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Steel sculptor Robert Ellison dies at 65

Robert Ellison

Press Democrat File Photo
Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 10:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 10:54 a.m.

The day before the death of prolific and playful steel sculptor Robert Ellison, the incapacitated but unbroken artist greeted guests to the fifth annual “I'm Still Alive” party at his mountain-top home and studio above Penngrove.

“He was was so excited and so looking forward to it,” said niece and assistant Brett Buikema.

“He was still very expressive,” Buikema said of the 65-year-old Ellison, who began to notice the effects of debilitating ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, in 2005.

“He had a wonderful smile,” she said. “His eyes told a story of their own. What a wonderful way to go out.”

Buikema and Ellison's mother, Mary Ellison of Michigan, were with him at his home on Sonoma Mountain when he died on Sept. 9.

Works of Ellison, many of them towering and weighing up many tons, are exhibited in private collections and public spaces around the world. Local placements include his “Sun Zone,” reminiscent of ice cream cones, at the entrance to the Sonoma County Administration Center; “Bar Note Bench” at Sonoma State University's new Green Music Center, “Cherry Soda” in Petaluma's theater district, two prominent pieces at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, the scissored “Renaissance” that stood for years on Old Courthouse Square and now is at CornerStone Sonoma, and “Sweep” which adorns the reflecting pool at Rohnert Park's Spreckels Center.

Though ALS ultimately left Ellison unable to operate a motorized wheelchair or breathe on his own, the help of his niece and a cadre of friends allowed him to continue to design, move, restore and upgrade sculptures until about a year ago.

“He never stopped thinking and he never stopped creating,” said Buikema, the daughter of Ellison's sister in Baltimore, Bonnie Jean Ellison Buikema. “He never stopped thinking of ways to improve what he had already done.”

Ellison, a lanky man with a twinkling demeanor, told a reporter for The Press Democrat in March of 2010 he had no interest in letting his condition halt his fun.

“If you can't have fun, what can you have?” he said.

“Even with this ALS stuff, I'm not going to let it get me down. I mean, I'm not going to to spend my last moments depressed. I just do what I do.”

Born in Detroit and educated at Michigan State University, Ellison worked in ceramics before moving to steel, then going big.

“Steel is so permanent,” he said in the 2010 interview. “I did ceramics when I was just out of grad school, but they were too breakable.”

Not all of those sculptures have won universal acclaim. More than 30 years ago, San Francisco supervisors demanded that he remove a 1978 piece he called “Four Times Daily” from the city Civic Plaza.

“They thought it was ugly and they didn't understand it,” Ellison said long afterward. Asked how he hopes people will respond to his art, he stuck tongue in cheek and replied, “I want to them to laugh and say, 'What kind of idiot made that?'”

“Four Times Daily” stood for years at the former McPhail School near China Camp in Marin County. One of Ellison's last major acts was to oversee the disassembly and moving of the piece to his studio, a project financed with a grant from Sonoma County's Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation.

Buikema said Ellison hoped to restore, reassemble and find a new home for “Four Times Daily,” one of his signature pieces. Buikema said she still hopes to complete that process.

“It was a massive, massive sculpture and it will be a massive, massive undertaking,” she said, adding that “we have some ideas” about where it might go.

Buikema was living in Baltimore two years ago when she asked her uncle, whose debilitation was advancing, if she could come help him work and care for himself.

“It seemed like a unique opportunity to come be with Robert,” she said. She added that since then she's been deeply impressed by the power of his creative spirit and the loyalty of the friends who hung in with him and helped him continue his work.

“The amazing thing about Robert was that he had a huge circle of friends and care providers who came to the house,” Buikema said.

“His eyes would light up every time his friends would come by. It was a huge part of what kept him going for so long.”

Buikema said her uncle also was buoyed tremendously by live-in caretaker Epeneri Naituru and the frequent visits by his mother from Michigan.

She said that despite his physical decline and the frustration it brought, Ellison remained a happy, hilarious person.

“Oh my God he was funny. Wicked, but funny.”

It was during a more serious moment in the 2010 newspaper interview that Ellison observed that what he liked about steel, after having worked in ceramics, is that steel doesn't break.

“Every sculpture I've ever built is still in existence,” he said. “If I'm going to spend a lot of time and effort making these pieces, I want them to last forever.”

His niece said there may be a celebration of his life later this year.

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