Visual Arts Spotlight: Robert Ellison’s Steel Titans

Two towering, white steel sculptures have dominated LBC’s 28- acre campus for more than three decades and, by the artist’s design, likely will remain as long as the landscape does. “If I’m going to spend a lot of time and effort making these pieces, I want them to last forever,” said the world-renowned Robert Ellison in a 2010 interview with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Ellison died in 2012, leaving his enduring mark on Sonoma County from Petaluma to Santa Rosa — and in places as far away as Providence, R.I., and Anchorage, Alaska.

Ellison’s gleaming 28-foot-tall, 8-ton cream-colored structure, Arch Tworain, can’t be missed as visitors approach the entrance to the campus. His second sculpture, Donut Diorama, measuring 14’ x 22’ x 25’ and located on the south side of the campus, is viewed by thousands of motorists passing by each day.

Both Arch Tworain and Donut Diorama are painted, welded steel sculptures. The Center had the two massive pieces on loan for several decades. In the final days of his life, Ellison wanted to find permanent homes for his most beloved pieces, ensuring they would be available for the enjoyment of Sonoma County residents and visitors for years to come. In 2012, LBC acquired them for our permanent collection.

Visual Art High Drama

In two of the most highly dramatic and visually jaw-dropping events to occur on the LBC campus over the years, both of the sculptures were relocated from their original sites to accommodate changes on campus. Installed in two separate sections in 1976, Arch Tworain was moved in 2010 when the main drive onto campus was reconfigured prior to construction of Sutter Hospital. A 300-ton crane dominated the skyline to lift the sculpture in one piece, drive it precariously down the road, and set it down just 150 feet away. “It was a short distance but required a structural engineering feat,” said Marc Hagenlocher, Director of Operations, who directed the relocation projects. “It required 40,000 pounds of concrete to build the new base and another 100,000 pounds to anchor the sculpture.”

In his inimitable full-throttle spirit, Ellison, who was suffering from ALS and confined to a wheelchair and oxygen tube by that time, insisted on observing the move. “It was a hot September day, but there he was, proudly weighing in on the issues.”

To make room for the new Nelson Family Grand Plaza on the west side of the LBC facility in 2017, Donut Diorama was moved to a landscaped island on the south side of the building.  Nearly as long as Arch Tworain is tall, Donut Diorama provided its own relocation challenges when it was lifted and transferred in one piece. Ellison, who continued to work on his large-scale sculptures throughout his illness, had passed away before being able to see his work permanently on display for commuters and visitors traveling the 101 corridor.

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1946, Robert Ellison received his BFA and MFA from Michigan State University and went on to create over three decades of art that has been exhibited in many public, private, corporate, large-scale, and permanently sited commissions. In addition to teaching at College of Marin, he also taught at Michigan State University, Lansing Community College, and the San Francisco Academy of Art. He worked in ceramics prior to creating with steel but preferred the permanence of steel.

Other works of Ellison, many of them towering and weighing up to many tons, are exhibited in private collections and public spaces around the world. Local placements include his “Sun Zone,” reminiscent of ice cream cones, at the entrance to the Sonoma County Administration Center; “Bar Note Bench” at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center, “Cherry Soda” in Petaluma’s theater district, the scissored “Renaissance” that stood for years on Old Courthouse Square and now is at CornerStone Sonoma, and “Sweep,” which adorns the reflecting pool at Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Center.

Arch Tworain and Donut Diorama have become iconic symbols of LBC’s commitment to giving art an enduring place in our community.

Owned and operated by the Luther Burbank Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization (Tax ID #94-2581084). | Designed by Schipper Design | Built & Maintained by Inbound Design
Call Box Office