Sculptor Makes Metal Move

Mar 13, 2013

Sculptor Yvonne Bobo's blue metal butterflies and red metal tree at the Cancer Survivors Park in East Memphis.

You might not know her name, but chances are good you’ve seen Yvonne Bobo's work. Bobo has metal sculptures in outdoor spaces all around Memphis: she created the futuristic stainless steel sculpture that stands at the center of Peabody Park in Midtown, and the archway of planets and shooting stars at the park’s entrance; the colorful metal flower garden outside Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital; and the blue metal butterflies that flit on a red metal tree at the Cancer Survivors Park in East Memphis.

Next month, Bobo will move to a new studio space in the emerging arts district of Crosstown, but for now she works in a large building off Airways Boulevard, where the sounds of welding, cutting, and bending metal combine with the noise of the airplanes that pass overhead.

“It’s a big open space full of ideas and a lot of dust,” Bobo said.

The space is more like a mechanic’s shop than artist’s studio. Instead of brushes and paints, Bobo’s tools include an oxy-acetylene torch, a drill press and an angle grinder. Paper, tape, and bits of projects past and present cover her worktable.

Bobo is working on a 25-foot sculpture for Overton Square at the very visible intersection of Madison Avenue and Cooper Street. A 6-foot version of the piece stands in the middle of her workshop. Bobo looks at it and tries to figure out how to get a cube at the sculpture’s top to move with the wind.

“Try to make a cube spin one day, try for a month,” Bobo dared. “It’s not so easy.”

Bobo hopes when the sculpture is done, people will stand before it and wonder how she got the cube to move, and that curiosity will subsume some of their anxiety about art.

“A lot of pope don’t think they are educated enough to talk about art,” Bobo explained. “But just stopping to wonder, ‘Wow! How does that work?’ Like I have this spinning cube and I wonder if it bugs anyone, because cubes don’t naturally spin.”

Bobo wants her sculptures to expose what the wind is up to, she’s fascinated by wind. “We all think it blows really straight and constant,” Bobo said, “but it doesn’t.”

Bobo’s obsession with the wind is not limited to her sculptures. She’s a sailor, owns her own boat, and has sailed through the Panama Canal three times. Bobo believes her sailing influences her art, or vice versa, “It’s a challenge to produce things [sculptures] that move but are not destroyed by the wind. And the same thing at sea, you move with the wind, but you don’t want to get destroyed by the sea or the wind.”

“Where the Wind Plays” by sculptor Yvonne Bobo sits outside Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

One of Bobo’s most prominent works in Memphis is called “Where the Wind Plays.” It sits outside Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and is framed by the window of the clinic waiting room. There Bobo created a colorful metal flower garden. Her iridescent purple, red, orange, green, and pink flowers shimmer, sway and spin wherever the breeze takes them. Think Dr. Seuss meets Alice in Wonderland.

Linda Hill, director of art development at Le Bonheur, believes Bobo’s wind-driven flower garden turned what would have been an eyesore of a view into a showpiece.

“If you come to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and you see this huge 35-foot span of window that is at one end of a clinic waiting area—and you see kids with their noses pressed up against the wall; you see dads with their cell phones taking pictures of their child looking at this piece; you see kids, who may not be put in a car and taken to a museum, mesmerized by a work of art,” Hill said.

Bobo readily admits that contemplating the wind, aside from the weather, may not be everyone’s obsession, “I’ve had people say to me about the Le Bonheur project, ‘Is there any way we can get it to move all the time?’ I said, ‘Well, we can motorize it, but then we wouldn’t have the choreography of the wind.’ ”

Bobo’s work, including the model for the Overton Square piece, will be part of an exhibition entitled "When Weather Moves Metal: Whirligigs and Weather Vanes" at the National Ornamental Metal Museum. It opens this weekend. Carissa Hussong, the museum’s executive director, said Bobo’s work is a natural addition to the show.

“I think her work is often very playful,” Hussong said. “It’s kind of smart and well constructed. I think she’s very creative in the way that she comes up with sculpture that is not only appealing when it’s static, but has movement and energy.”