As an opera singer, Kirk Vaughn-Robinson has spent decades turning his ear to the subtle nuances of telling a story in song.
While touring the United States and Canada with the Broadway production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” he taught himself to sculpt and gained yet another kinetic means of putting imagination into practice.
And now, as artist-in-residence at Fontenelle Forest for the past three months as part of the forest’s participation in the Smithsonian-backed Green Revolution exhibit, Vaughn-Robinson has put a trifecta to his talents, creating a large sculpture installation and writing a companion children’s book that explores the importance of imagination and finding one’s voice in the fray.
“If there’s one big thing that I hope people might take away from the book, it’s that idea of using your imagination to help make sense of the world around you,” Vaughn-Robinson said Saturday as he signed copies of his book, “The Chorus of the Forest,” a tale about a young imagineer named Kit who ventures into Fontenelle Forest and finds and befriends a great beast.
“I certainly experienced that in the course of this project. I’m an opera singer and I sculpt in clay. Those are the things I’ve become accustomed to as an artist, things I know. This project challenged me in that I was going to be using items I wouldn’t normally use to create art.”
In this case, those items were reclaimed bicycles tires and tubes from Green Street Cycles in Omaha and Xtreme Wheels Bike and Sport in Council Bluffs. With the recycled rubber, Vaughn-Robinson spent the better part of his three-months’ residency making the “Kit and Beast” sculpture, featuring a 4-foot tall Kit and a 9-foot beast inhabiting the forest’s boardwalk.
“It adds an element of whimsy to what we have here at the forest,” Vaughn-Robinson said. “Something not so factual or scientific. Those things are important, of course, but this is a fun way you can draw people into the forest.”
Using the relative limitation of the recycled tires, Vaughn-Robinson said, was freeing in a way, especially after an interaction he had with a tour group coming through the forest who witnessed a portion of the sculpture’s installation.
“A woman said, ‘Sometimes, when we’re given limitations, it causes us to have to think in different directions, and to think bigger,’” Vaughn-Robinson said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
The old bike tires opened up a rare dimension for the sculptor used to working in clay and bronze.
The beast, especially, took on an almost abstract expressionist tone, a tangled firing of imaginative conduit wrapped around a massive shape, somehow shapeless. Young Kit, with his red string leading the beast to school for show-and-tell, displays a youthful innocence tied up in a boundless energy.
As his vision of the sculpture came into sharper relief, Vaughn-Robinson added yet another element.
Proposing the children’s book as a companion piece with the sculpture, Brad Watkins, Fontenelle Forest’s director of communications, said the nature center saw yet another opportunity to broaden its offerings.
“It’s a great combination of science and art,” Watkins said. “This has been a really fun, really great three months that have allowed our artists to work on several different aspects of their art and the forest’s mission.”
Both the large sculpture and the 48-page book stem from a single thought of Vaughn-Robinson’s: an almost idle sketch he drew of a boy who didn’t want to wear regular clothes to school and instead put on a cat-like Halloween costume.
“Once I had the little cartoon of Kit, the rest of the story started to unfold,” Vaughn-Robinson said. “And the creative people here at Fontenelle Forest have been so welcoming about letting that story unfold.”
Ultimately, Vaughn-Robinson said, that story comes down to an invitation to all readers of the book, an invitation that comes in the volume’s final page.
“It’s an invitation,” he said. “We want you come out to the forest. We want you to make your voice heard here.”
The sculpture “Kit and Beast” will be on display on the forest boardwalk for the next few weeks, Watkins said. Vaughn-Robinson’s companion book, “The Chorus of the Forest,” is on sale at the forest and will appear in select area bookstores soon.