We had the good fortune of connecting with Bobby Zokaites and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Bobby, what’s the most important lesson your business/career has taught you?
Everything will be okay. Sculpture, the practice and the business of large-scale sculpture particularly, the life and community of it, provides many opportunities to learn. Part of what drives my aesthetic sensibilities, is the time I spent in my youth hiking and caving through Virginia’s Blue Ridge; I was backpacking, skiing, and caving by the time I was three years old. With exercises like rebuilding carbide lamps blindfolded, early experiences established a sense of self-reliance and practicality. When I was ten, I had a bad skiing accident that broke my neck. I was in traction for two and a half weeks, and a halo for two and a half months. This was the same year that Christopher Reeves broke the same bone, Cervical 2; we consulted with those same doctors at the University of Virginia. While I’m sure they gave my parents a pretty hard prognosis, all they would tell me was that I was “stronger than Superman.” In undergrad at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, I began to learn about some of the primary hurdles for large-scale sculptors. My friends and I found it difficult to procure the sizes and quantities of the materials we needed to build big on our small student budgets, so we began a campus-wide program to salvage usable refuse. Diverting some twelve tons of materials out of our garbage collection system in its first year, RePo was a huge success. In April of 2007, my foundry class took a field trip to visit Polich Talix, a fine art foundry in Rock Tavern New York and across the Hudson, the DIA Beacon, in Beacon New York. This was my first in-person experience with the Minimalists: it was here, while inside a sculpture by Richard Serra, that my friend Jane called to tell me about a mass shooting in my hometown. After graduation, at Franconia, I was exposed to the new problems presented by a sculpture park. Where the scale of the architecture at Alfred had made my work feel large, these sweeping Minnesota grounds begged to differ. Each visiting practitioner and their work are swallowed by the vastness of the land. To build anything of substance, anything impressive, notable, even visible, it takes days that start before sunrise, an economy of labor exchange, a very agrarian ethos rooted in community and shared values. It is a microcosm of intense failures and victories against 100mph winds and formidable snow loads. In the desert, these concerns become thermal expansion and prolonged sun exposure. Arizona State University brought me to the Southwest for my graduate degree. And I stayed. Now, as an urban sculptor, there is a different set of challenges: space is more expensive, folks are busy and time is a precious resource. As well, one of the great aspects of cities is that they are inherently built of competition and compromise — this can be a burden or a boon for an artist. And, of course, as a major metropolitan area, Phoenix was early to see the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. With all, as a sculptor, as a studio, there have been successes and failures; there is mourning and celebration, and always a ‘keeping on with it’.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I am a sculptor who engages the imagination through the creation of large-scale, colorful, interactive objects and spaces. Enthusiastic about the idea of ‘play’, I investigate themes of adventure and childhood, while utilizing fabrication and assembly methods inspired by industrial processes. This combination of play and industry creates distinctive works of art that activate the surrounding environment and encourage audience participation. Often, the audience is invited to see, hear, and play with the installations, which blurs the lines between artist, performer, and viewer. The magic really happens when children start to show their parents how to interact with the space. “Shifting Sand Land” is a great example. Commissioned by Scottsdale Arts Festival in 2015 and named after a desert level in Super Mario Brothers, this 50′ game of “Can’t Touch the Ground” is designed as small platforms with hemispherical foundations; these “islands” constantly change the center of gravity—keeping participants on their toes! In the last few years, the studio has been focused on two of my largest projects to-date; permanent civic infrastructure projects for the City of Phoenix and Valley Metro. One is a revitalization project that turns an empty lot into a community greenspace, and the other is a light rail expansion project; I was selected to design, fabricate and install sculpture for three stops along the new Tempe Streetcar route (slated to open later in 2021). Public art provides the opportunity to present my work in spheres where more than just the arts and gallery-going community will experience it. These opportunities break the boundaries of typical exhibition settings, allowing the work to focus on engagement ultimately creating a dynamic relationship between the public, me, my work, and the site. Throughout years-long commitments to public art projects, an ongoing experimental studio practice has provided a haven for the exploration of new technologies, materials and forms. Located near Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, Zokaites Sculpture is a 12,000 sq.ft. open-air, studio space. A small group of practitioners anchors this collaborative space as a platform for each artist to create work without boundaries. From unique objects and ideas to our capabilities as a collective, working together we aim to do more to strengthen local ties between art and our community.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
There are many reasons I chose to build a studio here in Arizona, and the desert landscapes are certainly one of them. Anytime I have visitors from out-of-town, we get out onto the trails, through the canyons, up the mountains. South Mountain and Camelback are easy go-to’s, and if we’ve got a week or more available to us, trekking through Joshua Tree is also a favorite. The preserves are fun to explore, from Desert Botanical Gardens and the Rio Salado Restoration Area out to Boyce Thompson Arboretum. We’d likely drive around to check out my public art projects that’ve gone up in the metro area in the last few years, visiting “The Oculus” in Paradise Valley, “A Time Machine Called Tinaja” in Phoenix, and the three streetcar installations along Apache Boulevard in Tempe. Otherwise in the arts, we might attend one of the local iron pours, or see what’s on at Phoenix Art Museum, ASU Museum, Tempe Center for the Arts, Mesa Contemporary, Lisa Sette or Vision Gallery. The Musical Instrument Museum and the Hall of Flame Museum are also of particular interest to family members of mine. After hitting some local staples throughout the week—coffee at Cartel, pizza at Otto’s, drinks at Palo Verde, and Chorizo at Carolina’s—and safety-permitting, we’d close the trip with a potluck at the studio. Between everyone connected to the studio, other friends, and my Sunday Night Mitchell Park volleyball crew, studio potlucks can be pretty lively events and always a nice send-off.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
The three years I spent in Minnesota, before moving to Arizona, was at Franconia Sculpture Park. There I met countless numbers of sculptors including John Hock, Peter Morales, Jeffery Kalstrom, Bridget Beck and Paul Howe, to name just a few. In that time, I was able to see many different materials transmute through raw ambition, and participate in many different working methodologies. My experience at Franconia gave me confidence to experiment for no other reason than personal growth.
“The Oculus” images (2), credit Grey Shed Studio. “Shifting Sand Land” images (2), credit Scottsdale Public Art. Tempe Streetcar images (2), credit Zokaites Sculpture. “Where Tom Sawyer Wears a Business Suit” images (2), credit Peter Bugg. Small Weaving images (2), credit Zokaites Sculpture.