History in 3D: Bob Collier gives shape to historical images

words and photos by Karla Tipton

An Akron-area artist has been bending history to his will for years to show its hidden depths.

The 3D fabrication process that Bob Collier has developed over the past two decades blends vintage digital art with paper cutting and bending to create pieces that may be more at home at a comic convention than in an art gallery.

His pieces begin with art history and popular culture images that have fallen into the public domain. This includes comic book covers, vintage toy packaging boxes, old Christmas cards, artistic building graffiti, pictures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and even classic paintings housed in museums. He spends hours online researching artwork, using websites like those for the Smithsonian and Guggenheim museums, for pieces that lend themselves to popping out into 3D and are copyright free. 

Bob calls his pieces 3D posters. But that description minimizes the effect of his work.

“Some people consider this art, some people consider this crafting,” Bob says during an interview at his Clinton home, a renovated one-room schoolhouse built in the late 1800s, where he has shifted his base of operations while he regroups. 

Bob is an artist in transition. The South Main Street store where he earned his living for nearly 20 years with Penny Printing, and where he displayed his artwork, was sold a few months ago, and he’s had to move his inventory home. At the same time, he’s transitioning his 3D printing method into a more environmentally friendly process, and he’s on the verge of changing his business model. Bob also creates custom pieces for clients who provide their own images. 

Bob maintains a social media presence on Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram. His Pinterest page has more than 5,100 followers. On YouTube, he presents self-edited videos of his creative process from start to finish. He posts videos to Instagram as well, and builds his inventory based on the favorites pinned and liked by his followers. 

“On Instagram, you get 15 seconds of video, and in that 15 seconds, I can show the dimensions of the piece,” Bob says. “I have spent many, many hours trying to figure out how to show a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional world.”

He described his process: “They’re printed. They start out flat. I cut them out by hand. Shadows are put in the background. Once you get the shadows, you take it and literally bend it by hand.” 

In earlier generations of his process, the image’s original background restricted the depth he could achieve. He began removing the subject from its background and adding a digitally created drop shadow or a different background. “The minute I put the shadow into the background, and the object out of the background, I was able to go inches off the page,” he says.

Images from horror or science fiction, as well as those of the surreal and macabre, naturally suit the 3D treatment. “The horror ones are the best,” Bob says. “I brought the Creature from the Black Lagoon off the page about 2 inches.”

This technique works especially well for one of his best-selling pieces, the Buck Rogers Atomic Pistol, which is a favorite of vintage toy collectors. “This is 1938 artwork from the actual box of the ray gun. Most people who collect the ray gun don’t have the original box art.”

What collectors are after proves to be both a blessing and a curse. “Someone will say, ‘oh, I collect Planet Comics, I see that you have No. 1, No. 2, No. 8 and No. 10. Do you have No. 34?'” Bob says. This is the reason he started offering custom artwork. “Send me the artwork of what you want done.”

Bob is now at an artistic crossroads. With the loss of his office space, and the prospect of a new project that’s not yet ready to discuss publicly, he may start offering limited edition pieces. 

“I’ve always been torn which way to go,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to go toward the masses and not the one. But I’m ready to go to the one instead of the masses.”

As limited editions, his creations will be sold for a price higher than the $20-30 per piece he sells them for now. “You’ll have one of five originals that were ever made,” he said.

This business model is one Bob is ready for. 

“I’ve quit doing the ComiCons,” he says. “I’d get a million people. I had 150 different comics,” which included representations of the most expensive collectibles “that more than likely the person who collected these could never own, because he couldn’t afford the $28,000 copy.”

Inevitably, the collector who came to his booth would say, “oh, no, I’ve got No. 68 that’s worth $10. That’s the one I want.”

Soon, Bob had had enough. “After two days at this one convention, I looked at my buddy and said, ‘There’s just no way that I’m going to listen to this every day. There’s got to be a better way.'”

Which brings us to his nickname, “Angry Bob.”

“That goes back a ways,” he says with a laugh. “Let me put it this way. I’ll put up with a lot of stuff, but once someone gives me major bull, I will not stand there and take it.”

To see more of Bob’s work, visit PLart.net. 

A native of Barberton, Karla Tipton earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Kent State University and spent 14 years as a staff reporter and editor at the Antelope Valley Press in California before returning home. She is the author of two time travel romantic fantasy novels. She keeps busy writing, working in the IT field, playing rock guitar, photographing urban settings and enjoying the local arts and music scene.