While attending Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Randy Colbath of Bangor started sculpting wood in his spare time. And while he worked as an engineer aboard merchant vessels, the metalwork necessary for his job slowly led to metal sculptures.
But he didn’t truly recognize his artistic tendencies until 10 years ago when he came across wood-turners crafting enormous bowls in Hawaii.
“I got in my head, ‘I could do that, and I want to do that.’ The bowls were breathtaking,” Colbath said.
When he left his mariner life behind in 2007, he had a full-time job to retire to — sculpting.
Now, his wooden sculptures are nearly the only decoration in his Bangor apartment. Above his refrigerator sits a smooth bowl of apple wood. Leaning against the wall is a face resembling a tribal mask, and snaking along a table, a delicate wave of pale wood.
Colbath’s sculptures, which usually sell for $1,000-$5,000, have been exhibited at the Bangor Art Walk, in galleries throughout Maine, at a gallery in Manhattan, and he plans to try Boston. His work currently is on display at Bangor Wine and Cheese Co. at 86 Hammond St. in Bangor.
On Tuesday, Colbath set his coffee mug on the dark, polished wood of a table he built of exotic wood and metal as he talked about his plans to make a line of similar tables made of salvaged Maine pine.
Recently, he has moved away from his abstract style to sculpt human torsos and faces in preparation for his big “Herbie Project.”
Herbie, Maine’s biggest American elm located in Yarmouth, succumbed to Dutch elm disease and was cut down in January 2010. The 110-foot-tall champion tree was more than 200 years old, and its wood was auctioned off.
“I have two of the biggest pieces,” said Colbath.
One of his pieces is 7.5 feet tall and had to be loaded onto his truck with a forklift. Now it sits in his mother’s garage in Howland while he plans to sculpt the wood into a life-size representation of the tree’s 102-year-old caretaker, Frank Knight.
“It’s something that I really want to do, but I’m in no hurry,” he said.
Since last spring, Colbath has been working with beautiful wood from a large apple tree that fell down in Brewer after its base rotted out. He plans to gift a bowl and sculpture to the tree’s owners.
Colbath doesn’t carve. He uses a chain saw, electric grinder and drills to slowly coax lines, shapes and hollows into the wood.
“I can’t make a piece in one day,” he said. “I spend a whole month on one thing, and it evolves throughout that period.
“The wood controls the way I work. I’m kind of an automaton. My ideas free-flow while working on a piece.”
Even pieces he has an initial idea for usually change. For example, he planned on building a completely metal, human-sized robot, but changed his mind and created a metal torso and a head out of cherry wood, a reddish-brown wood with swirling lines. One eye is closed and the other is wide open, revealing the hollow interior of the head, painted gold.
“It’s my only political statement piece,” he said. “This is about the Catholic Church turning a blind eye on what’s going on in their churches.”
The piece sits in his hallway, staring with one golden eye, a cross painted on its metal armor.
“I start all of my projects with a chain saw,” said Colbath, who works out of a studio behind John Bapst Memorial High School.
To explain how he sculpts, he yanked the head off its metal shoulders and placed it upside down on the floor between his feet. Then he pretended to hold a chain saw and slice down into the neck at different angles to hollow out the cherry burl. With an imaginary grinder tool, he continued to remove wood and shape the head.
“[The grinder] comes with a guard, and I have to take that off to work this way,” he said. “It’s very dangerous. I have a lot of scars from this piece.”
With these tools, he sculpts out a solid piece of wood into a shape that may have walls less than a centimeter thick. And while he takes his time, they sometimes break unexpectedly. He mends breaks and cracks with an effective and nearly undetectable adhesive he has discovered — Super Glue and sawdust.
“In our job, we learn to be versatile to make something work,” said Richard Economy who has known Colbath for 36 years and worked with him aboard the ships. “At sea, when something is broken, we learned to adapt and fix things.”
“Working on ships and going to school, I learned a lot of skills that people would get in [a master of arts] course,” Colbath said. “To cast, weld, processes like those all come second nature to me.”
To make up for the knowledge he missed not having a formal art education, he reads. In the sunroom of his apartment, a library of art history books is quickly growing. He looks at the art of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and other great artists for ideas and to put his artwork into context.
“I’m going to do this the rest of my life,” Colbath said. “I’m not going to stop, even if I don’t sell another piece.”
For information about Colbath, visit www.randycolbath.com.