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Bobby Bolles – An Intimate Look At The Man of Iron

January 22nd, 2012 by Magdalena Tabor
I don’t recall the first time I met Bobby Bolles but he became as much a fixture in our lives as one of his sculptures at Broome Street, or as much a fixture as the man himself at the Broome Street Bar.
One of his best friends in the 1970’s was my then boyfriend, Marty. Marty got a job in Greenwich Village and became acquainted with a local named Bobby Bolles. I distinctly remember the first time Marty told me about him. They became fast friends and Bobby was quite literally, the sun our circle of friends orbited around. They worshipped him.
He was a hard little man, who lived a hard life and drank hard liquor. Clad in black leather pants,  a red scarf wrapped gypsy style around his head, a small gold hoop earring in one ear. He was the epitome of what the Village was at that time. It was as if the two had merged as one and you couldn’t think of Soho without thinking of Bobby Bolles. Like the empty cast iron warehouses of the neighborhood he roamed, he was crude and crass,  a bit derelict but intensely interesting. His handshake was like a grip of iron.
Apart from this, who was Bobby Bolles? First and foremost, he was an artist, and iron was his medium. I was introduced to his work by Bobby himself at the Broome Street triangle intersection. One of my favorite pieces was an oversized chicken with its tail feathers fanned out. He told me how the bikers would chain their motorcycles to one sculpture in particular and I immediately understood why – it was immovable. He went on to tell me about a sophisticated NY couple who were admiring his work there one day and didn’t realize that the artist stood in their midst. So he introduced himself but the woman refused to believe him. “You couldn’t possibly be the man who created these”, she sniffed with a snobbish look of contempt. He laughed when he told the story but I know it must have affected him. He never forgot it.
Bar hopping with Bobby was brutal. He took us to all of his favorite hang outs and we drank at every one of them. Being just a young woman at the time, I couldn’t keep up. I made sure to drink mine slowly so he couldn’t buy me another. We’d ultimately end up at McSorley’s Old Ale House where he worked after hours cleaning up on Sunday mornings. That was when he initiated Marty and the rest of the guys into helping him each week. Marty had T-shirts made up that read “Sunday Morning Clean-Up Crew” on one side and “McSorley’s” on the other. One Sunday I tagged along and sat around watching the sawdust fly as they swept up and then sprinkled a fresh layer on the floor. Dusting was not permitted. If you know anything about McSorley’s, the dust is part of the decor that has remained since its inception.
Another time, Bobby took us on a scavenger hunt for a piece of iron he saw in a dumpster. He needed help hauling it back to his workspace. He actually “rode” one of his sculptures there to get the piece several blocks away. It was an oversized scooter and since it was Sunday morning, the streets were deserted and there was no danger of colliding with anyone. We had a blast as the guys took turns riding it down an incline. But the method to his madness was using the scooter to lug the heavy piece back. His workspace was a huge basement someone let him use for free. It was filled with I beams and rusted pieces of junk he turned into art. His specialty was “angels”; pornographic versions with boobs and genitalia. They always had huge wing spans and his sketchbook was filled with them. One of his angels hung in an upscale Soho bar. Bobby donned protective eyewear, took hold of a heavy piece of iron and we watched as the sparks flew from his torch.
He took pride in bringing us to all of the Soho galleries featuring his work. Once he made a decorative iron grate for the outside of John and Yoko’s Village flat. I think mostly though, he lived on the kindness of the bar owners whose establishments he so often frequented. His living space was in an abandoned buidling one flight up. To see it from the outside and the hallway, which was a shambles, you’d never  believe anyone lived there. It was a tiny two room flat with an old claw foot bathtub in the kitchen that was covered with a piece of plywood. I think he said he used it as a table. I don’t even know if the place had any running water. There was a small cot in the tiny living room where he slept. Cramped quarters for one, let alone a group of us, or the one time Irish girlfriend who moved in with him for awhile. She was a tall blond beauty who towered over him like one of his angels. Then one day she went back to Ireland and that was that.
Marty was a good friend to Bobby. Drove him all the way to Port Washington, Long Island to visit his mother in the nursing home. And Bobby was fond of him too. Came to our wedding and I think he actually wore a suit that day. I’m sure he drank plently of Jack Daniel’s, which is sadly what killed him in the end. His idea of taking the doctor’s advice was drinking it on ice instead of his usual straight up.
Not long ago, my mother gave me something she’d found in her garage. Thought it might be mine. It was a small cross I’d completely forgotten about. I had asked Bobby to make it for me. There’s only one other piece I have from him. I wanted him to make a dinner bell for our place in the country. You know, one of those triangles you bang and yell “Come and get it!”  and everyone comes stampeding in to eat. His version was a heart shape but not just any old heart – it was a human heart shape, more anatomical. I nailed it to the tree outside the house all those years ago. It’s still there but the tree has grown so much in width that the heart is wedged deep into it. Hmmm…
By the way, that triangle intersection at Broome Street has been turned into a green space by the Parks Department. The sculptures removed by them, were promised to be restored to that space and officially renamed Bob Bolles Park….with a little more persuasion. So far, they’ve only given back three. Log on to Sohomemory.com for updates. It’s also a great site to learn about the history of Soho, the part of the Village he loved so well.
After all, what makes a green space any more beautiful than a man’s entire life’s work? It shouldn’t be erased. Bobby gave all he had to the community, (just like the two things he made for me) heart and soul.
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15 Responses to “Bobby Bolles – An Intimate Look At The Man of Iron”

  1. Nelly Says:

    Hey, that’s pwoerufl. Thanks for the news. I never heard of Bob Boulles, I just happen to stumble upon this. Really nice tribute and an interesting read.

  2. pete lundquist Says:

    I was a student at Cooper Union when I met Bob. I drank a lot of Jack and India pale ale knowing him, as well working with him on several odd jobs. I repainted the McSorley ceiling with a thin brown oil based stain he mixed up and have enjoyed many of his garlicy dishes of whatever he could find that night. He had an apartment over McSorley’s for while when Danny owned the building (slept off a couple long nights there), a studio hidden the bowels of a corner building a few blocks away, the apartment you mentioned and another studio in a basement on Sprint Street. As progress and improvement came to the Bowery and Soho he was pushed out until his last apartment. It is possible I was the last person to ever take Bob out for dinner just before I left the area. We went to a local clam house that he loved and even that short distance we had to use the car. I have several pieces by Bob, maybe someday a site for us to post pictures of his work. Thanks for the memories… I must write more about Bob someday.

  3. magdalena Says:

    Thanks, Pete. I enjoyed hearing from someone who remembers such a unique personality. Back then I never realized the area I came to know and love through Bobby would ultimately lose it’s creative charm and become just like everywhere else. What a loss to our artistic heritage. Soho lives on in my memory and Bob will always share an integral part of it. I hope that his work will one day be realized for the true grit that encompassed a by gone generation.

  4. Marty Schwarz Says:

    Madeline – Thanks for remembering. It’s been a very long time. -Marty

  5. magdalena Says:

    Good to hear from you, Marty. Hope all is well. Thought I’d write this piece while memory still serves.

  6. diann clothier Says:

    Ah, Bob! I met him in 1973 when I moved to SoHo to attend NYU… I have one of those angels stuck into the ground in my garden here in WV; Bob gave it to me – said it was #1 – he made it about a week after I told him about some tribe that had “ghost women” (anthro 101!!). Aside from sculpture, he was a wiz at bringing life back to a taco’d bicycle wheel.

  7. GEOFFREY BARTHOLOMEW Says:

    I knew Bob well, having lived abovve him at McSorley’s for 8 years, 1970-77. A real artist, not a manque, painted,sculpted with the torch. There’s a poem titled BOB BOLLES in The McSorley Poems, in whcih I tried to capture his essence. The guy was special, women loved him, and he was especially fond of taller women; he cooked often in a wok, lots of garlic as someone else mentioned, and steak, shrimp, whatever he had picked up from the local. Paul Blackburn, a poet who should be known more, lived a couple doors down on 7th St. and used to use Bob’s place to write in the last year or two of his life (he had throat cancer).Bob had a falling out with the new McSorley owner and moved down to Thompson Street in a basement apartment and
    had already been installing his Broome St. iron sculptures in the triangle leading toward the Holland Tunnel. I have a couple paintings of his, and some iron pieces. His downfall was the damn alcohol, he couldn’t stop, it had become part of his identity.
    RIP BB. (He usually signed his pieces with two Bs but back to back, so it looked as if a branding iron had been applied).

  8. Tom Schultz Says:

    I MET BOB IN 59′ IN THE 10TH ST COFFEE SHOP, WERE ALL THE COOP GALLERIES WERE, HE
    WAS A PHOTOGRAPHER THEN. I HELPED HIM MOVE OUT OFAN APT. ON 13TH ST. WE BOTH
    NEEDED A STUDIO, AND WE ENDED UP SHARING A LOFT AT 350 BOWERY. AT THIS TIME
    BOB STARTED TO PAINT, WE BOTH WORKED FOR KLINE AND OTHER ARTISTS. I LATER
    TOOK THE STUDIO UNDER BOBS, AND WAS AT 350 3 YRS. BOB LATER GOT INTO WELDED
    STEEL SCULPTOR. BOB BOLLES WAS THE ONE WHO TAUGHT ME HOW TO SURVIVE IN N.Y.C
    AND THE ESTHETICS OF N.Y SINCE I ARRIVED IN 59′ FROM COLO. BOB WAS INDEED A HARD
    WORKER AND DRINKER. I HAVE MANY STORIES ABOUT BOB HE WAS A GOOD FRIEND, I SAW
    HIM IN THE HOSPITAL BEFORE HE DIED, HE WAS DOING SMALL DRAWINGS IN BED, ALWAYS
    THE ARTIST!!!

  9. Tom Schultz Says:

    BOB BOLLEL A GOOD ARTIST

  10. Magdalena Says:

    I’m always amazed at how this article I wrote about Bob still draws out all of the people he crossed paths with, or should I say, those who crossed his, for Bobby never ventured far from the Soho he loved so well. Thanks to all who contribute their memories of him. Bobby never fails to interest and inspire, even now. Soho will never be the same as when he roamed the streets ever searching for his next prize. Some of my fondest moments forever encapsulated in that long ago era.

  11. tom schultz Says:

    I THINK YOUR WRITING ABOUT ARTISTS IS . VERY IMPORTANT,AND GETING VIEWS ABOUT THEM. DORE ASHTON ONE OF THE
    MOST IMPORTANT ART HISTORIANS DESCRIBES THE N.Y. ARTISTS IN DEPTH AND A GREAT INSIGHT, ALSO SUSAN LANDAUER
    ON CALIFORNIA ARTISTS AND THEN THERE IS YOUR IMPORTANT PUBLICATIONS FROM MANY SORSES ON DIFFERENT SUBJECTS

  12. tom schultz Says:

    SOME ONE YOU MAY KNOW OR NOT IS MY GOOD FRIEND MATT GONZALEZ, PUBLIC DEFENDER, ARTIST, AND HE RAN WITH
    RALFH NADER AS VICE PRES. HE HAS BEEN A GREAT HELP TO ARTISTS AND PROGRESSIVE PEOPLE .

  13. Marianne Robinson Says:

    Interesting story. . . I don’t know how many times I’ve told my version about both Bob Bolles and Tom Schultz. I first met Bob Bolles at St. Adrian’s (a hotel with a bar & restaurant on the ground floor). I took a seat at the bar, met Bobby Bolles sitting next to me, and we got talking; then Bob invited me to have dinner with him. He left to get food, said he’d be back soon. Then Tom Schultz came and sat on the stool vacated by Bob, and Tom invited me to have dinner with him! We left before Bob returned and I ended up having a meal with Tom at a Village restaurant. Tom and I started going together then, and we’ve been a couple ever since — for 48 years of “unwed bliss” in Tom’s words. I rarely saw Bob Bolles after that. But I have some good photographic images of Bob’s iron sculpture and would have been in favor of leaving them in the intersection of West Broadway and Broome Street as part of the East Village heritage.

  14. Magdalena Says:

    Perhaps your good friend Matt might help restore Bob’s work which , when last I heard, is being kept in storage, and have it find its rightful place in Triangle Park along with some of his other pieces. That would be a tribute to Bob, and all artists, worth investing in. That’s where they belong, for everyone to appreciate, not housed in a facility gathering dust.

  15. Magdalena Says:

    Interesting story, Marianne. Have you ever thought what might have been the outcome had you gone to dinner with Bob instead? One never knows the paths our lives will take at chance opportunity! Great speaking to you both.

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