SMALL TOWNS: Door County sculptor finds true love through art

Bob Anderson continues to make a living as the world’s only full-time garden kaleidoscope maker. And he started it for love.
Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 1:54 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2022 at 6:14 PM CDT
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STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - It’s an unexpected career that was sparked by trying to create sparks with his future wife.

Decades later, Bob Anderson continues to make a living as the world’s only full-time garden kaleidoscope maker. This week in Small Towns, we travel to Sturgeon Bay to check out these amazing pieces of art.

“This is my newest kaleidoscope I made. It involves forging metal,” says Bob while giving us a tour of one of his many garden areas.

Bob is a master at creating interactive living sculptures -- garden kaleidoscopes that put a new spin on experiencing the vibrant beauty of flowering plants.

“What we use as the object is the flowers, so people can put whatever they want into it. This one is going to Platteville,” explains Bob.

After growing up in southern Wisconsin and earning a degree in freshwater ecology from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Bob headed west, moving to California to guide whitewater rafting trips during the summers.

He also took a job at a Sacramento industrial plant, where he learned how to weld.

Life was good in 1994, but his love life, well, it was a little slow, so Bob took out a personal ad in the local paper.

“He wrote one that was intriguing and so I answered that, and you would listen to the voice and I liked his voice,” says Bob’s wife, Ann, with a chuckle.

When Bob met Ann he quickly realized she had an affinity for kaleidoscopes ever since she was a kid.

“It was about three months into our relationship, and I belong to an organization called The Brewster Society, and that honors the person that invented the kaleidoscope, and they were having a convention in San Francisco and so I invited him to join me and he said yes, and then we went to that and he said ‘I’m going to make an outdoor kaleidoscope’ and I said, ‘Oh, OK,” recalls Ann.

“And she didn’t understand, I think. She couldn’t understand how somebody would pay me that much money for something, so she was kind of, ‘You’re going to do what?’” says Bob.

Bob insisted he was on to something and his first garden kaleidoscope, a gift to Ann, remains priceless today.

“I told him he can’t sell it; we have to keep this one,” says Ann.

Within two years, Bob attended his first large art show in Madison.

“We were there and I sold six kaleidoscopes and a lot of other work, and then I went and quit my job,” says Bob.

In 2003, Bob and Ann bought a farm just outside Sturgeon Bay, moving from California to Door County.

Bob’s art had become his passion.

“He works every day, every day 8 to 10 hours, and he has for the last 27 years. Every vacation is a working vacation,” says Ann.

When he’s not hammering hot steel or sending sparks flying, Bob and Ann are on the road traveling to art shows around the country or delivering new pieces.

“I think I’ve driven over a million miles, I’m on I think my seventh truck. I enjoy that, being able to drive and see the country and meet my customers. It’s fun to meet the people who buy my work,” says Bob.

This spring Bob installed his 110th public piece.

His garden kaleidoscopes are now found in parks, museums, libraries and hospitals in 27 states, as well as in Canada and Japan.

“That’s the one thing I do like about the kaleidoscopes, it gets people that maybe wouldn’t interact together to sit and chat for a couple minutes looking at it,” explains Bob.

It’s an amazing talent, only realized because of an attraction.

“Because if I wouldn’t have met her I would never have really thought of doing it,” says Bob.

And it led to Bob’s biggest fan.

“At the shows, if they would ever say anything negative, I would become pretty territorial,” says Ann with a smile.

“I feel real lucky to be able to work up here in Door County and see the whole United States and do something I enjoy,” adds Bob.

As for the future, Bob says he has no plans of slowing down.

He is, though, looking to bring in someone part-time to work with him, saying at 64 years old the metal is starting to get a little heavy.

When Bob met Ann he quickly realized she had an affinity for kaleidoscopes ever since she was a kid.

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