By Joanne Will
Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2020
If you are visual by nature and enjoy a captivating yarn or rhyme, you'll be lucky to cross paths with the artist Robert Chaplin.
Robert settled in Vancouver in 1990 and established a practice that includes drawing, painting, sculpture, fine jewelry, and enchanting objets d'art.
We first met over a decade ago on a street corner between my apartment and his studio in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood, when from his pocket Chaplin produced a life-size, solid sterling silver Brussels sprout. While I marveled at the intricate leaves, he exclaimed, “Now you don’t have to eat your Brussels sprouts; you can simply bring one to the table and set it with the silverware!” And then he broke into a rhyming verse about the power of Brussels sprouts:
Sing and shout and dance about, there’s magic in the Brussels sprout, boiled up and served in butter, baked into a pie, I love to eat the Brussels sprout, to go without would make me cry. Have faith and never ever doubt, there's magic in the Brussels sprout, in cheese sauce or in minestrone, I will stand and testify, I love to eat the Brussels sprout, to go without I'd rather die!
Originally conceived to celebrate the nuptials of a friend, former Vancouver culinary book store owner Barbara-Jo McIntosh annually awarded his precious metal vegetable to the best cookbook.
During the present pandemic, Chaplin cast a new sprout, this time in rose gold. When asked why, of course he had a solid reason. “The German word for Brussels sprout is Rosenkohl, literally ‘rose cabbage.’ Since I had been working in rose gold and had the capacity to produce such a thing, the choice was obvious: ‘Roségold Rosenkohl,’ a near perfect, cute sounding homonym. Sue me, I like puns!”
Although not limited to food, edibles certainly have a presence in his practice.
The Sacred Heart of Artichoke pin in solid 14 k green gold, which he cleverly calls “a dimensional illustration that can be worn,” comes delivered on a prayer card. "Guide me in contemplation of the beauty found in your divine proportions and teach me to savour the ecstasy surrounding your immaculate consumption, amen.”
Delicious Chicken Soup is a one-recipe cookbook illustrated and published by Chaplin in collaboration with renowned chef Andrey Durbach. Chef Durbach provided the culinary expertise, while Chaplin “ghost wrote” the playful narrative recipe. He also designed the mascot for Durbach’s Vancouver Island restaurant, Il Falcone, and the tessellated sardine wallpaper and flying pig signage for his previous mainland establishments.
Among Chaplin’s other publications, Brussels Sprouts and Unicorns - A Book of Rhymes and Ten Counting Cat won first and second place respectively in the Alcuin Society Awards for excellence in Canadian book design. The Elve and the Shoemaker is a cheeky retelling of the Brothers Grimm classic, illustrated by collage using Chaplin’s elves and John Fluevog’s shoes. Chaplin holds the Guinness World Record for creating the world’s smallest book, Teeny Ted from Turnip Town, with nano-scientists at Simon Fraser University. The story, written by his brother Malcolm, is a fable about Teeny Ted’s victory in the turnip
contest at the county fair. Thirty micro-tablets on a polished piece of single crystalline silicon comprise the “book,” which would fit comfortably on the crosssection of a single human hair. For those, like me, who find themselves without the scanning electron microscope required to read the text, a Kickstarter campaign published a large print edition of the world’s smallest book.
In the winter of 2011, Chaplin opened his Royal Canadian Snowflake Factory at Parking Spot, a pop-up installation on the corner of Carrall and Cordova streets in Gastown. “Owner Scott Hawthorn made the space available for free to any artists who wanted to do something fun, without having to involve any bureaucratic process,” said Chaplin. Having already started a project to create jewelry from cast sterling snowflakes, it was a natural fit for him to occupy that space for the purposes of making casting models and meeting sponsors. “Produced exclusively through sponsorship, like discovering a new star, sponsors name their snowflake and receive the first snowflake cast—a unique piece of sterling silver jewelry and original work of art—to keep or give to a friend. Signed and delivered as a pendant or lapel pin, its name is engraved on the back—a snowflake everlasting.” During the 2010 Winter Olympics, another Chaplin pop-up installation opened in the stairwell of a building owned by Hawthorn on Water Street. “As Scott had just started Native Shoes at the time, it was convenient to use a red shoe with a long shoelace as a way to lure people into my shop. The shoe was placed on the sidewalk close to the street and the shoelace crossed the sidewalk, leading into the door. When people looked in to see what was going on, I would give them a story and sell them a book.”
Looking at his other creations, let’s not forget the time he traveled to Toronto to deliver one of his chess sets designed from Lego to Russian chess grandmaster and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. “I played him for it, and he won!” laughs Chaplin.
Or, his dimensional illustration of Neil Young’s famous song, Heart of Gold, originally carved in hematite and inlaid with solid gold. “After completion, I made a vulcanized rubber mold and cast one in bronze, also inlaid with solid gold. I made another in pur copper, which is nice to hold,” he explains.
While much of his art can sit comfortably in the palm of your hand, sometimes Chaplin thinks really big. How about a public, monumental bronze of Canuck the crow? Canuck was a knife-stealing, crime-scene disrupting bird, who amused Canadians and drew fans and followers from around the world. Among his exploits, Canuck rode the Skytrain, got a job at the Pacific National Exhibition, and was elected Vancouver’s official ambassador. Chaplin posits:
Canuck the crow ought to be considered a national hero. Canuck embodied all the characteristics that Canadians should aspire to: he was a resourceful, independent, and free-thinking citizen. He was from here, and his people were flying for millions of years before humans showed up. Canuck went missing over a year ago, and his presence is dearly missed. His legend lives on.
While he still dreams of building his colossus, over the course of 2017-18 Chaplin sculpted a striking, life-size portrait of the crow cast in bronze. He was able to study the bird up close thanks to Canuck’s human best friend, Shawn Bergman. “I had heard about Canuck and made efforts to meet him. Shawn introduced us and I was able to get close enough to do meaningful studies. There was so much about Canuck that was good. He was the kind of character you want to know, the seed for a tall tale, and there’s no way around the power of that.” So, what influences his work? Chaplin says that among his peers, artists, collectors, and friends the influences are too numerous to mention. But he’s particularly grateful to Scott Hawthorn and artists Bruce Turnbull and Charlene Vickers for their support and constant inspiration. When asked about another influence he has mentioned over the years, Chaplin responds, “I first met the master goldsmith Idar Bergseth when I was a student in Victoria. Throughout my career he has been a great friend an mentor. Idar’s designs always strike an exquisite balance; they are simultaneously thoughtful and elegant.” Chaplin enjoys welcoming visitors to his studio. On such a visit you might get to see the carved railway spike with the secret compartment—a machined screw that opens to reveal a hidden treasure, or the spell-binding gold and jasper Full Moon Cocoon; or perhaps you’ll see Starry Night, an official NHL hockey puck carved in relief and inlaid with gold. Whatever it is that you do see, or hear, you will certainly never forget the art or the artist.
Joanne Will is an independent writer and journalist. In 2014, she was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan.