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Banking on KC – Tom Corbin of Corbin Bronze

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. On this episode, we welcome Tom Corbin. Tom is the founder and president of Corbin Bronze, a world-renowned sculptor who has his studio right here in Kansas City. Welcome, Tom.

Tom Corbin:

Hello Kelly.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have recognizable pieces all over the world, and you have some of those right here in Kansas City, too. For example, I know that Country Club Bank as a family-owned local bank is really proud to have exhibited your work over the years and very glad that they've been able to share that with some of their visitors. But what are some of your other pieces that Kansas Citians are probably familiar with, but may not know that you're the artist?

Tom Corbin:

Well, I've been fortunate to have been awarded a number of nice commissions around town. The first one was the Firefighters Memorial Fountain at 31st and Broadway. Also did in 1995 the Children’s Fountain up north. Did all the sculptures at the Kauffman gardens and also did the life-sized sculptures of Ewing and Muriel Kauffman that were originally at the baseball stadium that have now since been moved to the Kauffman Foundation.

Kelly Scanlon:

Just stunning, absolutely stunning. And again, I'm sure that many people who have seen these really have admired them, but did not know that you were the person behind those. You've also been commissioned for pieces in some very prominent places throughout the United States, including some civic monuments. Your work also has a large celebrity following as well. Not surprising, frankly. So tell us about some of those.

Tom Corbin:

We do have a piece at the United Nations in New York. I did quite a bit of sports work for Florida State University and the University of Oregon. I did the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy for baseball, which is called the Howser Trophy. And I did the largest bronze gorilla in North America for Pittsburgh State University. And I also have two pieces in the Kemper Museum and a piece at the Negro Leagues Museum. And so I'm well-represented in a variety of different themes, I guess you could say, around the country.

Kelly Scanlon:

The Negro Leagues Museum, that piece is of Buck O'Neil, correct?

Tom Corbin:

That's correct. Yeah. I was fortunate to meet Buck before I did that so he posed for that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, that must've been a fun experience.

Tom Corbin:

Oh, what a guy. The stories he could tell.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us about some of the celebrity work that you've done.

Tom Corbin:

My favorite one was when Barbara Sinatra gave Frank Sinatra two tall sculptures of mine for his 79th birthday. So that was probably my highlight as far as celeb clients. I also did work for Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Danielle Steele. Most recently, Sofía Vergara and Ellen DeGeneres are just a few. Since we're represented in L.A. and New York, we are fortunate to get a lot of celebrity clients from those locations.

Kelly Scanlon:

How would you best describe your sculptures if you had to? And I hate to ask an artist this, but if you had to define them, what words would you use?

Tom Corbin:

Well, initially, when I started my business in 1986, I was doing commission work for clients that wanted traditional highly representational pieces that looked just like a person. That has evolved once I developed my own style, which I would consider my most... I think the style that I'm most recognized for is doing elongated female forms that are stylized. So that just evolved over the course of probably 10 years.

Kelly Scanlon:

You're probably best known for your bronze pieces, but you're also a furniture designer and you paint now too. What inspired you... You're doing really well with these bronze sculptures and have created this international following, almost a cult following really and then why switch?

Tom Corbin:

Well, I must have a short attention span, Kelly, I guess mostly that. But no, it was a fluky thing. There is a number of fluky things that happened in my career, but I was given a book on Diego Giacometti's work and Diego is the brother of a very famous sculptor by the name of Alberto Giacometti. Diego is known more for his functional work as far as tables, accessories, lighting, things like that. And somebody gave me a book on his stuff and I was intrigued with it and I decided to design two small bronze tables for my own personal use.

Tom Corbin:

A friend of mine working in the architectural field here put me in touch with a high-end showroom Merchandise Mart, Chicago. They took me on as one of their clients and artists and that got me my start on the national stage, but it was in not in sculpture initially, it was in furniture.

Kelly Scanlon:

And so are you using bronze for all of your furniture or do you use other...?

Tom Corbin:

Yes.

Kelly Scanlon:

Okay. So it's all bronze furniture, all bronze pieces?

Tom Corbin:

Yes. Bronze tables, bronze lighting, accessories. Yes. All those things.

Kelly Scanlon:

Painting. How did you cross over into that area?

Tom Corbin:

Well, it was, let's see, 17 years ago on a day similar to this. I was on the Amazon site and was looking for a sculpture book and came across these how-to books on painting. And I never thought I could paint very well because the few times I attempted it were a dismal failure. So there was this book on sale called Paint Like the Masters and it was a paperback that was I think $12. So I said I might as well send in my $12 and take one last shot at trying to paint.

Tom Corbin:

And as it turned out, it was a very step-by-step book that I read over and over again. And I tore a page out of one of my wife's magazines and painted this model and it actually turned out very well and that's what started everything. And so I've really embraced painting since then. I feel very fortunate to be able to work in that medium too.

Kelly Scanlon:

But seriously, you bought yourself a book and really took a step by step approach and taught yourself to paint that way. And now I'm sure that you are freestyling a lot more but that's literally how you started painting?

Tom Corbin:

Yeah. And I'm really good with color by numbers too. But no, that's how... I wish I had a better story, but that's it. So I figure if you're going to paint, painting like the masters would make sense.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. No, I think it's an incredible story. I think it's funny, and it's also very practical. But even before you started all this, before you started your paint by numbers, before you started making furniture, before you started your bronze sculpture pieces, you were in the advertising business. How does a young man who is in the advertising business and from all counts was doing very well decide to chuck all that and say I'm going to go be an artist. Talk to us about that journey.

Tom Corbin:

Yeah, I'll start from the beginning where my mother was an elementary school art teacher and so I was around art from day one and really loved it and had a passion for it early on. My dad, on the other hand, was an electrical engineer who was extremely practical. When I went to college, he said, get a traditional degree, which I agreed with him because he was going to pay for my education if I went down the art path. So I ended up graduating with a degree in marketing.

Tom Corbin:

What brought me out to Kansas City was with a large corporation selling packaging of all things. So I did that for two years, and I knew I wanted to do something more creative. And so I started interviewing with advertising agencies and marketing firms, and I was fortunate to get a job with a agency called [Travis Walls 00:07:42] as an account executive. So probably two to three years into my stint at Travis Walls, a friend of mine was taking sculpture classes from this neighborhood sculptress. And she had seen a sculpture I'd done back at Miami University back in Ohio and said, "Would you be interested in taking sculpture classes on Wednesday nights?" And I was single. I had nothing going on on Wednesday nights. And I said, "Yeah, what the heck?"

Tom Corbin:

And so I did. And over the course of the next two years, I would go to this woman's house with eight other housewives. I was the only guy there. The cool thing about it, she knew how to cast in bronze and so I started casting some of my pieces in bronze. Some of my friends started buying my pieces. And so over the course of the next two to three years, I realized that there was very few bronze sculptors in the region compared to... You go down to Hallmark at that time, they had 400 artists that did two-dimensional work that would love to make a living full time as artists. So there's only I think three of us doing bronze sculpture. And so any commission that would come up locally, I would hear about and would at least have a shot at it.

Tom Corbin:

And plus from the experience I had at the advertising agency, I knew how to market. I could have brochures printed. I knew how to do PR. I knew how to direct mail. All those things that most artists that go to traditional art schools aren't trained in.

Kelly Scanlon:

So it just blossomed from there?

Tom Corbin:

Exactly. There was that time when I finally gave up my day job and all my friends I thought were very supportive to my face, but behind my back, I'd found out down the ro... Later they, "We thought you were crazy. You had no right to do this. You had no degree in this." So anyway, it was funny.

Kelly Scanlon:

The joke was on them in the end. Many like you and many like your friends feel that call to the artistic life. Whether it's sculpting, writing, music, whatever it might be, but very, very few ever make it in the business sense like you have. In fact, we are all quite aware that there's many famous artists who have pieces hanging in museums now, but when you read about their background, they died penniless. So talk to us about that business side. How have you been able to not only express yourself artistically but build and grow a business?

Tom Corbin:

First of all, the medium of bronze, it kind of picked me and this wasn't the reason why I got into it but unlike a painter, when you paint a painting, it's unique. It's one of a kind. And then once you sell that, you have to paint another painting. The wonderful thing about bronze sculpture is after sculpting a piece you make a mold of it and you set an addition at X number of castings. Let's say whether it be five, 10, 15, whatever, you set it up.

Tom Corbin:

And so there's really beauty in that from a pragmatic financial standpoint, in that you're not recreating the wheel every time. You can call up your foundry and say cast three more of these for my gallery and here and here and here. Where most painters will save up 20 paintings to do one show a year and they generate all their sales out of one show, I'm selling all year round. And so that has served me very well and where I've been able to have a staff working for me and employ a number of people, not owning my foundries, but I, because of my work, a lot of people are given jobs at the foundries I use to produce my work.

Kelly Scanlon:

And you do have a staff, though. That goes back to, I think you had a business background and you know that you have to get people to take care of some of the details you don't want to spend all your day doing so that you have the time to produce your work. So you have a small staff. Talk to us a little bit more about that and how, again, your marketing side helped you as well.

Tom Corbin:

Well, when you first start out, of course you wear all the hats. You're shipping, you're marketing, you're production, you're all those things. So you know all those different departments and when you do have the level of business where you can afford... My first one was just a bookkeeper that worked part-time and she eventually became my full-time office manager then. There was a point where I really needed a full-time marketing director. That freed me up to produce more work.

Tom Corbin:

Back when I started, there weren't even computers. That's how old I am. Every day I'm looking at our P&L and all those things, but still, I'm fortunate that I spend most of my time in the studio each day and where I have a staff that has been with me, one person has been with me for 25 years. Everybody else has been more than 10 years, coming up 20, so for some reason, they seem to like it here. But I'm blessed in that regard.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. A lot of continuity there. That means a lot. You were talking about how at the beginning you had to do it all yourself and you really glossed over that because there are certain specifics or certain peculiarities that come along with what you do. You talked about the foundries and so forth because I know that your adherence to quality, your standards are very high. So how did you go about finding those? Even with bronze, you've got the patina issues. How did you work through all those?

Tom Corbin:

Well, when I started out, there was one foundry in Lawrence, Kansas. It was a one-man outfit which was owned actually by a sculptor that his full-time job was being a lawyer but just as one of his hobbies, he was a bronze sculptor and decided to open his own one-man foundry. So he had one employee. So that was the only foundry I knew in the region that I could use.

Tom Corbin:

And during the summer I spent, I think, six weeks following my first piece that I was casting. He suggested I followed through all the process. And so I learned a lot about the bronze casting process then, and I realized it's very hard, it's dirty, it's hot. And I really don't want to do this all the time. So I'd be happy to pay somebody to cast it for me, but it was a great education in that regard.

Tom Corbin:

So I learned the production side from that summer. And then as I mentioned, the business side, you just pick up over time. I was working with a pencil and a ledger hand writing all my checks. So I was building crates initially and all those things and you learn by doing those things and you fail a lot too during that time. Life always about contacts and I was able to make contacts with people that knew how to do these things. I'm continuing to learn today. I'm still learning. But back then, I made a conscious effort to search these people out that knew all these things.

Kelly Scanlon:

Surrounding yourself with good people. That's probably the biggest business lesson that you're able to convey here to any entrepreneurs who are listening is that it is tempting to do everything yourself. And you do sometimes for a short while anyway, have to do things yourself. But some people never make that leap and continue to try to do it and it just really stifles the business. Now you actually have a studio. Tell us about that because you moved, right?

Tom Corbin:

Yes. Initially, when I started, my business was down in the River Market. It was called Mel's Art Space at 201 Wyandotte. There was a bunch of artists that moved into this converted warehouse building. And I was there for over 25 years. And finally, in I think it was 2008, it occurred to me that it might make sense to buy a building. So we looked around in the Crossroads and a variety of places. And finally, somebody told us about this firehouse at Southwest Boulevard in Mission Road that was for sale. And it was a residential listing of all things.

Tom Corbin:

And so we had an agent that made the call and we got a tour of the studio or of the firehouse. It took us probably six months over negotiating, but eventually, we bought this. And of course, it was three months before the biggest recession of our lives was to hit. So it scared the bejesus out of me, but it's turned out to be great. And so we love our location. We're fortunate now to have a really great gallery space on the second floor. My studio is on the first floor and we have a sculpture garden that we have really worked on quite hard. It's been great. We've never looked back since leaving the River Market.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned that there's a gallery space on the second floor. Is that to host private events or is it open to the public?

Tom Corbin:

It is open by appointment to the public. We do not rent out our space at all. We've been asked. We do offer this for not-for-profits that I'm involved with, and it's worked out really well in that regard.

Kelly Scanlon:

What seminal moment, if you will, do you attribute as being critical to your success and how did those occur?

Tom Corbin:

Well, as I'll mention again, meeting my neighborhood sculptress teacher Elma Muir back in the '80s was huge because if I wouldn't have made that contact, none of this would have happened. And I think getting my first big commission which was the Firefighters. Then when my tables were introduced to Holly Hunt at the Merchandise Mart, which led to the opening of 13 other showrooms nationally within five years was huge. Now we're up to 26 galleries and showrooms internationally. So we're as far away as New Zealand now, as far as representation.

Tom Corbin:

And finally, the biggest one probably in my career is that commission that we received last year for Harry Truman that will be installed hopefully in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Kelly Scanlon:

Just incredible and all of those big moments, but as you say, it started with a small introduction and sometimes it's so small it just seems like happenstance or there was some other, I think you said a few other women and you just probably had absolutely no idea what this was going to turn into.

Tom Corbin:

No idea.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've served on the Board of Arts KC and KCAC and you enjoy mentoring young artists with talent. What do you think is most critical for these young artists to understand? And what do you wish that you had known earlier?

Tom Corbin:

Well, I think if they want to do this full time, they have to realize you're opening a small business and you have to be strategic about your approach and have to be very professional. A lot of kids, for example, I'll spend an hour and a half with them at the studio taking them around, giving them all the sage advice and I remember when I went through this when I was their age and talking to people, I would send a handwritten note to the person I talked to the next day. And in so many cases I never hear from these people. So it's just, they have to realize contacts are everything. Well, they are in life, but especially in the art industry. So that's something I wish they would understand where it's so important.

Tom Corbin:

The thing that I wish somebody told me early on was I was intimidated by all these artists that went to the high-powered art schools around the country. And they'd have these fancy degrees and whatever. And that always... I didn't feel worthy in a way since I was self-taught for all practical purposes, but I went to a workshop once. This was many, many years ago when I was first starting out. I think it was in Scottsdale with a sculptor that I was impressed by.

Tom Corbin:

And I was talking to one of the other guys that had signed up for the workshop and he was a professional sculptor. And I told him my concerns. And he said, if people don't like your work, they're not going to buy it. They don't care how many degrees you have. If your work isn't any good, they're not going to buy it. And I go, "Well, that makes perfect sense." And after that, I didn't worry about it and I haven't worried about it since.

Kelly Scanlon:

And isn't it interesting somehow, sometimes people see the talent in you that you can't see yourself? You're the one that you have to convince the most.

Tom Corbin:

Oh, exactly. Yeah. I always say that I've kind of homeschooled myself over the last 34 years. So you're always trying to, at least in my case, I'm always trying to learn and buy more books. And my wife says, don't buy any more books. Will you stop buying? I can't help myself.

Kelly Scanlon:

How do you push through that pressure of needing to constantly invent, to constantly turn on that inspiration because you have a daily job here? This isn't just, oh, the muse hit me. The muse is here and so now I'm... You have a business. So how do you deal with that?

Tom Corbin:

That kind of pressure I like. Invention is really what I truly love and continually whether I'm here at work or at home, I'm always thinking about the next piece I want to make. But it's funny when I was first starting out, people said, "Well, if you don't feel creative, do you still go to the studio?" I said back then, "It's funny how a mortgage can make a creative." So anyway, but no, I love that part. And so I'm always thinking about the next piece I want to do.

Kelly Scanlon:

Your creative process. You said that sometimes you're looking ahead at the next thing that you're going to do, your next project. So when you have an idea for a project, is that what usually ends up being produced that you end up producing or does it evolve and sometimes you end up with something completely different? Talk to us about that.

Tom Corbin:

Well, for the most part, it evolves. In a lot of cases, I'll have my yellow legal pad, and I'll be sketching on that and I'll tear this off and I say, oh, I'm not going to start on this, but I'll get back to it and I can totally forget about it. And so I'm off doing some other things.

Tom Corbin:

And then when I'm ready to start a new piece, I'll go back to these sketches and I'll go, oh, I forgot all about this and I'm onto that. And so I get my start from that sheet of yellow legal pad paper. And the next thing, I'm off to doing a study for this piece or more drawings and that evolves into something else. And so it really is more of an evolution rather than a piece, the way you have it in mind right away, it comes out just like that. Rarely does that happen.

Kelly Scanlon:

When you are commissioned to do pieces of real people, how do you go about that? And some of these people aren't here for you to meet anymore and to learn their personality.

Tom Corbin:

Yeah. Harry's not willing to sit for me right now.

Kelly Scanlon:

How do you end up with your final piece? Do you study photographs of them? How does that work?

Tom Corbin:

Let's use Harry as an example. Fortunately, we have the luxury of going to the Truman Library and working with their archivists there. So not only did I use their huge photo archive but also the archivist there would bring up actual pieces of Harry's clothes that he wore during his presidencies. They had his exact measurements. The way they got those because in Madame Tussauds Wax Museum they did a wax of him in Paris so they had all his measurements from that.

Tom Corbin:

There's no such thing as too much information, especially when it comes to photos and measurements and things like that. And so that's how it's always worked when I'm doing a commission of someone where it has to look like someone. Same with the Kauffmans. I was fortunate with that, with the archive from the Royals. They had tons of pictures so that was great. [inaudible 00:22:51] used their family pictures.

Kelly Scanlon:

Some people say that there's really nothing new to say. That artists just keep on creating different expressions of the same things over and over again whether it's in writing, whether it's visual art and that really art is largely refining similar concepts that transcend time. What are your thoughts on that?

Tom Corbin:

I think when it comes to having an original idea, that would be hard to say because I'm influenced by so many things. And I think Picasso unabashedly admitted that he stole from all different sources, whether it be other artists or different cultures or things like that. He collected all these African artifacts that generated his Cubist period. And so I feel the same way. I'm always looking at just one little thing that can inspire me to do a complete new direction in sculpture, painting furniture, whatever. And it happens all the time.

Tom Corbin:

I subscribe to so many different magazines where I don't read them at all. I just look at images, and I do... Going to the Nelson or the Kemper here in town, or when we're traveling, whether in this country and other co... I'm always wanting to go to museums, which my daughter when she was little, couldn't stand. Too bad. So my work is influenced by things of the past as well. With the direction I'm taking a piece I try to put my own, spin on it and make it something unique to myself. So it's a fluid process and it's forever evolving and morphing into something else.

Kelly Scanlon:

We've talked about the different media that you work in, the bronze, the furniture making, the painting. Do you have a favorite?

Tom Corbin:

They all have a different appeal, Kelly. I've been sculpting for so long. It comes so natural to me that it's pretty easy for me where with painting, I'm still trying to figure out because my style is still all over the place. I can paint super tight, super realistic but I love doing abstract pieces then too.

Tom Corbin:

And with painting, you have to concern yourself with a color palette. More with composition because there's more elements included on a canvas than traditionally with a sculpture. And so there's different elements you have to weigh going in, but I enjoy the mo... But again, I'm blessed. If I'm tired of one hat, I could put on another one and take a break from something to do something else. So that's the way I approach it.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned that a job brought you here many, many years ago before you started sculpting. And I'm just curious, after all of the accolades, after all of the success, you decided to stay in Kansas City. And I'm just curious why you chose to stay here.

Tom Corbin:

Of course, I met my wife here. But that didn't happen until 15 years after I moved to Kansas City. It's funny. I thought I'd be here for two or three years, but it washes over you where it's hard to leave. I've made, of course, my best friends here and business-wise, the movers and shakers that really gave me opportunities as far as early commission work, were all very accessible. Where I'd say maybe if you're in New York, L.A., or Chicago, you might never get to those people.

Tom Corbin:

So it opened up so many doors for me that perhaps would have been closed in other urban centers. Plus from an affordability standpoint, Kansas City, I can afford the firehouse that we have here. If it was in New York or L.A. or wherever, the ease of not only starting a business but conducting business, I found in my case at least, it's been a lot easier here.

Kelly Scanlon:

You have a new book that's come out. Tell us about that.

Tom Corbin:

Yes. It's been 13 years since our last book and we have a new book that covers my last 13 years of work. And it's called Tom Corbin Continued. It's 283 pages and currently, you can buy a copy at Rainy Day Books in Fairway.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, Tom, we're very glad that you decided to stay in Kansas City and go out and get his book through Rainy Day Books. Another icon here in Kansas City. And just thank you so much for all you do to represent Kansas City globally with your work.

Tom Corbin:

Kelly, thank you so much.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you, Tom Corbin, for being our guest this week on Banking on KC. Tom has an ability to see ordinary people and things in a way most of us can't. Through his art pieces, he captures what makes them extraordinary. That ability is what makes Tom himself extraordinary. And it's just one of the many reasons this approachable Midwestern artist has been awarded so many high-profile commissions and generated such a star-studded international portfolio of clients.

Joe Close:

Country Club Bank is proud to share Tom's work in our banking centers. We share his desire to help bring out the extraordinary in each of our customers and we embrace his ability to bring a meaningful and different perspective to each new project. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank. Member FDIC.