Often identified with the Renaissance, automata are self-operating machines with tiny, sculpted figures cycling through a series of pre-programmed tasks. Four-hundred years ago, European watchmakers used spring-loaded clockworks to create intricate and oftentimes delicate tableaux. Today, animators use other forms of locomotion but the principle remains essentially the same.
Contemporary Canadian artist, David Dumbrell, is a not a watchmaker but a former woodworker (custom cabinets and fine furniture) intrigued with the detail and the precision of these earlier manipulations. He depends on electricity and, on occasion, good old fashioned muscle power to bring his creations to life.
“I really like things that move. I’ve always been attracted to that and I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands,” says the Vancouver sculptor. “The scale is something I enjoy. But as much as I enjoy it, I also curse it because sometimes it won’t work for me but when it does, it’s definitely the poetry of mechanics.”
His heroes are historical pioneers, Henri Maillardet, Pierre Jaquet-Droz and in a nod to the modern world, American artist Thomas Kuntz and Francois Junod from Switzerland. “His work is absolutely phenomenal. If anybody is carrying on in the tradition of automata, it would be him.”
Dumbrell has constructed 11 pieces since he started experimenting with the medium in 2012. His first piece was made of wood; he is a woodworker after all, but he quickly taught himself metalwork, combining store-bought cogs and cams with multi-toothed gears he machined himself in his well-equipped studio. The heads and limbs are still made of wood but the innards are all metal, tiny Terminators, draped in fabric. His wife, Maryke, paints the faces.
Inside David Dumbrell’s studio (Photo Credit: Maryke Messchaert)
“I’ll make sketches. I’ll make little doodles and from there I’ll draft a very rudimentary full-scale drawing.” Dumbrell works out the mechanics beforehand but admits “God only knows what will happen after that.”
Dumbrell is quick to point out automata is not kinetic sculpture. “In kinetic sculpture it’s more the movement. In automata there’s a figure that’s moving and telling a story.” Dumbrell’s stories are little vignettes on daily life. A duffer tees up a shot in “The Golfer.” A bored worker repeats the same task over and over again in “The Job.” A young woman limbers up in “Namaste.” As for his most popular work, “Steam Bike,” well, that one’s just for fun. Check out the video below:
His pieces also reflect west coast whimsy. In “Vancouver Weather, for instance, the figure is constantly opening and closing his umbrella. A cup of medical marijuana sits on a bench. “I wanted to show my part of the world,” he says. “It is regional but I’m not restricted to that.”
Art or engineering? “I think it’s a blend of the too,” he says. “I think engineering can be an art.”
Some may dismiss his works as novelties and not art but Dumbrell is unfazed. Not only is he unfazed but he’s unrepentant.
“I look at these pieces that were built 350 years ago and I’m in awe. My pieces are getting more complicated. I like that direction and I’d like to carry on more and more heading in that direction. These are mechanical toys for adults and I’m okay with that.”