Rockets from the deep
Paradise artist makes metal sculptures that will not last forever
“The Mona Lisa” has been cleaned, revarnished and damaged by the elements over the years to the point Leonardo da Vinci likely would do a double-take before recognizing his own work. Today, it hangs in Paris’ Louvre behind 2-centimeter-thick bullet-proof glass in a box built to withstand humidity, vibration and other environmental hazards, but despite our best efforts it will someday—like the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Statue of Liberty, and every other work of art created and appreciated by man—rot away altogether.
While this may be a bleak vision of the future best ignored by artists bent on achieving immortality through their works, Doug Rathbun finds meaning—and some comfort—in that reality.
“I don’t think art should be a permanent, static thing,” Rathbun, a life-long resident of Paradise, said while preparing for his latest exhibit, Other Worlds, now showing at Chico’s Avenue 9 Gallery. “I think it should change with time, and it should eventually go away.”
Rathbun has been an artist his whole life (he remembers having an epiphany of sorts when his third-grade teacher asked the class to draw a tree branch outside the classroom window) and has worked in several media, but he’s perhaps best known for his sculptures. Anyone who’s spotted large, rusted metal fish soaring above local orchards or stalking local lawns is familiar with some of his work.
The artist said he started making the statues about a decade ago, with his earliest attempts serving as a lesson in the ephemeral nature of art. Inspired by his love of 1950s-era “Flash Gordon-type” spacecraft, he began forming rocket-ship lanterns from papier mâché and metal tomato cages.
“They’d melt in the rain every winter, so I started playing around with welding and using bits of steel because it would last longer,” Rathbun recalled. “Some of my friends started saying, ‘Those are great, I’d pay money for those,’ so soon after, I started showing them.”
Rocket ships remain one of his favorite motifs, and led directly to his alternative focus on aquatic creatures: “I showed [the rockets] to a gallery owner who said, ‘Well, those are really very nice, but what else do you make?’ I went home to think about it and thought, well, a fish is kind of shaped like a rocket ship. So, I made a fish.”
Another of Rathbun’s favorite forms is the obelisk, as well as the related pyramids, which he said “have a certain power all of their own.” More recently, he began working with wood, with some of his newer pieces inspired by Native American totems. Reclaimed materials figure prominently in much of his work.
“I like rusty metal, and I frequent the scrap yard to collect pieces,” Rathbun said, noting he tends to see the potential in raw materials rather than try to force them to fit his own vision. “I’ll see a star wheel on a plough or something like that and realize that part of the wheel reminds me of the spines of a fish or something else, then go from there.”
Though his metal and wood sculptures won’t melt away in a season and may remain intact long after he’s gone, Rathbun remains distinctly aware—and happy with—the thought they’ll someday disappear.
“Nothing’s really permanent, no matter how hard you try,” he said. “The seasons change, things come, and they go away. I like that idea … it’s the circle of life.”