had 100-plus apprentices (15 currently) from a dozen countries, funneling them back into Bucks, the Main Line and even Philadelphia, where art, of late, has shown sparks of renewal.
Tobin’s Main Line roots are strong. His parents, Fran and Sylvan Tobin, are former part owners of the Philadelphia Flyers. They live in Haverford. He was a clothing manufacturer; she founded and ran Flyers Charities for 29 years.
While in first grade at Gladwyne Elementary, Steve earned the day-camp certificate that was his initial inspiration: It read “Nature Boy” and spawned a brewing dichotomous interest in the design and destiny of both the natural world—i.e. science—and the arts.
In the earliest days of his earth-science exploration, Tobin studied pine cones in the woods behind his family’s home. In his teens at Harriton High, and then as a theoretical mathematics major at Tulane University in New Orleans, he discovered glass blowing, creating life-size glass cocoons. Soon it began crystallizing for him: Both art and science aim to define the indefinable. Tobin’s quest to harness, preserve and modernize that primal force was born. As such, he distinguished himself. Instead of fitting a mold, Tobin’s found energy and longevity in routinely reinventing his media, rather than repeating it.
Once Tobin’s Cocoons crossed the globe in the early 1990s, his reputation hatched. They were history’s first large-scale hand-blown glass. At the height of their rounds, they were installed in a baroque chapel in Antwerp, and then in a vast network of man-made caves in Retretti, Finland.
Much of Tobin’s work is so nearly a nativity of nature that it’s fitting the best settings for his work haven’t been stuffy, situated and sophisticated museums, but rather natural stages. Donald Kuspit, the renowned art critic who penned the introduction to the book Steve Tobin’s Natural History, writes, “There is something uplifting, indeed inspirational, about Tobin’s art. And even sacramental. It is deeply sacred and spiritual, and as such goes against the grain of the trendy.” After Cocoons, bronze foundry work became his medium. In his Earth Bronze Trilogy, he cast “Forest Floor” roughage, “Termite Hills” and exposed “Roots,” which Newsweek described as “massive sculptures [that] sprawl above ground like spidery aliens.”
He’s planted his most meaningful roots—“Trinity Root”—at Trinity Church-St. Paul’s Chapel adjacent to the 9-11 disaster site in Manhattan. It’s an 18-foot-high bronze cast from an actual uprooted sycamore that shielded the church and its historic tombstones from falling debris. He integrated earth and ashes from the site into its reddish patina.
It wasn’t until Tobin’s parents saw thousands of people having their picture taken under those 9-11 roots that they truly acknowledged the impact of his work. “They’ve understood my talent all along,” he says. “But the 9-11 memorial impressed upon them that my work was received on the highest level and would stand forever.”
Tobin’s Termite Mounds are the result of weeks in the West African jungle of Ghana. To anyone else, the actual mini- mountains are hills (actually cooling towers the underground colonies make from dirt and saliva). But to Tobin, his replicas (the largest measures 14 feet high and 24 feet around and weighs 5,000 pounds) are “monuments to the insect gods.”
Tobin sold off much of his exotic glass and took out an equity loan on his farmhouse, to finance the near-$700,000 project. On the art market, they haven’t fetched less than $400,000 each.
It’s not that Tobin’s glass work hasn’t occasionally re-sparkled: His “Waterfall” is made with two million feet of glass tubing. He’s made a glass igloo, “Adobe,” of almost 1,000 unused M60 tank windows. For “Toys,” his most “personally narrative” work, he cast a baby doll in a baseball glove. Another infant holds a ship full of smaller infants. He’s also cast ladies shoes, then stuffed them with bagels, bananas, whatever. Each is a cornucopia.
With “Exploded Clay” (or “Bang Pots”), begun in 1999, Tobin has found a way to embed a small explosive charge inside chunks of raw clay. The results of the discharge are then fired in a kiln. The chemical traces from the explosive create a colorful metallic glaze. It’s a process he links to the recreation of creation (the Big Bang Theory)—or at least some cosmic process.
“His works are not beautiful, but they are wonderful in that antique sense of being passionate objects that confuse us about their origins,” Sculpture magazine once wrote about Tobin. “The intensity of this confusion is the engine of Tobin’s brand of anarchism.”
An admitted avid scavenger of architectural salvage, Tobin has repeatedly turned artifacts into art. He recently bought four abandoned 60-foot railroad boxcars—and his wheels are turning. A Villanova couple displays several of the larger sculptures they’ve bought from Tobin on the lawn of their rural Chester County estate. “Part of the appeal is knowing there’s a kernel of reason behind it,” says one of the buyers, who prefers to remain anonymous. “It’s not purely artistic.” Tobin has always deposited art around the globe for museum and gallery exhibitions—or simply for intrigue on lawns at community and corporate centers, colleges and universities. The inspiration for such acts is world-renowned art lovers Philip and Muriel Berman, who gave Tobin their blessing before their deaths. “I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it wasn’t for them,” he says.
At the new Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center in Manayunk, Tobin molded a 14-foot steel tennis ball and embedded it in unbordered tennis racquet strings to symbolize Ashe’s racial breakthrough in his sport. “It’s my idea of a plaque,” he says.
Tobin does perhaps two shows a year. Otherwise, he says, they interfere with his art—proving that Tobin’s roots run deep and true.
For more information on Steve Tobin, visit stevetobin.com.
Every day, Ardmore’s Fred Peltier rides the Route 100 Trolley to 69th Street, then the el to 15th and Market streets, before he settles into his job as a senior associate project manager with Heery-HLM Design, an architectural-engineering firm. On the commute, he might get an idea and scribble it down.
Since he works just blocks from the Free Library of Philadelphia, sometimes he spends his lunch hour there in the Rare Books Room on the third floor, where there’s an extensive fraktur collection in flat files. “Sometimes, you just have to study the real ones,” Peltier says. German for “fractured,” fraktur may be the finest of the American folk arts. This distinguished hand-colored design, decoration and lettering on personal and family documents is attributed to Pennsylvania German settlers. Most of it dates from 1740 to 1850.
Not Peltier’s. But while his work is more modern, it’s every bit as distinctive. When there’s a custom order, he cartoons a mock sample for the customer.
Peltier, 55, recently made Berwyn’s Davis Pearson, 80, and his newlywed, Mittie, a wedding invitation—his first. Married in Grenada, the Episcopal Academy board member says he and his new wife wanted to send invitation announcements to a small group of friends, but not the formal kind associated with big affairs. “I asked him to make a fraktur-related invitation using decoy (he’s an avid decoy collector) and Caribbean motifs,” Pearson says.
Each fraktur takes two to 40 hours to complete. The quickest ones, Peltier “sees” without even sketching them. “Something just comes alive in my mind,” he says.
His intent has never been to produce reproductions, although he admits he might see an inspirational piece of paint-decorated furniture, then concentrate on a single motif within a certain border of the decoration. He repeats themes but never pieces, all while mixing his own watercolors on pre-1850 paper with perfect natural aging, stains and foxing he hunts down.
“They’re all one of a kind, one at a time,” says Peltier, who recently had a piece on loan for an exhibit at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco. “There’s nothing I’ve done that’s a copy of anything else. Maybe it’s based on something I saw, but then I did with it what I wanted. That’s the joy in it.”
Nine years ago, it was Peltier’s wife, Fran, who was interested in arts and crafts—particularly basket weaving. Fran helped shape his creative venture when she asked him to accompany her at the Philadelphia Designers Home Show in Valley Forge. He was reluctant. “I figured it’d be a craft show,” he admits. “I didn’t want to see sock puppets. Yeah, right—it was all outstanding.”
At auctions, he’d always seen fraktur; each April, it was at the Philadelphia Antiques Show. “I don’t know why, but it always caught my eye,” he says. “The composition, the color, the vibrancy. I also liked how it was a technique that was passed from generation to generation.”
Before he began, Peltier never owned an original fraktur. Today he owns two. Both have artistic and sentimental value. One is a highly decorated envelope, the work of Fred’s great-great-grandfather, a surgeon in the Civil War. Inherited from an uncle, it depicts a flag and an eagle. “It’s probably more valuable as a piece of Civil War memorabilia,” Peltier says.
The other, an eBay find, is a bookplate by an anonymous artist done for Ahinoam Smedley, a Delaware County Quaker. For fun, Peltier assimilated the design intent in Smedley’s work, creating a new piece and inserting one of his own ancestor’s names, Christian Shoemaker. The result became a side-by-side exhibit in Early American Life Magazine’s booth at last February’s Philadelphia Designers Home Show.
As an architect, Peltier says he was hampered. His early lines were too symmetrical and overly decorated with curves, reverse curves and French curves.
His early fraktur was too “stately and technical.” They had too much architect in them. Then Peltier took a step back and thought about what he really liked about the fraktur. “They were all done by self-taught artists,” he says. “Most were school teachers or pastors who were doing fraktur for pocket change.” He liked how primitive the work was.
Once he was sent to Orlando, Fla., for four months for a fraktur residency of sorts. Soon after, he started asking Fran to go to shows. He wanted the feedback, and earned it from the best. “Once I did,” he says, “then I thought, ‘I’ve got it now.’”
He began carting around a 1920s Nabisco tin filled with three-dozen of his fraktur pieces. Soon, the nation’s best artisans were asking if he’d trade them. Now his fraktur goes wherever he goes. “I’ve done it while camping,” he says.
A Delaware County native, Peltier drifted a bit, then eventually completed a five-year architectural program at Temple. He cites influences he’s only now beginning to recognize, including a two-year architectural project at the Barnes Foundation. Also, just as his work was taking flight, an artistic aunt, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts alumnae Marianne Loughran, died. When her estate was divided, Peltier received all her art supplies. “I just always thought I should do something with it,” he says.
His mother, Jane L. Peltier, also a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts alum, once worked as a drafter for the U.S. Navy. His father, Pierre D. Peltier, turned to art later in life. In his pre-teen years, Peltier’s parents registered him for private art lessons in Newtown Square, where he learned how to “make a bottle come alive.”
Peltier admits it’s still hard to let go of his work, even when it fetches a good price (usually between $55 and $450). A few years ago, he painted a ship. No more than 10 minutes into the last Valley Forge show, a woman bought it.
“She didn’t even look at the price tag,” Peltier says. “She noticed my reaction and she asked, ‘What’s the matter? Isn’t it for sale?’ Fran was standing over my shoulder saying, ‘He’s selling it!’”
For more information on Fred Peltier, visit traditionalfolkart.com.
Dick and Pat Wexelblat
Whether it originated from a yew or pear tree in Merion Station, an ash from Germantown or his own sugar maples, Dick Wexelblat’s pride in his finely turned woodenware stems mostly from putting a block of found wood to good use. Once, he approached a Penn Valley homeowner for his felled Osage orange. The man asked Wexelblat if he was going to burn it.
“I’ll do something with it,” the 68-year-old craftsman promised him. Eight months later, he delivered a carved bowl, documenting the wood’s origins as part of his artisan’s signature—as he always does. Together with his wife Pat, 67, who began selling hand and machine knits in 1990, Dick, who began turning and selling wood a year later, opened the Tiger Lily Workshop. Of late, Pat’s interests have turned to whimsical bead work and polymer clay jewelry.
“One show promoter once said my things never look the same,” Pat says. “That’s because I’ve never settled on just one thing.”
Sometimes the Wexelblats combine talents on a piece. Dick creates the jar or vessel; Pat adorns the lid. Thinking in terms of form and feel, “Please Touch!” signs always fill their show shelves.
Dick has turned 2,000-plus pieces from 15 to 25 different—and mostly oddly shaped, distressed and partly decayed—woods. Scrounging for it works best, and the Lower Merion Township recycling center, Dick says, is his best woodpile. Last summer’s storms were good to him.
He understands buyers’ needs for practicality and function, so his bowls and plates are food-safe, except when he’s used a farmed tree, a piece of recycled furniture or an old cutting board. Of course, there’s also the practicality—or, as he says, “necessary evil”—of selling, mostly at eight to nine shows a year or on Craig’s List. Sometimes he donates surplus to non-profits.
After roughly carving and shaping a piece, Dick stores it in a paper bag in his basement to slowly dry for up to a year. From there, he sands it into a fine smooth finish. Mostly he uses tung oil finishes. For color, he’ll rub in Kiwi shoe polish.
Dick’s actually quite a polished computer scientist. In fact, he earned the nation’s first Ph.D. in the field in 1965 from the University of Pennsylvania. Science meets art, again? The high-pressure industry drove him to turn wood for relaxation. Now it’s become a retirement career—and a hobby that’s possible despite a disability: Dick has limited use of his right hand, a result of polio. Pat has her own medical challenge—hearing loss.
When Dick had unrelated rotator cuff surgery 3 1/2 years ago on his shoulder, he lost complete use of his right arm—so he simply began wood-burning with his left. Now he decorates the outsides of his bowls or the insides of plates.
These days, Dick’s pieces are thinner; he has a better sense of shape and color; and most importantly, he’s learned how to get halfway finished with a piece that’s not quite right and throw it out—recycling it, if you will.
“If I don’t want it,” he says, “I don’t want someone else to have it.”
For more information on the Wexelblats and Tiger Lily Work-shop, visit tigerlilyworkshop.com.