INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Russell "Robbie" Robinson wasn't one to guess.
When commissioned by Largo's Christ Presbyterian Church to sculpt 72 clay busts of historical Christian figures, he combed the Bible for clues.
Were the disciples outdoor types? Tax collectors? Fishermen? Where did they originate?
"He talked a lot about the study that he went through when he tried to create those people," said his friend, Dick Merryman. "He gleaned every sentence he could find in the scripture."
Their experiences told him everything.
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Mr. Robinson, a noted artist from Indian Rocks Beach, died Saturday after a battle with cancer. He was 88.
He started painting as a boy, studying art in Clearwater. He joined the Navy during World War II, and was injured during the Anzio invasion. An explosion blew out his eardrums and caused cuts all over his body.
After the war, he lived with other starving artists in Woodstock, N.Y., chopping wood and making large picture frames to sell. He studied fine art in Philadelphia and spent years painting and sailing around the gulf and Caribbean.
In Florida, his art career flourished. He had a string of one-man art shows across the state during the '60s and '70s.
He painted a 13-foot crucifix at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Largo. He created huge murals in the entrance of a yacht company and at the Pelican Restaurant in Clearwater.
He built a 14-foot sculpture in front of a St. Petersburg bank and sculpted bronze reliefs of Morton Plant Hospital benefactors.
He was never satisfied with a single medium. A member of the National Rifle Association, Mr. Robinson was a gun enthusiast who loved to refinish weapons, adorning them with jewels and fancy hand grips.
Mr. Robinson executed his work breezily, sometimes distractedly, talking to friends and philosophizing on politics and religion while painting incrementally.
"He would mix a little paint and put a dab on the canvas, mix some more, put a dab," said Merryman. "I'd look at the thing and go, 'Holy smokes, that's a nose!' "
He had a large circle of influential friends. He taught art and painted family portraits for many business and educational leaders.
Through his life, he had heart problems and several types of cancer. His passion, he believed, sustained him.
"Give a life something to live for," he once told the St. Petersburg Times. "Take care to appeal to the soul and the body will take care of itself."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.