The man of steel: Lancaster artist shaping heavy metal and young artistic minds
Walk into Bob Doster’s Lancaster studio and you could see sparks fly.
The 68-year-old artist shapes sheets of steel into furniture and sculptures that can be seen throughout York and Lancaster counties, regionally and around the world.
“I’ve got work in lots of places I’ve never been,” said Doster, listing places like Japan, South America, the Caribbean, Italy and Canada.In the Carolinas, he has permanent installations at city main streets, museums and other places.
“He has lots of his artwork around town, it’s a real source of pride,” said Debbie Jaillette, executive director of Lancaster Arts Council, which is a block away from Doster’s Backstreet Studio on Gay Street. “We all get the benefit of looking at and enjoying his artwork. I think it’s terrific his footprint is all over Lancaster County, but he does tremendous work in our schools.”
Looking out her second-story office window, she sees a huge cube resting on a point.
“It’s really remarkable to be up here and see huge displays of public art designed and painted by kids in our schools,” she said. “Bob coordinated all that.”
His sculptures, she said, also are used as awards for teachers and other businesses and organizations, which is “really meaningful.”
But perhaps his greatest craft is working with children.
The blue jeans and denim shirt clad Doster leads 16 high school students one block from his studio to West Chestnut Street to see what he called a “provocative” piece of his artwork.
“Any questions?” he asks.
“Why is it on fire? a student asks.
Three crosses — all over 6 feet — stand before them. The figures on the crosses represent the people who died, he says referring to two crosses made of regular carbon and stainless steel flanking an even larger, plain polished steel cross.
Doster explains. “The flames represent hate, and hate will consume you.”
The center cross, he says, represents the families of the people who died in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Church.
“It represents the purity of faith, and the way they gave forgiveness,” he said. “Faith supports the cross.”
“The two crosses represent the evil of the two men who were crucified with Christ, and the center His purity,” Doster said.
The piece, called Southern Cross, “represents the horrors of Christianity, and the goodness,” he said.
Allen Lowery, 17, was awed by the meaning and symbolism in the crosses — God, the KKK, slave boats, Native Americans and more.
“Wow, he’s really good,” the 11th-grader said.
Doster said the idea was sparked by the Confederate flag controversy in 1999. While it took 15 years to conceptualize, he said it only took a couple weeks each to shear, cut and fit the crosses. The piece has been accepted in the ArtFields competition and will be displayed April 21-29 in Lake City.
“Art affects people differently,” he said. “You’ll see something in there I won’t have seen and you’ll be right.”
Teresa Fields, art educator at Lancaster High, said learning from an internationally known artist and at his private studio is a motivating lesson.
“The art is in the process that you go through producing that piece,” she said.
Doster has worked with more than 60,000 students across more than 40 years as a visiting artist throughout the Carolinas. Students design and build sculptures in in clay, wood and steel, as well as paint murals and banners.
Doster said “it’s an opportunity for students to see art is not just drawing on paper.”
Back in the studio, Alexis Truesdale, 16 and 10th grader at Lancaster High, looked around the room, pointing out art projects she’d like to try.
“I like the fact that I get to express myself and it’s neat to work with an international artist,” she said.
Ninth-grader Emily Tindal, 15, tried her hand at cutting stainless steel with Doster’s help. Donning a long-sleeved denim shirt backward, a helmet and gloves, with a leather apron dropped over her shoes, she jumped as the blade touched metal and sparks flew. The piece: a cut out of the comedy and tragedy theater masks.
“It was cool. I’ll tell my dad about it tonight,” she said.
Her father, Conner, worked as Doster’s apprentice from age 15 through college, learning to weld, paint cars, and understanding fine art.
“(Doster) was a mentor and second dad,” he said. “He would guide you to make you think about what you’re doing.”
For 20 years, the 44-year-old Conner has been working in historic preservation and restoration. He specializes in masonry, but also in painting — making the new look old.
“All the things he taught me helped in allowing me to be able to do this,” he said. “He made a pretty good impression on me.”
Fields talked about the pieces every age level has helped create with permanent installations at many area schools from Indian Land and Fort Mil to Clover and, of course, Lancaster.
“He always does a really good job with students and gets their creative abilities out them,” she said.
About the artist
Doster picked up his first blow torch at age 8 with his father, also a sculptor.
The eldest of six with five sisters, Doster said his dad “Always encouraged us to do what we wanted to do. He let us learn and do.”
Doster hasn’t always been a professional artist. In the 1970s, he owned a grocery store. He also was a truck driver, which has come in handy when moving his large sculptures.
In college, majoring in fine arts at University of South Carolina, is when he decided “I want to do this.” After earning a Master of Arts from Clemson University, he launched his career as a professional artist in 1977, he said.
He opened his studio in his hometown, Lancaster, to be near his two sons. Both now live in Raleigh. Doster entered shows, lots of shows. In the 1980s, the S.C. Arts Commission took his pieces to a show in Italy. As his artwork was being seen around the world, he also was an adjunct professor at Newberry College.
The No. 1 rule for success as a professional artist is to not give up — “be stubborn,” he said.
Even with success, Doster remains humble. He said his wife of 16 years, Cherry Doster, is “a better artist than I am” pointing to her sculptures and paintings in the studio. The couple met when she took his college class.
“She was the best student I ever had,” he said.
He also gives high praise to James Utz, 39, who came to work with Doster 15 years ago, with a print making degree from Winthrop University. Doster designs the pieces, and Utz puts them together.
“He can see better than I can see,” Doster said.
Professionally and personally the duo say their bond is as strong as the steel they work with.
“He gets us into things we might not pursue otherwise,” Utz said. “I’m not going to say I’m a better welder than he is, but I’m a better welder than him. But he gets the big picture.”
Doster takes care of the business end and is the social one, Utz said.
“I would not be able to keep it going as a business and be this successful at it,” Utz said. “He’s gregarious, fun, easy going, messy, very messy, loyal. We’re like family at this point.”
The art studio
The former 1930s brick pool hall is now a 7,000-square-foot studio. The exterior front wall is covered in dinner plates.
The entrance opens to space where Doster’s and other artists’ works are displayed. Studio visitors can take a piece of his artwork home. The price may be anywhere from $5 to $200,000, or more.
There’s a wall lined with newspaper and magazine clippings. The headlines: “Doster named hero of S.C. 2001 Year of Child,” “Keeper of Culture,” “Doster wins state’s top award,” and “Sculptor helps mold students.”
Walk up the ramp on the left side of the bricked wall into a space for working. On any given weekday, there are 12-18 students at work creating their art projects that will be displayed on their city streets.
Out the back door is a garden with more sculptures, including some by his father. A space used for bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, weddings, art crawls and other gatherings.
But to the right of the main front door is another door into the welding workshop.
Doster’s rescue dog Muddy, greets visitors, as does Utz’s rescue dog, Bailey, It looks and smells like an auto shop. Lancaster High senior Chasity Ellis, 18, said, “Everything is everywhere.”
But Doster knows where everything goes, showing the class how he cuts and works with the metal to form a heart.
“That’s amazing,” a student says.