The first time I lay eyes on Rob, he’s sitting on a bench looking miserable, even though an 8-foot tall perfectly-rendered life-sized and life-like Frankenstein monster stands watch over him. Rob sits in the monster’s shadow by his tented sculpture gallery, which is sandwiched between a silversmith making exquisite contemporary pendants and earrings and a… well, I don’t see who the other artists are or what their pieces look like because once I start examining Rob’s ghoulish figures, I spend the remainder of our visit at Stop Number Five on the Hidden in the Canyon artist-studio tour amongst Rob’s macabre creatures, my mouth hanging open.
If Rob looks temporarily miserable, I think, perhaps he is feeling like a fish out of water, his artwork under-appreciated by the average visitor. Me? My mind is blown and I’m not moving on. I lean in and study each piece, a different character sculpted from Rob’s imagination. My eyes follow the intricate lines of every face, hand and piece of clothing, some of which are actual pieces of fabric. The detail is exquisite even if the features are grotesque.
“Each figure is a character and I can you tell you their story,” Rob says about this army of 18-inch zombie warriors and skeletal cowboys, some with long, hooked noses and gnarled fingers, others with half-skeletal faces, all with a determined look to survive by wielding their “junk-yard” armor and weapons. “They all come from the School of Hard Knocks. Or else I’m purging some deep anger issues,” he laughs.
Rob sculpts the small, one-of-a-kind figures in Chavant clay, and he might paint certain parts of their clothing or armament. He also casts some larger pieces in silicon, like Frankenstein, whose skin looks so real with hints of red and blue veins, pores and hair, that when the sun shines through the stretched web of his hand, it glows like a human’s. Frankenstein has eerie, sparse hair flowing over metal pieces that realistically clamp the top of his head on. Even his large, black coat and pants are worn and frayed in just the right places.
Frankenstein is marvelous, and so is Rob.
While studying the minute details of every work, all I can say is “wow” and “amazing,” yet Rob communicates beautifully about his process. When he talks about sculpting clay or casting silicon or resin, his passion is obvious; his hands dart and his eyes shine.
Not only has Rob perfected, through self-guided learning, the techniques needed to create his sculptures, he did it in his spare time while being a hair stylist the last 30 years. For 18 years, Rob owned his own shop, called Salon Designs. Now, Rob and his wife Anna, a nail artist, share space at a salon near Happy Valley and I-17 north of Phoenix. They like the arrangement. Between customers, Rob can sculpt.
“Having a sculpture at work,” Rob says, “means I can take an entire day to work on one finger!” He’s not joking. The time he spends on the tiniest of details shows up and pays off. He studies bone construction, where muscle meets bones, to craft the second-most important feature of any figure, their hands. The most important feature is, of course, the face. But the eyes Rob crafts are incredible, too. Very real and moist and just-right red.
“I’m Not lazy,” Rob says. Understatement! The amount of work he turns out is impressive, and it’s not all sculpting.
Rob built a large detached garage as his workshop. In the desert summer, when it’s too hot for the workshop, he retreats to a small room off his living room where he sits at a desk, with lots of good lighting, and sculpts, or paints, or attaches real human hair from his salon clients to his creations. The room is lined with shelves holding molds, silicon monster faces pocked with warts, and sculptures in various stages of completion. A torso sits in the center of the room, at child height, and a closet holds even more molds and heads and faces.
Rob demonstrates applying eyebrows to a silicon face. He clamps a sewing needle, point down, into an X-acto knife holder. He has nipped off the tip of the needle at the eye, leaving a u-shape in which he threads a human hair. Inserting the needle at an angle, like eyebrows naturally grow, Rob leaves the hair embedded in the brow and moves on to the next one. When all hairs are in place, he’ll trim them.
At the 2017 Arizona State Fair, Rob entered several pieces and wondered if the general public would understand his work. Well, let’s just say he swept the damn fair! And that’s after they weren’t even sure how to categorize his work. Most of his entries were listed as “Home Arts,” and the show organizer told Rob they will create a unique category for his entries in next year’s State Fair. He won two first place awards, two second place, one third place, one fourth place and a big pink ribbon for “Exceptional Merit.”
But for someone who wasn’t sure where his work belonged, the category was irrelevant. In the end, he was awarded a big purple “Best of Show” ribbon and a big purple “People’s Choice” ribbon. Rob swept the damn fair.
Rob sells his pieces through shows, galleries and retail shops, and he has a client base who buy multiple pieces to decorate their fancy homes, and who even commission work.
Rob should be a make-up artist on The Walking Dead. In fact, he was selected to work as master sculptor on an independent short horror film called The Kiss, written and directed by Remi Vaughn. Rob’s sculptures will be used as art produced by one of the main characters in this horror/psychological thriller starring Caterina Murino and Sean Patrick Flanery. The project has been stalled by budget and distribution issues, and Vaughn is re-assessing the format of telling the story. Stay up-to-date on the film by visiting www.thekiss-movie.com.
Rob also worked on Sweet, a short horror film shot in Mesa, Arizona, in 2014, about vampire cowboys based on Stephen King’s Skinner Sweet short story. Rob made the hands and face for the lead character and he also played a couple of parts. Check it out on Youtube to see his low-tech solution for having a bloody human heart beat in Sweet’s hand.
On Rob’s To-Do List is making fully-functioning hands using 3-D printed bones on which he sculpts organic-looking details. He’ll do it. Rob ultimately completes his projects, which are many. A giant T-rex head, molded from paper, masking tape and a bed sheet, rests in his workshop, waiting for final finessing. Half-completed sculptures sit here and there.
“There’s a freedom to living the dream,” Rob says, “and being able to jump from project to project.” His mood leads the way. In addition to being a great artist and a talented actor, he also has rhythm.
In his younger days, Rob was a drummer, playing in several bands, such as The Bashers and Right Side Up, rehearsing four nights a week for four hours. When his band was interviewed on TV, he was asked what he wanted to do with his career. Rob’s answer was, “Be a pilot.” He laughs remembering his answer then, which had nothing to do with music and playing in a band.
Sometimes late at night, when he’s concentrating on his art, Rob will crank up his favorite groups; Type O negative, Primed, Ozzy Osbourne or Rush.
But, Rob is as obsessed with aviation as he is with monsters and his dream to be a pilot came true. Currently, he’s building from scratch a Hummel Bird aircraft designed by Morry Hummel (of Hummel Aviation of Byran, Ohio).
Rob is crafting each piece by hand (except for the wing ribs). Otherwise, he fabricates the aluminum pieces and other parts according to detailed sketches on 40 pages of plans provided by Hummel Aviation.
“I’m cutting two cylinders off a Volkswagen engine,” Rob says. “It will be a two-cylinder, four-stroke half-VW aircraft engine, weighing about 84 pounds and ramping up to 47 horsepower.”
Rob talks about crafting a monster to sit atop his Hummel Bird airplane and then entering the plane/monster “sculpture” in next year’s Arizona State Fair. Get ready for another sweep!
One man’s daunting task is another man’s pure joy.
While flying recently, Rob had to make an emergency landing on the east side of Lake Pleasant in his Error Bike plane (which he bought already put together). The engine in the yellow and white plane ate a piston, stranding Rob at the lake. Anna came to the rescue with Rob’s hand-made boat, in which they promptly scooted across the lake to his stranded plane. He put the yellow and white plane on his wooden boat, carried it back across the lake and on to home for repair.
He’s usually quite proficient at flying. In 1999, Rob took first place at the Arizona State Aerobatic Championship.
When he’s flying, Rob will spot coyotes or interesting items he might want to pick up when he’s back on the ground. One find was an antique french door which Anna converted to a tabletop, refinished to match the table base and topped off with a thick sheet of glass. Very shabby chic.
But let’s get back to that hand-made wooden boat. Rob has made three boats in the last couple of years. The first one is a shorter version, something of a prototype with which he could experiment. When that boat turned out well, he built a larger one out of plywood.
Unfortunately, returning home from Lake Pleasant after taking the boat on its inaugural run, Rob’s truck attracted a burro like a red cape attracts a bull in Spain. Burros that live around the lake and are protected by Arizona Game and Fish are known for being testy, and vocal. They can create issues for recreation seekers like Rob. This particular male charged Rob’s truck, ran into the side of it and ended up under the boat trailer, wrecking everything and demolishing his new boat.
Shaken but not deterred, Rob built a second boat out of plywood from Home Depot. He spent $250 on supplies and proudly says, “it catches fish like a $65,000 bass boat.”
Rob grew up in Phoenix in the 1970s, riding his bike to the end of his paved road where desert started. “As a kid,” Rob says, “I loved looking at monsters in magazines, comic books and the movies.” He began sketching and sculpting in his teens.
As a senior in high school, Rob recalls a cowboy showing interest in his paper mache sculptures. One was of a Native American man wearing a necklace of real coyote teeth. The man wanted to take three of Rob’s pieces to the Art Institute of Chicago, to be considered for a show. “I met him in the parking lot where I would later own a hair salon,” Rob says. “I remember putting the sculptures on the hood of my truck for the man to inspect. He left with those sculptures and I never saw the sculptures or heard from him again.”
Older and wiser, Rob and Anna, his wife of 16 years, now live in Black Canyon City, about 25 miles north of Phoenix, with their cute little dogs, Addie and Lacey, and two gorgeous feral cats who appeared in their backyard as kittens and decided to stay (the food Rob and Anna leave for the cats is a good enticement).
Being practical, Rob plans to keep his day job. “I won’t kick that bee hive,” he says. Cutting hair provides a stable foundation from which he can stretch his artistry in new directions and even in new places.
“For me,” Rob says, “the creative process is like throwing dice down on a table. Each throw comes up with a different result, and following one dice often takes me off in a new direction.” Rob’s fingers scurry across the coffee table as he speaks, showing the adventure of going down the rabbit hole of creativity.
Rob’s is a talent and an energy that can’t be contained. No limitations.
YouTube University continues to be Rob’s source for everything he wants to learn and do. When it comes to his sculptures, big and small, he’s adamant that “it has to be horror.”
Three years ago, Rob and Anna trekked to Monsterpalooza in Burbank, California, to check it out and see if he might want to participate in subsequent years. But they couldn’t even get in! After only 40 minutes of being there, they returned to Arizona. Rob doesn’t worry about being in with the art world or even cognizant of artists considered master monster crafters. He’s on his own path, following his own aesthetic, exploring and learning new techniques and new mediums. It’s simply what he does with his endless energy.
At the Phoenix Comicon this year, a long line of young and old people waited to have Rob apply bloody flesh wounds to their faces, hands, knees and elbows. Rob donated The Terminavigator, a large torso piece, to be raffled off to benefit a local no-kill animal shelter. A lucky female scientist from California was delighted to win the sculpture.
Rob recently joined a Facebook group for people who work on horror movies. He’s making connections and expects to travel to Hollywood soon to meet folks face-to-face, laying the groundwork for being considered for future projects.
“I’m transparent about my skills,” Rob says about getting exposure for himself and his work. “I’m opening myself up – heart, mind and soul – to other people, laying bare my abilities and dreams.”
I’m using words like ghoulish, macabre and grotesque to describe Rob’s figures. Yet, they elicit compassion rather than disgust. Their faces reveal them as victims, not the bad guys. They’re pulling together their broken spirits and their broken bodies and riding on, or stumbling on, their dignity intact. They may look like monsters, but Rob has embedded a humanity in each, and given each their own story, their own struggles. They won’t quit, and neither will Rob.
He has the usual self-doubt of any artist and sometimes he’ll ask himself the usual questions; Why am I doing this? Does anyone really care? Do people understand my work?
“I do it because I want to,” Rob says. Let’s hope he’ll always wants to.
Gives the rest of us something to live for.
Rob pilots a Quicksilver Sport 2S over the mountainour Sonoran Desert, trailing Rich Parker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQ9DyZHdmms
Introducing Rob Cobasky, sculptor on The Kiss movie