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by Carolyn Hazel Drake
You could describe Dr. Robert McWilliams as a career outsider artist. For almost forty years, he has been channeling his humor, collector’s eye, and unique perspective into sculptures that resonate with human experience on an individual, yet somehow universal, scale. He is quick to point out, however, that while he has been in dozens of shows, “I still tell people that I am an amateur artist rather than a real artist… I’ve never had any art training and I’m more amazed than anyone that I’m still making and showing art at age seventy.”
Yet it’s difficult to reconcile the word amateur with Robert’s work. The freshness and playfulness in his approach to form, surface, and subject matter come from a thoughtful, practiced hand and mind – a mind that just happens to have a good sense of humor. The success of a piece like Conductor, for instance, demands that the relationship between the metal (early 19th century hand-forged gate hinges) and the wood (walnut), the diagonal angles, the distribution of emphasis, and the negative space all combine to strike a balance that still maintains some tension.
The title Conductor also works at several levels: the implied conductor at his podium, but also the original role of the gate hinge as a sort of conductor of individuals going to and fro, and finally the electric and thermal conducting quality of metal. Many of his titles play with meaning this way, simultaneously poking fun and making reference.
Robert’s love of folk and outsider art initially evolved from a very practical need: inexpensive furniture. He turned this need into a skill: “My experience refinishing and repairing furniture gave me an appreciation of the complex patinas that old wood and iron surfaces acquire. My interest in antiques, crafts and folk art led me to begin woodcarving, which later came to include other kinds of sculpture.”
With a doctorate in geology, Robert had a successful thirty-year career as a professor at Ohio’s Miami University. He sees his career as distinct from his life as a collector and maker of art, but inasmuch as geology is also the study of the effect of time on the earth, it seems fitting that the themes and materials in his work acknowledge time through personal narrative, found materials, and patina: “Almost every piece I make has a personal story behind it. My work combines whimsy, humor, irony and nostalgia.”
“I carved If Dreams Were Horses Beggars Would Ride, and like many other times, I named my work after I made it, using Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for inspiration. The quote is from John Ray 1627-1705, who I have never read or heard of, but who also coined the phrases ‘blood is thicker than water,’ ‘money begets money’ and ‘misery loves company’. The quote fits the piece … I guess it reminds me of when I was an impoverished student.”
The Cow That Jumped Over the Moon is made of a foundry wheel, drawer pulls, a wooden salad bowl and the bushing from the wheel.
“Portrait of the Artist as a Turkey is made from a stainless steel teapot, a stove burner liner and the front of an old drawer. The back has a bull’s eye for aiming your foot at his rear end. The inscription is ‘Lord, I am not worthy’. It is painted with artist’s lead base oil paint, which gives it an unusually solemn patina. It’s all about pomposity and a reminder not to take myself too seriously, which most of the time I don’t.”
Robert’s studio is not to be missed during the tour. He openly acknowledges just how fortunate he is to have space, light, and a view from Mt. Tabor (not to mention parquet floors, a wet bar, and a fireplace!).
“I call my work Visionary Sculpture because I don’t know what else to call it,” says Robert. The title seems apt – and anything but accidental.