Prize-winning sculptor Catherine Hale Robins has successfully blended scientific and artistic endeavors into her life. Her move from research labs to an artist’s studio mirrors childhood interests and influences.
Born in Fairfield, Ala., where her dad was an organic chemist and her mother a pianist, happy-go-lucky Robins reveled in nature.
“I loved riding a blind-in-one-eye thoroughbred mare with attitude, playing with my Jack Russell terrier, Rocket, and swinging on a great silver maple tree swing,” she says. “I also enjoyed long, meandering, dawdling walks to school.”
Robins loved art as well. Her first sculptural experience occurred at age 5, when she found some waste plaster and molded it into different shapes. Her mother encouraged her artistic endeavors.
When the family moved to Ponca City, Okla., near Continental Oil’s research and development labs, she was influenced by research scientists’ animated conversations.
“Ponca City had pretty good schools, but I was bored most of the time,” Robins says. “When Sputnik beeped overhead, the system acknowledged girls could be smart, too, and school life became more interesting for me.”
When a high school biology trip hooked her, artistic endeavors were cast aside. Robins won a scholarship to the University of Tulsa, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in zoology, spent two summers at the University of Oklahoma biological stations, then published her first research paper on the ecology of two species of minnows. She graduated from the University of Miami, Florida, with a master’s and doctorate (on the systematics and ecology of deep-sea eels) in 1964, married her husband, Dick, in 1965, and continued working in research.
“After 20 years researching eels I felt boxed in and isolated from far-flung colleagues,” she says. “I took a bronze-casting workshop as a respite and was instantly hooked.”
Robins completed a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture in 1988 after winning the first of many prizes at the 1987 premier juried Art Show at the Dog Show, Wichita. Her giant Schnauzer piece “Alert” won first prize and the purchase award, and it was placed on permanent display at the American Kennel Club Museum in St. Louis.
“I’m honored my work is displayed alongside some amazing pieces of art,” she says. “I feel happiest, though, not with prizes, but with making a commissioned portrait of someone’s cherished pet.”
She’s also enjoyed sculpting people, horses, burros, foxes and coyotes.
“The tangibility of a sculpture, the tactility and physical vigor at the outset of construction, are exhilarating,” Robins says.
“Later it’s the analysis of how the piece handles light and its integrity that are the rewards. I usually apply the first rough clay masses with a rubber mallet. That whacking about is great fun.”
Robins also enjoys the challenge of bas relief work like her Stations of the Cross at Trinity Episcopal Church.
“Bas work combines the light handling of sculpture and the analytical illusion of painting,” she says.
Robins moved to rural Lawrence in 1993, where she has her own studio. She’s surrounded and inspired by her menagerie of horses, burros, cat, dogs, geese and varied wildlife.
“Living natural forms are integral to my work,” she says.