Sierra Vista sculptor Robert Wick has a heart bigger than his art. And that's pretty big, considering that some of his bronze sculptures are more than 13 feet high and weigh so much they have to be lifted by cranes and transported by flatbed.
Wick was the featured artist and patron of Sierra Vista's recent Fourth Annual Winter Arts Festival, a relatively new celebration in this town of 40,000 or so located next to Fort Huachuca. As part of the festival, eight of Wick's freeform sculptures have been placed--at considerable effort and expense to the artist--in front of a number of town businesses and buildings.
"It was a nightmare moving this stuff," says the honoree. But shoppers going into JC Penney and bureaucrats heading for work at city offices can't help but see them. That's the point.
"I'm very willing to explain my art and the questions that arise from it," says Wick. "And placing the sculptures all over town forces people to look at the work. You can't ignore the sheer presence of sculpture." Especially Wick's sculptures, which are often home to growing plants and trees.
Wick has been pleased with the general reaction to his sculptures from fellow townspeople, who are, for the most part, more familiar with traditional Southwestern art featuring cowboys and Native Americans than the abstracted work of Henry Moore, one of Wick's favorite sculptors. "Americans don't grow up with art, although people who see the work here have been genuinely interested in it and very complimentary," he says. "I was surprised when I was chosen as the festival's featured artist over artists doing more traditional work."
"St. Earth," a 13-and-a-half-foot-tall paean to the rocks and mesas of Sierra Vista's surrounding mountains, is a far cry from conventional Western art. It took Wick nine years to complete, and appears at the entrance to JC Penney in the Plaza Vista Mall. "Landbridge," a shadowy human figure arched like a naturally occurring Southwestern rock formation and sprouting real plants, graces the lawn of the Sierra Vista City Building. And you can see "Bouquet," a stylized torso/flower bouquet, in the front courtyard of Madera Place's Movies to Go video rental store next to the Merle Norman cosmetics boutique. Although he's naturally self-effacing, the 58-year-old Wick's academic pedigree is impeccable. He has a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of fine arts, both from Kent State University, and a master of fine arts from the notoriously artsy Cranbrook Academy of Art. When he's not working on drawings and models for his abstract bronze pieces, the soft-spoken Wick is riding herd on the making of initial plaster casts for his sculptures in a spacious home studio nestled in a Huachuca Mountain canyon five miles from the Mexican border; or he's arranging some upcoming show, like the ones scheduled for 1994 at Cranbrook, Kent State University (where he taught sculpture between 1962 and 1969) and the University of Nebraska. Or he could be working at the bronze foundries he uses in Phoenix and Athens, Ohio, to cast his final work or enthusiastically explaining how he strives to capture in his bronzes that mystical sense of oneness spoken of by Saint Francis and Buddha.
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And when he's not doing anything related to art, Wick is back at his office in Sierra Vista (around the corner from the Koreana Yummy Buffet, in the most modern building in town). It's from there, overlooking mountains much revered by the artist, that he oversees Wick Communications, a publishing concern that owns 30 community newspapers from California to North Carolina, including the Las Vegas New Times (no relation to its Phoenix namesake), the Sierra Vista Herald, the Bisbee Review, the Douglas Dispatch and just about every other small-town newspaper in southern Arizona. This journalistic empire was started by his father, Milton, and his uncle, James, in 1926 in Niles, Ohio, a classic, blue-collar steel town. Milton Wick, a foreign war correspondent at one time, was never afraid of speaking his mind; in fact, he was denied a Phi Beta Kappa key from his college alma mater because of his pacifist stance in World War I. After World War II, Wick's uncle made the front page of the New York Times when Joseph Stalin responded to a telegram the journalist had sent to him about what Americans could expect the new Russian strongman to accomplish for his country. Wick's parents were the first journalists allowed to take a group into the USSR after the war and managed to get themselves arrested there, a relatively easy thing to do in the Soviet Union at that time. It was Milton Wick who unwittingly encouraged his son Robert to become an artist instead of an architect, since the only architect in Niles, Ohio, didn't seem to have much business in those days. "No one ever built a house in our steel town," Wick recalls, "so my father concluded that no architect could survive."
Always good at sketching, the artist drew volumetrically early on. "As a kid, I would ask my father to draw something for me and, since he always drew in 3-D for me, I was able to draw in perspective with correct shadowing from the time I started the first grade. I was never really interested in color, since I don't see its intensity the way other people do. It was form and shape in space that fascinated me, so sculpture was a natural medium for me."
Despite his artistic leanings, Wick and his own brother were initiated into the newspaper business when the artist was in high school; they started literally from the ground up, sweeping floors, then working in circulation. An excellent athlete himself, Wick began writing sports articles for the family paper and eventually went to journalism school. While in college, he played baseball and had dreams of playing pro ball, which he gave up to pursue art, his real love. Wick ended up teaching in Ohio and New York until 1975, when his father, who had retired to Phoenix, became ill. At that point, he found himself back in the newspaper business part-time here in Arizona and, after his father's death in 1981, full-time, although he continued to create and show his work in private galleries and museums throughout the United States, including the Tucson Museum of Art and Scottsdale Center for the Arts. In 1979, Wick started buying what would become a 2,600-acre spread, some of which is in a wash-riddled, double canyon in the Mule Mountains near Bisbee. With the help of one assistant, he planted more than 12,000 ponderosa-pine seedlings in the area, hand-watering them. "Of those 12,000 seedlings, probably only 500 to 1,000 have survived," Wick estimates.
The artist's fascination with and commitment to the beauty of southern Arizona's almost mystical natural environment led to his founding, with the help of Dick Kamp, of the Border Ecology Project. He and Kamp are credited with spearheading the drive to stave off smelter-expansion plans for neighboring Nacozari and Cananea, Sonora; they're also responsible, in large measure, for the closure of an 80-year-old smelter owned by Phelps Dodge in nearby Douglas, a smelter producing such harmful pollution that it turned southern Arizona into the country's most badly polluted area. Sulphuric-acid-laden plumes would drift for miles, causing even asthmatics in the far north end of the valley to become ill. Dick Kamp, who is in Peru consulting on a similar smelter problem there, remains on the payroll of Wick Communications, so that this ecological battle can continue. With the help of an architect, Wick is designing a home and studio he plans to build in the mountains he loves. "It will incorporate a pyramid, a right triangle and a trapezoid," he says, "and will take advantage of the mountain views that surround the site. I plan on bringing a lot of my work up here." In keeping with his sincerely spiritual orientation, the artist plans to make an abstracted bronze Buddha that will stand watch over a pool looking out over the rugged vistas stretching to the horizon in every direction. "I seek peace and balance as an artist," says Robert Wick, whose life, like his art, is a continuing work in progress.