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A small face with large horns menacingly greets you at the door to this art studio, piquing your curiosity of what lies on the other side. The tiny workshop, the size of a large closet, is filled with boxes of paint, carved hands and jigsaws. A single path only one-person wide leads to a workbench littered with tools and carving materials.
The artist meticulously works in silence for days on end surrounded by a world of his own creation, carving tiny human limbs, dog’s jaws, gears and shafts, which he turns into small life-like scenes. A quick glance around the room unveils the variety of his creations — a tenement house without walls or a 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, or intricate motion sculptures. His pieces work like scenes from a bizarre dream or an M.C Escher print brought to life in old Kentucky hardwoods.
His kinetic sculptures are often inexplicable at first glance, with an ever-present wood crank tempting the viewer to wake them from their sleep.
There is a mystery that surrounds automata. It can be dark and macabre. Armstrong’s work which includes dancers, missiles, animals and mermaids is no different, leaving it to the viewer to interpret each piece.
A common theme among his sculptures is human labor.
“I was influenced by the movie, 'Metropolis' and that image of men turning big wheels," he says. "I was drawn to the idea of the body being organic but also a kind of machine. I like that idea of toil and labor and the dignity of work. I enjoy people saying, ‘boy how long did it take you to make that?’"
"It took a long time, but it’s a labor of love.”
An art career years in the making
Much of what Armstrong creates look like futuristic objects from a by-gone era. And that's partially true, though he didn’t always live in his own world of wooden cranks.
The path for this artist was full of hiccups.
“My parents in their retirement became antique dealers. I was 10 years old and started whittling things that you would call folk art and selling them for pennies on the dollar," he says.
It was this simplistic approach at a young age that got Armstrong started on his path as a full-fledged automata artist.
“Before the days of going to the department store and buying your child a toy, you made something, a pull toy or something that has some rudimentary movement,” Armstrong says, often with two hands, a pocketknife and an idea, whittling figures from sticks of wood.
The intricacy of these homemade toys changed as technology advanced. Wheels evolved into gears and gears brought precision, sophistication, and directional dynamics, bringing life to the inanimate.
Generations later, those simple handmade objects evolved further into cuckoo clocks, music boxes and movie projectors.
Always 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 that good, and I was not prolific. I had 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 wondered if there was a fine art way to make mechanical toy-like things. I ran into my old art teacher from UK, Jon Tuska, and he said, ‘Armstrong what are you up to these days?’ He brought his wife by to see what I was doing. I had done three pieces and they bought them all. I was stunned.”
Then, “my next-door neighbor was an art teacher at Transylvania University. 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 in it.”
On a whim, he did. And it paid off.
“(Gallery owner) Heike Pickett was there and my mother and her got in bidding war on one of my pieces. Later Heike came and said, ‘I love your work, I’d like to give you a show, when can you be ready?’"
"I was 48 years old, and I already had a career," Armstrong says. "And it’s been a roller coaster ride ever since.”
He credits Pickett with his continued success all these years later. “I was naive and inexperienced, and Heike has guided me and given me a career for almost 30 years.”
A place in automata history
Even with guidance, Armstrong recounts a recent moment of exasperation in his studio while perfecting one of his sculptures.
“My wife heard me scream and said, ‘I didn’t know whether to come and check on you, you may have cut a finger off. I knew to stay out of your way.’ I said, 'if I cut a finger off, I’ll be calm because I don’t want to scare you. If I’m screaming you know I’m just frustrated.'”
Armstrong is now one cog in the wheel of a long line of automatons in history.
“The French, German and Swiss clockmakers made automatons back in the 18th century. The Chinese were great at it and the Japanese have their own brand of automata," he says. "I draw inspiration from all that as well as from American folk art.”
Today, “there are thousands of automata makers all over the world. I’ve become friends with a lot of them through Facebook or the computer. It’s a little community of admirers."
“To make these pieces makes my life so rich. I think I want to pinch myself sometimes. Who gets to come into a little place like this and make any crazy thing you can think of, and somebody appreciates it? It’s a rare thing.”
But Armstrong knows it can't last forever.
“It’s going to end sometime. I’ll be 80 in four years. I have too many ideas and I’m not ready to quit, but I do have this sense that I’m running out of time," he says.
Luckily, he'll be able to put some of those ideas into motion. Armstrong is creating miniature automata for the upcoming "Last Train to Lilliput" show, Jan. 18-29 at the Black Box Theatre in 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. In a way, it’s a microcosm, a way of expressing all my experiences. It all seems to come out in some fashion.”
Reach photographer Pat McDonogh at email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Last Train to Lilliput" show by Steve Armstrong, an artist and maker of automata, or intricate motion sculptures.
WHERE: Black Box Theatre in the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, in Lexington
WHEN: Jan. 18-29
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Meet Kentucky sculpture, automaton artist Steve Armstrong