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Robert Crumpston Doesn’t Milk Cows Anymore. He Builds Them

December 22, 1991

COLFAX, Ill. (AP) _ Robert Cumpston once milked cows. Now he builds them, but they’re often rusty before going to market.

Cumpston welds pieces of old farm machinery into life-size sculptures of animals - cows, giraffes, steers, herons, pigs.

His work is in private collections and public buildings across the country, and in the front yard of his small, central Illinois farm.

″When you’re a farmer, nobody comes up and tells you that you have a load of nice looking corn, but they notice this,″ said Cumpston, surrounded by hundreds of marble-eyed, iron animals. ″It’s sort of an ego trip.″

And it sells, for as much as $6,000 an animal.

Cumpston, who gave up farming for art in 1981, has a new view of the tractors, combines, plows and grain driers he once operated.

Rake blades are the eyelashes of a giraffe, bolts are its backbone. Pieces of spring are the wool of a lamb. Grain lifters from a combine are the legs of a dog, barndoor hinges are its floppy ears.

″I’ll see one part and think it would be a great tail or nose,″ said Cumpston, 61. ″I have developed a whole animal around that piece.″

Cumpston exhausted his own supply of decrepit farm implements years ago and now buys from scrap metal haulers who deliver to the welding shop next to his house.

Bent, broken, dirty and twisted steel goes in; cats, deer, geese, coyotes, llamas, turtles and armadillos come out. They are stacked on wooden pallets awaiting shipment to art shows, galleries and longtime customers.

″Most of it will live in better surroundings than we do,″ Cumpston said, chucking. ″They’re in the lobbies of big businesses, and in fancy homes. One couple bought a cow and used it for a towel rack in the bathroom.″

One of Cumpston’s giraffes sold to Stanley Hedeen, dean of arts and sciences at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He donated it to the school for display in the new science complex.

″The spot cried out for a nine-foot giraffe,″ said Hedeen, who paid about $2,700 for it and calls Cumpston ″an excellent artist.″

Cumpston works in spurts, jumping from piece to piece. He estimates he has created thousands of animals. He has no idea how long each took.

″I don’t play golf or fish, but I like to tinker,″ he said.

Always interested in art, Cumpston and wife, Donna, have collected pieces ranging from modern stained glass to padded cloth sculptures to a train made from old musical instruments.

The two travel to shows and fairs, where they sell his work for $25 for a small bird, $90 for a cat and $6,000 for pieces like the giraffe.

″He went to a show one weekend and made more money that he did all year milking cows,″ Mrs. Cumpston said. ″But there are a lot more expenses with this.″

Some of Cumpston’s work reflects his sense of humor. One pig has a slot in its back like a bank, though its sides are open.

″That way you don’t have to break it to get your money out.″

He has done dogs in just about every position from sitting and begging to crouching.

″I’m going to do a dead dog someday, with tire marks on it.″

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