Artist Profile: Nancy Rubins

Big Edge by Nancy rubins

By Senta Scarborough
This is the second in her monthly series of artist profiles.

It’s specially fashioned—thousands of pounds of junk, scrap, debris strung together to appear as light as a bird’s feather. That’s the sculpture of Nancy Rubins who has been orchestrating the discarded into suspended beautiful arrangements for decades. A grand creative effort to reuse what’s been thrown away. Imagine the American industrial wasteland: metal canoes, airplanes, once expensive garden ornaments found along Beverly Hills estates, rusty childhood playground equipment, broken appliances, retired carousel animals—all defying gravity. (Above: Big Edge combines over 200 aluminum canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and sailboats, each weighing between 60 and 125 pounds, into one flowering cluster of art. Built in 2009 and still standing today, Big Edge stands at a length of 75 feet and brightens up the day of every visitor to the CityCenter. Photo by Thomas Duesing)

Nancy Rubins, Another Kind of Growth, 1988

Rubins got her big break when Paul Schimmel, then the new chief curator at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, showed her Trailers and Hot Water Heaters, 1992, in the controversial exhibit, “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s.” Since then, Rubins has worked with the same crew of technicians and engineers to pull off mind-bending, metal-mystifying works of art. Often the works are reminiscent of a natural disaster scene—lumpy mattresses, TVs, appliances, mobile homes, hot water heaters tossed like a tornado. Rubins applies “tensegrity” where parts are placed in balanced compression and held together with tensile cables. (Above: Another Kind of Growth, 1988. At Point State Park, Pittsburgh. Found objects, steel, black tie-wire cable. Approx. 35 x 45 x 40 feet. Photograph by Howard P. Nuernberger. Below: Airplane Parts made of scraps of old airplanes wired together into a massive junk tree. Approx. 25 x 65 feet. Photo: AI R)

Nancy Rubins MOCA Los Angeles

Rubin’s father was an aerospace scientist. As a young girl, she was encouraged to think creatively. A discipline that paid off. Her creations began in clay and three-dimensional drawings. Clay offered a cheap and flexible material for experimentation. “So, for me, it was a wonderful tool of transience and a marvelous tool to learn by. It was a great way for me to figure out the three-dimensional world but not have the problem of making more junk that needed to be thrown away,” Rubins told Border Crossings Magazine. Texas native, Rubins obtained her BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, then moved out west where she earned her  MFA from the University of California Davis in 1976. Now Rubins works from her LA studio where she figures out how to build the sculptures, then deconstructs them into parts to move onto trucks. Some of her public installations include Los Angeles, San Diego, Paris, Chicago, and New York. Her most recent installation is currently in London:  Crocodylius Philodendrus (2016–17), clusters of animal forms with tensile cables from her series, Diversifolia. For her, it’s a balancing act of finding just the right fit.

 Airplane Parts at Forte Belvedere by Nancy Rubins

(Airplane Parts at Forte Belvedere, Florence, Italy, 2003. Airplane parts, steel, black tie-wire cable. Approx. 27 x 42 x 25 feet. Photograph by Nancy Rubins.)

Like in Fierce Hazel’s thrift store sewing tag inspiration, Specially Fashioned by Hazel, Rubins originally found her muse in San Francisco thrift store bins. But soon, everything got bigger, mammoth in fact. The sculptures grew in scope and she traded in bin items for huge scrap yards of abandoned airplanes, space shuttles and old military equipment in the Mojave Desert.  The forgotten waste— like discarded playground animals—finds a new life.  A life grounded in nature itself. The compositions often mimic the natural world—the way crystals grow, a cell divides, a garden blooms, a nebula expands. Grounded in nostalgia, those objects drawn together and tethered by cables question old meanings and create exciting new ones. The reclaimed objects create a dizzying energy juxtaposing industrial waste as if part of an overgrown idyllic garden in space. They tower, overwhelm; force you to look up, and perhaps for a moment hope they don’t fall down on you.  A moment when the rules don’t seem to matter or apply anymore. 

Crocodylius Philodendrus by sculptor Nancy Rubins

Rubins, as part of her process, imagines these objects without their initial history, economic or social purpose; a stripping of its original function. She is fascinated by the material’s original source.  “I think about where the metal has come from, like my earrings, the gold came from a star exploding,” she told ArtNet News. Recycling as a way to transform through repurposing. In a 2014 Gagosian Gallery interview,  Rubins said, It’s interesting because you get these objects and you note that they’re loaded with this history, and it’s time for me to blow a new history into it.” (Above: Crocodylius Philodendrus, 2016-2017. Cast iron, brass, bronze, aluminum, stainless steel armature and stainless steel wire cable. Photo by Halul Erimis)

Why We Love

It’s a philosophy that’s close to our hearts at Fierce Hazel. We are committed to minimizing waste. That’s why our bags are made from salvaged fabric—material that would have remained on the factory floor now has a new meaning—a durable and functional bag for any epic adventure. 

Portrait of Nancy Rubins, courtesy Gagosian, by Brian Guido.

About the writer: Senta Scarborough is an award-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated producer, and the founder of Sentamatic Media focusing primarily on screenwriting, journalism and non-fiction projects. Her work has appeared in AdweekIntoUSA Today, E! News, US Weekly Magazine, and Asheville Poetry Review, among others. She is a lifetime member of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist’s Association where she served as a board director for two terms. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside/Palm Desert. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, Katie, and their dog, Sadie. Find her on social media @sentascar.