Visitors at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens mill around a sculpture by artist Steve Tobin. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

BOOTHBAY – There are layers involved when it comes to Steve Tobin’s “Unearthed” at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. These welded and shaped steel sculptures are presented as colorful inverted roots, twisting around each other from the ground up as they mirror what a system of roots might look like underneath the ground.

The brilliance of these tubular structures, aside from the elegance of their soft lines and dancer-like composition, are the shadows the roots cast on the ground below. While Tobin’s art suggests what’s happening underneath the ground, the shadows of his art reflect it on the ground itself.

Tobin, who lives in Pennsylvania, has maintained ties to Maine since coming here for a wilderness canoe camp when he was 13. The trees and rivers impressed him beyond their beauty. “Being out in the woods for eight weeks and not seeing other people, you become attuned to light and shadows. Your instincts are sharper,” he said. “Trees become living creatures. We were in canoes. The trees were moving by me.”

A sculpture by artist Steve Tobin at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The exhibition at Boothbay includes about a dozen large-scale outdoor sculptures, painted in white, black, yellow and red, that will remain on view through the holiday light show at the midcoast gardens and for the start of the gardens’ 2020 season in the spring. They are from Tobin’s Steelroot series. Tobin will sign copies of his new book, “Steve Tobin: Mind Over Matter,” at 1 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 20 at the botanical gardens.

Tobin is best known for his piece “Trinity Root,” which was installed at St. Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan in 2005. Tobin made the piece in tribute to a sycamore tree that protected St. Paul’s Chapel during the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. The tree was uprooted when the towers came down, and its branches protected the chapel from the damage of falling debris.

The piece has been rooted in controversy. In 2015, a decade after Tobin installed the sculpture in partnership with the church, Trinity Church, which owns the sculpture, moved it from Manhattan to a conference center in Connecticut, prompting a lawsuit from Tobin. The suit failed.

Tobin has had a relationship with the botanical gardens for nearly 15 years, since it acquired a realistic rendering called “Pine Cone,” made from repurposed metal and placed on the garden’s Shoreland Trail in 2005. Tobin also had a solo show here in 2005. He appreciates showing his sculpture outdoors at the gardens because it’s open in all seasons and at night during Gardens Aglow, the lighted holiday nighttime walks.

That allows for more variety in the shadows, which are as important as the work itself. In 2017 he installed a piece at the headquarters of a company in Delaware that had offices in the World Trade Center. He called his piece “The Delaware Root,” and designed it with three steel legs curving into each other to cast a shadow in the shape of a peace sign, in honor of those who died in the World Trade Center attacks. “Shadows are my drawings. I am using the sun and earth as paint and canvas,” he said.

When he began making these pieces, they were all black. He was inspired by Chinese ink drawings on rice paper, and saw his forms as calligraphy and the shadows on the ground as a form of communication.

He hasn’t seen this work installed at the botanical gardens but is confident he’ll like it because of the nature of the place. “Going to the gardens, people are predisposed to the message in my work, which is to look at your surroundings because they are always changing. You have to look at Steelroots at different times and in different seasons,” he said.

His pieces frame but do not obliterate their landscape. They occupy a fraction of the area in which they’re installed and become lines in space. As such, they invite the surrounding foliage in as content of the sculpture itself.

Visitors at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens walk by a sculpture by the artist Steve Tobin, whose show “Unearthed” will be on display at the Boothbay gardens until the end of May. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


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