Wizard of Wesleyan weaves worlds of art and science together
By MEL ASH
Middletown Press Staff
There's a wizard at Wesleyan. Not your everyday, run-of-the-mill wizard, but a genuine 21st century cybersorcerer who has been quietly creating his own forms of beauty and magic for the past three decades using a combination of science and art.
Looking something like a cross between Merlin and Santa Claus, Rob LeBlanc, director of campus audiovisual services, can usually be found in his workshop on the first floor of Wesleyan University's Science Center. The cavelike room he inhabits looks as though it was organically grown more than consciously constructed.
Large pieces of surrealist sculpture made of Monopoly boards and Visible Man models nestle between colorful spaghetti tangles of electronics, whimsical troll faces poke out from shelves of technical books and small TV screens play dreamlike loops of neo-psychedelic images.
Even food items are not immune to LeBlanc's roving eyes and hands.
A Kellogg's cereal box perching high on a shelf is covered with headlines LeBlanc has scavenged, announcing "America's Quest for Spiritual Healing."
In many ways, the lab is a museum of the mind: LeBlanc's mind. In other ways, it is a map: a map of possibilities and imagination for the guest.
LeBlanc has been at Wesleyan for more than 33 years, practicing a craft all his own. A native of the central Connecticut area with a deep interest in genealogy, LeBlanc (also know as Bob White) has spent a lifetime using science and art to create what he calls "an island in the mind."
"None of us like being in pain," LeBlanc said. "We need a place where we can calm the body and mind. It's not running away at all. We can reach down deep to those good places and then literally re-create them in the here and now, in three-dimensional ways."
It slowly becomes obvious that LeBlanc is modifying his immediate world to a more congenial form. A large part of that world is derived from childhood.
"It seems that at a certain point we have to pretend we're adults. In reality, we're not. We pretend. I'm sorry they made me grow up. My frontal assault is to reclaim childhood.
"You realize that you can revisit special places of your childhood and find how they connect to your adult life. Those places and times never go away," he said.
Science and technology connect directly with the child LeBlanc, who first set up a small electronics workshop in his basement when he was 10.
To many people, art and science are enemies, left brain vs. right brain. To LeBlanc, they are simply yin and yang, left and right hand working together, like a quote by author Tom Robbins that stirs the white-bearded visionary:
"Logic gives man what he needs," says a character in "Another Roadside Attraction," "but magic gives him what he wants."
LeBlanc smiled at the quote, nodding agreement. "I'm familiar with that," he said, "but I'd like to amend it. Things like logic and technology can be magic."
"We're inventing a new culture in this century, The lines are getting blurred between disciplines," he said. "We need both things to be keenly aware of the beauty in the world which I call magic. It can be experienced through both science and art together.
"It's a very exciting time. Just look at the Internet. It's a window on the world, the globe becoming conscious in a very real way. Its like magic!" LeBlanc exclaimed.
As well as making videos, sculptures and collages, LeBlanc has intensified his lifelong interest in trolls since last year, when Middletown's bridge at Wadsworth Falls was taken down.
"It really got me going," he said. "When you take out a cultural artifact like the bridge in the name of progress, you also lose something from the culture. And where do trolls live? Under bridges!"
"By taking out the bridge, you take out the sprit of the place. It has to go somewhere else!"
To commemorate the lost bridge and spirit, LeBlanc incorporated them into a 30-year project, a limited-distribution magazine called "Sand Castle Lands" he self-publishes as Gronicus Press.
Current issues tell the story of the Wadsworth trolls and their search for a new home. Color Xeroxes illustrating the booklets feature local children -- some are children of children featured in the magazine 30 years ago -- and the trolls LeBlanc has built in his workshop.
As he spoke of the magazine and bridge, a group of four animated, robotic trolls in the workshop danced to a tape of world beat music.
Marina Melendez, director of Wesleyan Graduate Student Services, says LeBlanc's "connection to children is real."
"I brought my kids in on a snow day," said the Middlefield resident. "They had a wonderful time with him. You know what they say -- that kids and animals can tell if a person's genuine or not? Well, my kids love Rob. He's the real thing. They can't wait for another snow day.
"I think people take themselves too seriously. Rob doesn't. He's amazing. You don't even realize he's putting a spell over you."
So how old is the 65-year-old LeBlanc really, with all his talk of reclaiming childhood?
"My real age is about 5 billion years old," he smiled, folding his hands across his chest.
"You see, we're the tip end of it all. Our roots go down very deep. I was slime mold. I was a Cro-Magnon man. We were all a lot of things in a lot of times. Obviously, we don't remember these lives, but we are the result of everything that has come before."
LeBlanc's insistence on his agelessness is but one example of what he calls "taking the ordinary and making it unusual."
LeBlanc, a former Wesleyan artist in residence, has also taught courses he calls "The Theater of the Imagination" at Oddfellows Playhouse, the young people's theater on Washington Street, and the college. The course teaches people how to make their lives richer and more creative.
"We need more imagination! Magic is dying in the world," says LeBlanc.
LeBlanc's work at Wesleyan also includes work that could be considered mundane: upgrading its classrooms for the new century. He proudly showed off the control room of one auditorium, demonstrating new computer equipment and other interactive instructional tools.
The sorcerer has apprentices in his workshop and one of them, sophomore astronomy student Liwei Lin of Costa Rica, says "I've never met anyone like him before. He's really laid-back, a really caring person.
"A lot of students will stop and look in here when they walk by. They're intrigued," Lin said.
When they do stop by, LeBlanc has time to talk.
"We're too busy as a society and as people," LeBlanc said. "We need to visit more, get to know each other."
LeBlanc's life seems as stuffed as his workshop and one wonders where he gets the time.
"I time travel," he said enigmatically, leaning back in his old chair. "I realized I could do it after reading Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five." The character in the book moves back in forth in time using his mind.
"We can all do the same thing. You literally reach back to a special time and place in your mind and go there. Life is layered. Its just a matter of peeling it back. It's still there."
Time is also an essential part of LeBlanc's artwork, and many of his pieces explore the relationship of time to the human experience. One of his clock-based moving sculptures was recently shown at an exhibition in Budapest.
Other LeBlanc works, resembling ominous alien machines from science fiction movies, are featured in the school's science library. They tower over visitors, who can sit inside and are sometimes startled to find the machines are responding to their movements.
Time. Magic. Storytelling. Electronics. What's the goal in all of this?
Art, LeBlanc says, is one way of making life meaningful. He is the living epitome of another insistence of author Robbins that "The function of the artist is provide what life does not."
But LeBlanc laughs at the very concept of a goal or reason, his eyes twinkling.
"The answer is, we don't have to have an answer! We all know where we're going to end up, right?" he shrugs. "The journey there is the answer, and I'm having one helluva trip."
Behind him, trolls danced their agreement as purple bubbles floated across a TV screen stuck in the clutter. The "real" world of pain and grownups seemed very far away.
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