Steelroots is one of several tree root sculptures produced by Pennsylvania artist Steve Tobin (b. 1957). After receiving a degree in theoretical mathematics from Tulane University in 1979, Tobin decided to become an artist. He studied art at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, and the New York Experimental Glass Workshop in Brooklyn. He went on to receive numerous fellowships and artist-in-residencies, and in 1989 he was the first-ever foreign artist invited to build his own studio in Murano, Italy, the town outside of Venice renowned for its glassmaking.
Tobin soon began exploring other materials in his artworks, including clay, bronze, and steel. In 1994, he established his own foundry. By the late 1990s, Tobin’s work began to focus on nature—specifically the fascinating and beautiful forms that are created through natural processes. In 2004, Tobin received international attention when he installed his bronze sculpture Trinity Root near Ground Zero in New York City. The work is cast from the stump and roots of a historic sycamore tree that stood in front of St. Paul’s Chapel directly across the street from the World Trade Center. The tree protected the church from destruction during the 9/11 attacks. “The function for me of roots is to show the power of the unseen,” the artist told the New York Times. “And on 9/11, we found out about the power of all our unseen connections, the things that nurture us that are hidden below the surface.”
By the time Tobin completed Trinity Root, he had begun developing a broader series of sculptures exploring the theme of tree roots. In an artistic statement, he explained, “I am interested in making pieces that function in any time period: prehistory, present, or the future, working with nature-related images. For example, I have turned a root system into bronze, so that you can see it on the surface of the earth. In a sense it allows you to travel into the shadows, into the underground.” He created a group of sculptures called Walking Roots, and a larger series known as Steelroots. These sculptures have been exhibited in many different cities including Brooklyn, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Chicago in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.
The artist provided this Steelroots sculpture on long-term loan to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in 2009. At that time, he was working on a large retrospective exhibition of Steelroots at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, and he wanted to have a visible connection with that exhibition in Chicago. The exhibit, which opened in 2010, includes a total of fourteen tree root sculptures of various finishes, sizes, and configurations. Some are as large as forty feet tall. The Steelroots sculpture near the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has an earthy brown finish and is composed of recycled steel.