It all started when Dennis Robert was six years old on a shopping trip with his mom. As she pulled into a store parking lot he noticed a fountain of sparks coming from a construction area next to the entrance. A man with a robot-looking mask was welding a large pipe. In the store Dennis snuck away to go outside and was soon transfixed watching the man weld. He still remembers seeing the red-hot glowing metal, the sparks, and the intense white light reflecting off the man’s mask as he worked.
Dennis still enjoys watching the sparks fly as he creates metal and stone mixed media sculptures in his basement workshop. Utilizing a detailed fine welding technique he assembles metal into organic looking forms. This gives his sculptures a sense of natural growth, movement and flow.
Adjacent to his workshop space is a room containing racks of various sizes and types of stone. “I’ve always had a fascination with rocks and am continuously collecting them not only for my sculptures but for display throughout my home,” Dennis explains. Across from these is a wall of shelves with copper and steel sheeting, metal rods and pipes, and bins containing hundreds of pieces of shaped metal pieces.
“The first step for creating my sculpture begins when I walk into this room. I open my mind to be inspired by the materials before me. I then look through the stones until I find one that seems like it speaks to me and has the qualities I feel I want to work with. The shape, texture and color of the stone influence the form, design and application of the metal. I experiment with various types and sizes of metal until I find the combination that fits the vision taking shape in my mind,” says Dennis.
Growing up in Milwaukee during the 1960’s on the shores of Lake Michigan, he was always interested in art. In his early teens rather than going to sporting events with his friends, he attended art lessons at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Intentionally catching an early bus so he could arrive an hour or more before class gave him time to wander the galleries. His art instructor noticed this passion for art and asked Dennis to be his classroom assistant.
His formal training began with a degree in visual communications and photography. As his interest in photography grew, he started a successful free-lance wedding photography business. He became known for his artistic style and intuitive ability to capture spontaneous moments. He photographed weddings throughout the United States and in Italy, St Lucia, Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Mexico, Costa Rica and Jamaica.
During this time, Dennis met a group of artists who invited him to be part of the first Milwaukee art show featuring neon as the medium. He created a piece that incorporated both abstract photography and neon. The curator of one of the galleries at the Milwaukee Art Museum came to the show and his work made a strong impression on her. As a result, she assumed he was a neon artist. Each time they met she would ask him what neon projects he was working on. He always tried to correct her and explain that he was a photographer, however undeterred she contacted him and asked if he’d be interested in submitting a quote to create a large outdoor neon sculpture. He relented and decided to come up with a grandiose design believing he wouldn’t get the commission. It turned out this was to be an installation on the outside front façade of the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center. To his surprise his design was selected.
The piece was a one hundred twenty five-foot swirling rainbow with stars. The project was well received, and was chosen to be an annual installation for their Rainbow Summer Music Festival for many years. This led to numerous commissions for large indoor and outdoor neon sculptures and projects. Clients included an upscale food market, restaurants, nightclubs, as well as many commissions for collector’s homes.
Dennis’s work came to the attention of the director of Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival. She commissioned him to create an outdoor thirty-six foot mechanical saxophone sculpture with giant hands. Following the success of the saxophone he was commissioned to create a large mechanical dragon for their outdoor winter festival.
For over twelve years Dennis created an elaborate interactive Halloween installation outside the front of his house. Each year he designed a new large creature, sometimes up to twenty feet in height. Based on these displays, an international event planner contracted him to create and install a Halloween installation at a castle in Lundstuhl, Germany. This was adjacent to the Ramstein U.S. Air Force base and the castle was the centerpiece for a three day Halloween event specifically for U.S. service members stationed there.
Always up for new challenges over the long Wisconsin winters Dennis put together a snow sculpting team. For the six years they competed the team consistently placed in the top five in the state competition. After winning a first place in the state the team went on to place in the top five nationally.
An art teacher from high school contacted him and invited him to become part of an arts education group called Artists Working In Education (AWE). The intent was to bring an artist into public schools where the art budget had been cut or eliminated. Over the years he committed his time as Artist In Residence at five different schools. He worked with students on indoor and outdoor sculpture projects that were permanently installed on school premises.
Once while installing a large commissioned neon sculpture in a collector’s home, he noticed an abstract steel sculpture and became intrigued with the process of working with metal as a medium. He enrolled in several classes to learn various welding techniques that he could apply to his sculptures.
Influenced by patterns found in nature, he began to create abstract outdoor and indoor metal sculptures. Describing his technique Dennis says “I notice textures and work to translate and interpret them into a process I can apply. I’m drawn to working with metal because it starts out as a raw material and through refinement it becomes a medium I can work with.”
He began assembling identical metal pieces into shapes to mimic forms he saw in nature. Using stone as a second design element provided Dennis the opportunity to incorporate these shapes and textures into the sculptures. When asked about his approach he says “I place the metal as if it were originally part of the stone so there is a natural fit and relationship between the stone and added materials.”
Dennis looks to further explore and expand these organic themes between metal and stone in future sculptures.