Robot Man

If you can't find a world of friends, just make them

The apartment belonging to Jim Dabbs is just one among the thousands on the city's southwest side, and as you drive through his complex's access gate and wave to Dabbs, a stocky man with closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair and beard, as he awaits you at his door, you feel like you're in perfectly-normalville. Then you step inside the apartment, which is clean and pleasant, average, even -- except for the robots.

Actually, for that matter, even Jim Dabbs' robots, looking shiny and new, seem strangely, well, ordinary in his home, like some friends who just happened to drop by. The big fellows -- assembled from discarded Clorox bottles, bicycle seats (they make nice heads) and styrofoam, among other objects, then painted a shiny black -- are positioned near the front door, but they feel more like greeters than guards, despite standing from five to six feet tall. The one with the hairbrush-bristle mustache on its jug head looks like a grandpa; the one seated beside it is maybe the most technically impressive of the lot. Dabbs has worked his robots so painstakingly, and so lovingly, that, despite the flimsiness of their materials, all of their joints turn in every direction, and this six-footer is nimble enough to be a marionette.

As you look at his art, which includes portraits he paints on commission (except, presumably, for the likeness of Steven Spielberg that leans against his living room wall), a coffee table full of tiny robots (mostly made from the inner workings of Bic lighters), and carved-from-clay fruit baskets so tiny that you need a magnifying glass to tell the bananas from the apples, Dabbs waits quietly. Also waiting quietly is the first robotic figure he built, a replica of the robot woman from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Dabbs built her out of styrofoam and aluminum foil in 1977, just after his marriage ended.

The timing was not accidental, and as Dabbs relates his life, it becomes clear that the world of his apartment was made to be more comfortable than the world outside. It's not an altogether uncommon artistic genesis, but this time around it has resulted in a creation unique in Houston.

When the 46-year-old ex-Marine talks, he does so softly and cautiously, as if tapping each word before releasing it, making sure that it's sound. Speaking of his first (and only explicitly female) robot, Dabbs says, "I needed to keep myself busy [after the divorce]. You could also say I needed some kind of company, even if I made it myself."

For all the playfulness of the objects that surround him, a palpable sadness clings to Dabbs, who has been treated for depression during various stays at the VA hospital. He remembers the first time he lost an apartment because he couldn't pay his rent. After his divorce, he stayed on at his job at Kwik Kopy to make sure he completed a decade of employment there. But once that goal was met, he couldn't rouse himself to go to work. Instead he lost himself in robot making, which caused him to lose his apartment. When his father came to help him move, Dabbs had to leave the 20 robots he'd made by that time outside the door while he carried boxes to a storage area. An hour later, when he came back to get his creations, they were all gone, save for the Metropolis woman, which had been put aside elsewhere. Dabbs still has the photos he took of his first set of mechanical men, stored in a rather melancholy album.

While Dabbs stayed with his parents in Livingston, his depression worsened, so that "one morning I woke up with the sheets pulled up over my face. I felt like I was in a morgue. I was just lying there waiting to die." But he posed himself a challenge to see how important life still was to him: he set out to ride a bicycle to the VA hospital in Houston, some 70 miles away. After several miles the bicycle seat made his butt hurt, so he got off and walked the rest of the distance.

Through much of the next decade Dabbs was in and out of the hospital. Thanks to a rehab program, he was able to live in his own apartment for two years and study at the Art Institute. But whenever the time came for Dabbs to apply his skills to earning a living, his attention would wander back to robots. He lasted a year at a local design firm, then quit to stay home and obsessively work on his creations.

Dabbs doesn't try to justify his actions. One day he'll vow "to wear out the leather in my shoes" looking for part-time work that would allow him time for robot building; the next day he'll admit, "I still find it incredibly difficult to walk out the door and ask for work. Some synapse isn't firing."

That inability to settle into any routine that doesn't involve making metal people has more than once brought Dabbs to the brink of eviction. Fortunately for him, both his plight and his work have touched a number of people. His father and his aunt have helped him with his rent, as has SEARCH, a service organization for the homeless. When he took himself off the SEARCH rolls because he didn't feel up to job hunting (his end of the bargain), Susan Wingfield, an accountant at the organization, began championing his robots. Thanks largely to her efforts, Dabbs' work is being displayed at the R M Gallery.

Still, it's not clear whether Dabbs will be able to accommodate himself to the world he didn't personally make, and it's even less certain that he'll be able to force the world to accept him as is. But he feels he's coming closer. "Five years ago I was afraid to talk," he says in his robot lair. Then he laughs at himself, maybe at the oddity of having talked about himself so much. "Whoopee," he says, still laughing.

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