Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Iowa Artist Fellow Spotlight: Levi Robb

The cars at Carney & Sons have seen better days. Windows are shattered or missing. Wheels are long gone. Stacks of flattened sedans and pickups, some piled a dozen high, cover 45 acres on the south side of Ames.

Most people call this place a junkyard, but Levi Robb sees it differently.

“This is a goldmine,” he says. “It’s just about changing your perspective. It’s about how you look at stuff.”

Levi Robb visited the Carney & Sons junkyard in Ames in October 2020. (Iowa Arts Council)

The Des Moines artist and architect is drawn to what he calls the “beautiful chaos” here among the Toyota and Buick carcasses that have been cast aside and forgotten, left to rust and turn into inadvertent sculpture.

“I think about all the history here,” he says. “Each one of these has its own story.”

Robb, who recently received an Iowa Artist Fellowship from the Iowa Arts Council, likes to capture those stories by making prints. With a roller, he coats parts of old vehicles with a mixture of ink and motor oil and then presses them with paper. The resulting prints show layers of texture and the rainbow sheen of an oil slick. The vehicles are part of the artwork, too, retaining his handiwork like graffiti or smudgy tattoos.

“I’ve always been attracted to that raw gritty aesthetic,” he says. “I grew up playing in a junkyard.”

Levi Robb at work in Morning Sun, Iowa. (Courtesy of the artist)

Robb, 34, hails from southeast Iowa, where one of his grandfathers ran a Sinclair station in Mediapolis, down by Burlington. A great uncle owned a salvage yard and wrecking business a few miles north of town, on the road toward Morning Sun.

Even as a kid, Robb marveled at the old cars and tractors that all ended up in the same place. When he was 10, he snapped a photo of some pickup trucks that won a ribbon at the Iowa State Fair.

He worked as a garbage collector and then on a road-painting crew to pay his way through Iowa State, where he earned an architecture degree in 2011. He now works at BNIM in downtown Des Moines, where he is helping to design the new art museum at the University of Iowa.

All of those jobs inform Robb’s artwork, which he’s exhibited throughout the United States — Iowa, Kansas, Idaho, New York — and as far as Iceland and Sweden. His prints and sculptures trace a fine line between trash and treasure, a distinction often defined only by time or location.

“If you’re hiking, you might come across an ax head that was created thousands of years ago, and 10 feet away you’ll find a smashed beer can from the 1960s,” he says. “Sometimes, just putting those things side by side, that’s enough. I don’t have to say much else.”

Several years ago, on a farmstead near his old stomping grounds in Des Moines County, Robb unearthed a Frozen Charlotte doll, a common toy from the 1850s through the 1920s and so named because its body was molded from a solid piece of porcelain, without moving arms or legs. He decided to cast a replica in concrete — and then cast a thousand more. Once every day or so for four years, he mixed a batch of concrete in his kitchen, poured it into the mold, let it set for 20 minutes and then, he recalls, “cleaned off the counter to make tacos or whatever.”

“Frozen Charlotte,” an installation by Levi Robb. (Courtesy of the artist)

Since his recent fellowship came with a $10,000 grant, he looks forward to moving out of his kitchen and into Mainframe Studios. He also plans to hire help from a fabrication shop to build some bigger projects.

Robb first exhibited his Frozen Charlotte collection in a grain bin near Morning Sun, where the dolls lined up like the famous terracotta warriors from China’s 2,000-year-old imperial tomb. Since then he’s installed it in galleries in Des Moines and Reykjavik (and at both places, a few dolls went AWOL).

Even as Robb digs up discarded junk from past generations, he wonders what we ourselves will leave behind for future scavengers. What will 21st century landfills teach 22nd century historians?

Robb discussed this once with a friend who told him, “Man, if you ever pass away and they go through your stuff, I’ll have a lot of explaining to do.” After all, who has a thousand concrete dolls?

But everybody collects stuff, even by accident. Midwesterners who lived through the Depression taught their kids to tuck things away because, well, you just never know. Robb himself hangs onto things because he never knows exactly when or how inspiration might strike.

But it tends to strike him outdoors. He hikes a lot in Iowa and walks a section of the Appalachian Trail every fall with a group of friends. In 2018, he was an artist-in-residence at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, in Kansas, and in Iceland, where, he says, “the whole country is like one big national park on steroids.”

He once made a series of elegant prints with ink and Icelandic black sand. When Olson-Larsen Galleries owner Susan Watts hung them all in a row in her space in West Des Moines, she likened them to a piece of sheer fabric blowing in the wind.

“They’re just these wonderfully amorphous forms — almost ethereal,” she says. “He just really, really plays with process and materials in such interesting ways.”

Levi Robb’s prints on display at Olson-Larsen Galleries in West Des Moines. (Courtesy of Olson-Larsen Galleries)

She admires his mixed-media paintings, too, which shimmer with finely ground bits of glass. It’s the same ingredient in the reflective paint Robb used during his stint with the county road crew.

More recently, when everyone hunkered down during the Covid-19 pandemic, Robb teamed up with a Los Angeles artist named Nicolas Shake to create a virtual project called “Highway Hypnosis.” It pairs automobile-inspired prints with videos of the open road.

Shake used to work in a garage where he helped build muscle cars, and he appreciates Robb’s roots in the world of hard work.

His art “is driven by these very necessary jobs,” Shake says. “He can take something that’s pretty simple or mundane and then imbue it with magic.”

Levi Robb at the Carney & Sons junkyard in Ames in October 2020. (Iowa Arts Council)

– Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov