Sculpture helps student overcome painful past


Brian Hayes

Kathy Robb stands next to her ceramic sculpture, “Struttin,” in the Cadman Art Gallery. Struttin won first place in the element student art contest.

A person’s transformation over the course of their life is like the process of sculpting clay. The clay starts off shapeless, lacking form or purpose.

Kathy Robb had difficulty forming and shaping herself for much of her life. Today, as a 66 year old ceramics student at Wichita State, she’s strong and hardened, much like the clay animal sculptures she crafts.

While her ceramics work at WSU didn’t begin until fall 2013, her personal molding began at the age of six — the age her innocence was broken.

It happened in her hometown of Kansas City. She and a friend were climbing trees at a park.

As they sat on a branch, they saw a man on a nearby park bench looking at them.

He soon headed for the two girls.

They jumped down from the tree, but the man was already close. He asked if he could get in the tree with them.

As soon as the three of them were in the tree, the man dropped his pants and exposed himself to them.

Panicking, the girls jumped from the tree and ran.

The man chased Robb around a pine tree.

She didn’t stop running until she was home.

She made it to safety, but the molding and shaping of Robb from that experience had only just begun.

“I know now, before they even knew what PTSD was, I had developed it at six years old,” Robb said.


‘My mind would be elsewhere’

The incident at the park affected her psyche for years.

The overthinking was made worse by an early boyfriend, one of her first abusers.

The boyfriend pulled a gun on her, held it to her temple, and told her to “wipe the smile off her face.” She didn’t know if it was loaded, she said, but it didn’t matter.

She remembered being a teenager lying in bed, head racing through what-if scenarios.

“I’m thinking about if somebody shot through my front window, where would I have to be lying in bed to miss the bullet?

“I guess that came from this deep-seated thing that somebody was after me — because (the man at the park) was after me.”

Her past — coupled with volatile, unhealthy relationships with spouses — led to her withdrawing from reality, spending extended time in her room with her cat.

“You could talk to me, but I wouldn’t really be all there,” Robb said. “My mind would be elsewhere, just trying to deal with people and all those dynamics.”

But after an episode of abuse that led to an emergency meeting with her psychologist, she left her last abuser, her boyfriend at the time. She hasn’t looked back since.

“It took years to get through all this,” Robb said. “But I’m finally done.”

Robb, a Christian, said God has healed her of her biggest problems.


‘Dig deep’

Art has been a spiritual journey for Robb.

The abuse led Robb to turn to animals. She found herself able to connect and relate to animals more easily than she could with humans, she said.

Her animal sculptures have hidden messages. Her artist statement says that “wild animals are mysterious and unpredictable, evoking certain reactions. I use these in my work to communicate feelings, emotions, and torments that are difficult or impossible for me to express.”

Take, for example, her sculpture of a family of lemurs. The father lemur has its mouth open and its teeth bared. Robb said the piece is about what happened to her when she was six.

“I wish, if my father had known that, that’s how he would have reacted,” Robb said.

Her first-place-winning piece for the Cadman Art Gallery’s Elements Exhibition is a Boyd’s forest dragon, found only in the Wet Tropics region of Australia. The piece has an element of functionality, too — it’s a teapot.

“That’s basically what art is all about — just keep looking deeper and deeper. It’s kind of intimidating because it’s an examination of you.”

Molding and carving clay in the classroom and studio has helped Robb shape herself into the person she is today. Just like used clay can be reclaimed and reused, reshaped and revitalized, Robb has reclaimed her life.