He was driving to a wedding when something caught Chas. Colburn's eye through the window of his station wagon--a badly battered bumper lying on the side of the road. To his wife's horror, Colburn screeched to a halt and tossed it into his trunk.
It wasn't the first time.
For years, found objects were the Suitland sculptor's medium of choice. He foraged along train tracks hunting large, metal shards. But officials in the District, and then in Prince George's County, told him he was violating zoning regulations by building his massive artworks at home.
"I got run off so many times," Colburn says. "I found a place where they couldn't run me off--cyberspace."
Colburn installed a simple drawing program on his computer and soon was designing his massive structures with a mouse--and assembling them at a Cumberland factory that builds metal trash receptacles.
Using the computer makes for a much cleaner process. Before, he had to plan, design and build all in the same physical space--usually at his home, where he was a target for zoning officials.
Not long after Prince George's County officials broke the news that he couldn't work on his three-acre property in Suitland, Colburn created one of his best-known works. His 35-foot-tall red, blue and yellow metal sculpture now sits outside the CNN building in Northeast Washington.
"Thinking in 3-Dimensions," an exhibit detailing each step of Colburn's creative process, is now on display at Fort Washington's Harmony Hall Regional Center. Three of Colburn's sculptures--all designed using mathematical models manipulated on his computer--are on exhibit, along with printouts chronicling each stage of their creation.
"The type of artist I am is much more like a scientist that comes out with these gems of knowledge that no one has ever made before," Colburn says. "I'm using the vocabulary of mathematics, crystallography and music to uncover form."
He may be a scientist, but from the looks of his downtown Washington art studio, he's also a factory worker. The huge room, about 1,500 square feet, is littered with giant scraps of metal, chain saws, metal chains and gigantic work benches. Piles of paintings, sketches and a blackboard where he plans his creations are in one corner of the room. His desk is buried in papers, slides and art supplies.
During the conceptual stage, Colburn works at his Suitland home, where he keeps his computer and a printer that can print pages up to 20 feet long. He uses his Washington studio to build miniature paper models of the sculptures. Then he sends the models off to the Cumberland factory, where he helps workers build the final product.
"I'm basically a techno-nerd," Colburn says. But until his problems with zoning officials, the artist's relationship with math and science was a different story.
"I was a math phobic before I turned 40," Colburn says. "And I still don't know how to do a lot of things on the computer." (Math anxiety notwithstanding, the artist got a degree in business before returning to school to study studio art.)
In the early 1980s, Colburn began to receive critical acclaim for his huge, enforced-steel sculptures. He has displayed his work across the United States, and recently, Prince George's Community College commissioned him to create a structure for its campus.
Colburn's ability to transform mathematical formulas into works of art draws praise from his colleagues.
"Variations of music and chaos run through his work," says John Coppola, who curated the Harmony Hall exhibit.
"His sculptures look very free and flowing," agrees Jordan Tierney, an assemblage artist whose studio is next door to Colburn's. Tierney said she recently discovered exactly how true that is. A drunk man stumbled by one of the large, abstract forms outside Colburn's studio. He stopped, then started to dance with it.
"That was perfect," Tierney says. "[The sculpture] is human-sized. It could be a person in motion."
Colburn himself describes his work in human terms.
"I don't even know what they're going to look like when they're done," he says. "I make these forms that are beautiful, but for me, the excitement is developing the final product. They all have their own personalities. I don't scream, 'voila,' in the end. I'm already thinking about the next generation."
Chas. Colburn's "Thinking in 3-Dimensions" will be on view through Sept. 5 at Harmony Hall Regional Center, 10701 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington. There is a free public reception for the artist from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday. For more information, call 301-292-8331.
CAPTION: "Compound Wave" is a steel creation by Chas. Colburn, who designs his works using mathematical models manipulated on his computer.
CAPTION: Colburn builds paper models of his sculptures, then sends the models to a factory, where he helps workers build the final product.