Robert Rankin, seen here in his Chestnut Hill studio, is carrying a torch, you might say, for his sculptures, which will be on display this weekend at the 91st annual Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show, oldest in the U.S. (Photo by Barbara Crawford)

by Len Lear

If you have been in Rittenhouse Square lately, you have no doubt seen the huge overhead banners promoting the annual Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show, the oldest outdoor art show in the country (started 91 years ago). It is an extreme honor for one of the participating artists’ work to be featured on the banner, and this year that honor goes to Chestnut Hill sculptor, Robert Rankin, whose classic bust of “The Poet” is on the right side of the banner. (He told us, “I found him in the clay, so he is not based on any one person.”)

Rankin, 66, whose studio is on a beautiful Woodward property near a local horse paddock, has been showing at the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show for several years. He and his wife, Barbara Crawford, have lived in Chestnut Hill since they were married 35 years ago.

Those who have commissioned or purchased sculptures by Rankin in recent years are unanimous in their lavish praise of his stunning work. His busts are redolent of classic works of centuries ago that one finds in the world’s greatest museums, and other elongated figures seem to have an African influence.

Rankin, who grew up in Mt. Airy, attended Columbia, a small private school at 19th and Spruce that has since closed, and then Philadelphia Community College and Temple University but left in 1972 without earning a degree.

Rankin then worked in the financial industry for many years, but when he was a child, he collected and painted rocks.

“I could see faces in rocks and also in clouds,” he said last week. “Since these faces revealed themselves to me, I wanted to share them with others. I still see faces and forms everywhere.

“My mother drew beautifully. She was accepted to Moore College of Art, but my grandfather told her she was needed at home to care for the family. My mother-in-law was also a wonderful painter and an inspiration to me.”

Rankin was also influenced by world-famous icons such as Rodin, Brancusi, Giacometti and Botello.

Also by Leon Sitarchuck, “a brilliant teacher. His work is in many collections, including Woodmere, but aside from learning technique and being inspired by Leon, I am self-taught.”

In addition to exhibiting at the Rittenhouse Fine Art Show for several years, Rankin has been part of the Yellow Springs Art Show at Chester Springs, and he has shown his work at Borrelli’s Chestnut Hill Gallery and the Cosmopolitan Club in Center City. His work is also included in many private collections, including that of Chestnut Hill dentist Dr. Michael Mendlow.

“When I sculpt,” said Rankin, “I think of the old saying, ‘Life is short; art is long.’ I hope to keep learning and growing so that I can produce art that expresses emotion and inspires empathy … by virtue of its power to evoke the human condition.”

What is the best advice Rankin ever received?

“Although my mother-in-law was not prone to giving advice, she told me, ‘Never stop sculpting.’”

What super power would Rankin most like to have?

“I would like the power to stop time. Maybe that’s why I like to freeze images in clay and bronze, so that they are never lost.”

If Rankin could live anywhere on earth, where would it be and why?

“Chestnut Hill is pretty hard to beat, but I would love to live in New Mexico because of the quality of the light.”

If Rankin could live in any earlier time and place in history, where would it be and why?

“New York in the 1920s. What fun it would be to experience the speakeasies, art and music during such a dynamic, creative time in American culture.”

If he could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, living or dead, who would it be?

“I would like to play poker with Einstein, Groucho, Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker.”

Rankin insisted that he wanted to mention his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Tess, because “they are my two muses.”

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