A small face with big horns greets you threateningly at the door ofthis artstudio, piquing your curiosity for what’s on the other side. The small workshop, the size of a large closet, is filled with boxes of paint, sculpted hands and puzzles. A single one-person path leads to a workbenchlittered with tools and sculpture equipment.
The artist works meticulously in silence for days on end surrounded by a world of his own creation, sculpting tiny human limbs, dog jaws, gears and rods, which he transforms into small lifelike scenes. A quick glance around the room reveals the variety of his creations: a building without walls or roof, an acrobat balancing on a pedestal and a monkey on a bicycle.
This is the unique world of Steve Armstrong, 75, artist and maker of automata and complex moving sculptures. His pieces work like scenes from a bizarre dream or an MC Escher print coming to life in old Kentucky hardwoods.
His kinetic sculptures are often inexplicable at first glance, with an ubiquitous wooden crank tempting the viewer to wake them from their slumber.
There is a mystery surrounding the automatons. It can be dark and gruesome. Armstrong’s work which includes dancers, missiles, animals and mermaids is no different, leaving the viewer to interpret each piece.
A common theme among his sculptures is human labor.
“I was influenced by the movie ‘Metropolis’ and this image of men spinning big wheels,” he says. “I was drawn to the idea that the body was organic but also a kind of machine. I like this idea of toil and toil and the dignity of work. I like people saying to me, ‘My boy. , how long did it take you to do this? ‘”
“It took a long time, but it’s a labor of love.”
An artistic career in the making
Much of what Armstrong creates resemble futuristic objects from a bygone era. And that’s partly true, although he hasn’t always lived in his own world of wooden cranks.
The career of this artist was strewn with pitfalls.
“My retired parents have become antique dealers. I was 10 and started carving things you would call folk art and selling them for pennies on the dollar, ”he says.
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It was this simplistic approach at a young age that enabled Armstrong to embark on the path of a full-fledged automaton artist.
“Before you go to the department store and buy your kid a toy, you would make something, a pull toy, or something that has a rudimentary movement,” says Armstrong, often with two hands, a pocket knife, and an idea, by carving figures out of wooden sticks.
The complexity of these homemade toys has changed as technology has advanced. The wheels evolved into gears and the gears brought precision, sophistication and directional dynamics, bringing the inanimate to life.
Generations later, these simple, handmade items evolved into cuckoo clocks, music boxes, and movie projectors.
Still an art lover, Armstrong eventually studied fine art at the University of Kentucky, but struggled to find his creative outlet.
“I tried printmaking and painting, but I was not very good and I was not prolific. I had an artist block, ”he added.
Armstrong taught Montessori classes, eventually owning the school, and was a guitarist in a rock band for years before the gears began to turn in his own artistic career.
“I’m going to call it an epiphany because I was wondering if there was an artistic way to make mechanical toy-like objects. I met my old British art teacher, Jon Tuska, and he said, “Armstrong, what are you doing these days? He brought his wife to see what I was doing. I had made three pieces and they bought them all. I was stunned.
Then, “my next door neighbor was an art professor at the University of Transylvania. He saw me working on my porch and said, ‘You know’ Transy ‘is putting on a show called’ Toys Made by Artists’, you should put something on it. “
On a whim, he did. And it paid off.
“(Gallery owner) Heike Pickett was there and she and my mom got into a bidding war over one of my pieces. Later Heike came over and said, ‘I love your job, I would like to put on a show for you, when can you be ready?’ “
“I was 48 and already had a career,” says Armstrong. “And it’s been a roller coaster ride ever since. “
He credits Pickett for his continued success all these years later. “I was naive and inexperienced, and Heike guided me and gave me a career for almost 30 years.”
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A place in the history of automata
Even guided, Armstrong recounts a recent moment of exasperation in his studio as he perfected one of his sculptures.
“My wife heard me scream and said, ‘I didn’t know if I should come see you, maybe you cut your finger. I knew you had to stay out of your way. I said, ‘if I cut off a finger, I’ll be calm because I don’t want to scare you. If I scream you know I’m just frustrated.
Armstrong is now a cog in the wheel of a long line of automatons in history.
“French, German and Swiss watchmakers made automata in the 18th century. The Chinese were good at it and the Japanese have their own brand of automatons, ”he says. “I am inspired by all of this as well as American folk art.
Today, “there are thousands of PLC manufacturers all over the world. I have become friends with many of them through Facebook or the computer. It’s a small community of admirers. “
“Making these coins makes my life so rich. I think I feel like pinching myself sometimes. Who can come to a little place like this and do any crazy thing you can think of, and somebody enjoys it? It is a rare thing.
But Armstrong knows it can’t go on forever.
“It will end one day. I’ll be 80 in four years. I have too many ideas and I’m not ready to quit, but I feel like I’m running out of time, ”he says.
Fortunately, he will be able to put some of these ideas into motion.Armstrong is creating miniature automatons for the upcoming “Last Train to Lilliput” show, January 18-31 at the Black Box Theater at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center in Lexington.
“Every person I’ve met, every book I’ve read, every movie I’ve seen, every place I’ve visited is an inspiration. It is in a way a microcosm, a way of expressing all my experiences. Everything seems to come out a certain way.
Contact photographer Pat McDonogh at [email protected]
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
WHAT: Show “Last Train to Lilliput” by Steve Armstrong, artist and maker of automata or complex moving sculptures.
OR: Black Box Theater at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, Lexington
WHEN: 18-29 Jan.