Bernard J. Roberts: A Curatorial Treasure

“Current,”  Bronze, 26″ x 42″ x 25, 2004

My strong attraction to several fluidly carved wood forms, bronze sculptures, white Gessoed brightly colored wood constructions, and heretofore unknown textures created by powder bug infestations, enticed

Untitled Stick Form
 Powder Bug Wood and gesso
33″x 21″ x 11″
Circa 1993

me to repeatedly visit the gallery exhibition Out of the Forest, Into the Furnace – Bernard J. Roberts Bronze and Wood Sculpture. Continuing through December 26, 2012, Roberts’ passion for and exploration of his obvious muse “nature” inhabits every piece.  Worthy of his zeal, Vanguard Sculpture Services masterfully provided the extraordinary vision, teamwork, expertise, and “elbow” grease, demanded to bring this exhibition into fruition.

Bernard J. Roberts’ death, on July 19, 2011, greatly impacted and delayed plans for his retrospective at Vanguard’s gallery space – then under construction. Curated by gallery director Beth Sahagian, Roberts’ exhibition opened, a year later, July 24, 2012 in “THE GALLERY,” a pristine space deftly conceived and built by Shagian’s husband, Ed Sahagian-Allsopp and Vanguard’s staff.   Sahagian and Mike Nolte, Vanguard Sculpture Services founders, lead by Roberts’ son Aari and daughter Andrea, selected 150 art pieces from his estate. Sahagian and Nolte effectively guided foundry artists Tom Clark, Chris Andrews, Care Ekpo, and Ed Sahagian-Allsopp through cleaning and restoration of at least 110 pieces. The team’s masterful skills and curatorial decisions result in an intriguing visual presentation of Roberts’ stunningly seductive abstract carvings and bronzes, exploratory ceramics, whimsical assemblages, and conceptual constructions.

Untitled Bowl Form. Carved White Oak, 4″ x 12″ x 8,” Circa 1978

From his published biography, he was the first of his siblings to earn degrees. Beginning at University of Wisconsin-Steven’s Point in wildlife ecology, he realized his passion for art and transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, earning a Bachelor of Science in 1960; a Masters of Science in ceramics and sculpture in 1966; and finally completing his formal education  with a Masters in Fine Art in 1969.    He married, raised two children, taught school, and finally settled on creating artwork from 1992 onward. Over the years he showed widely in galleries and museums throughout the Midwest. His work resides in the permanent collections of the Neville Public Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.   Over 400 hand carvings and assembled wood pieces reflect his

“Yellow Germination”
16″ x 22″ x 15”
Wood , foam and paint
Circa 1988

interest in mitosis, waves, seedpods, growth, ovum, male and female forms, topography, and germination. As an avid naturalist, craftsman, teacher, and restorer of prairies, his lifelong stewardship of native Wisconsin prairies and forests coincided with his fervor for making art.

Storage Barn on the Robert’s estate.
Photo courtesy of Vanguard.

Sahagian added, “He bought a barren farm and planted 15 acres of arborvitae and black walnut trees making the entire property a forest and simultaneously fodder for his art. Pulling trees out of the ground, he threw them into the swamp to loosen the bark, bugs, and dirt. Then after sun drying and bleaching, Bernie stored them from floor to ceiling for future use along with his plethora of collected objects, unfinished sculptures, and countless boxes of ideas sketched on anything.” Aari, said, “He was always making art.”

Sahagian frequently spoke with Roberts, who in 1998 became one of Vanguard’s earliest clients. Offering important insights into his background, she said, “Bernie built several barn- like structures for studio space including a home for his family. Every surface seemed to be touched by his creativity, including textured ceilings, unique flooring, wood furniture, light fixtures, functional wood bowls, spoons, and even carved jewelry. Everywhere, one sees something unique. For example, known for a great sense of humor, between the house and his vegetable garden he poured a curvilinear sidewalk in the shape of a woman and planted a triangular grouping of forget-me-nots, appropriately, between the thighs and the navel.”

“Centipede Table,” Honey locust wood, 17″ x 50″ x 22,” Circa 1972

Curating her first retrospective and solo exhibition, Sahagian

“Hurdler of Hearts,” Wood , Gesso, paint, 23″ x 32″ x 8″ Circa 2009

quickly developed new insights into both the artist and his artwork, as did other Vanguard artists. She believes this is because Roberts always delivered one style of work to the foundry for casting. She said, “The sheer number of pieces, diverse styles, and materials completely changed the way I saw his studio practice. I was touched emotionally by the sensitive nature of the subject matter and his love for the materials he used. I often find myself smiling when I think of him pulling the perfect piece of wood off the pile or working on a particular piece. I see now why a person might choose to be a curator, the commitment allows an unusual amount of time with an artist’s work, what better way to get to know someone?”

Visit the website at: or Vanguard’s Facebook page for current gallery and foundry events and projects. Call 414.444.5508 or visit at 3374 West Hopkins, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Ed Sahagian-Allsopp photo credit.

Submitted by Evelyn Patricia Terry. She can be contacted for feedback at with any corrections or editing input.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: