In the Studio
For the last 20 years I’ve been making kinetic sculptures that seek to combine the sensuousness of nature with the logic of math. My studio is in a yellow warehouse in Emeryville, California, a stone’s throw from the San Francisco Bay. During a typical day I often find myself moving in a circular arc: beginning, perhaps, with the memory of light on the ocean and the feel of wind, later being pulled into an irresistible problem involving sine curves, then leaning toward the drafting table to consider proportion, thread pitch, and color, pausing at the metal lathe to make a precision part, drilling countless holes in a piece of wood, always working toward the unparalleled excitement of switching on a sculpture for the very first time.
I was born in 1970 and grew up in Berkeley, California. My Dad is a publisher who also had lots of woodworking tools lying around our house. My Mom is an artist. Both of my parents love the outdoors. I remember making things like wooden yo-yos and duck marionettes from a young age. (Wood, string and gravity – it’s shocking how little I’ve changed!) In high school I really liked geometry, especially the constructions where you draw shapes using only a compass and straight edge. I also liked bicycling and rock climbing. I went to Harvard to study math, but changed majors and got a degree in English in 1993. Maybe, I thought, I could be a poet.
Tables and Drawing
Upon graduating, writing wasn’t going too well and I decided what I needed was a better table to write on. So I built a round table that could drive and set out across the country in search of conversations about the meaning of life. It turned out that the only conversation I was having was why I was driving a table and so I ditched the table in Texas. Thinking directly about the meaning of life wasn’t going very well either, and I began drawing as a way to experience nature without first filtering it through my mind. Someone told me that if I wanted to learn how to draw I should go to Italy, so I went to Florence. I was sketching marble sculptures in a plaza when I ran into a friend from college who was studying realistic painting at Charles Cecil Studios. I visited the school and ended up getting drawing lessons in exchange for working as a maintenance man. After two years in Florence I traveled to the Saint Petersburg Academy of Art in Russia to study monumental painting. In Italy I learned to see light and shadow. In Russia I learned to construct volume based on knowledge. In one way you stay open to visual beauty. In the other you cast out a net of meaning and observe how it falls across the contours of reality. To me it was the difference between reaching out to touch the world, and letting the world touch you. I believe that both are needed in any work of art.
Following my time in Russia, I accepted an invitation to an artist residency at Orchardton House in Scotland. I showed up without a clear plan and found myself among forty artists living communally in a stone castle surrounded by green fields and a rugged coastline. I started out making figurative paintings from my imagination, but after a few months I felt a need to work with wood. I thought about a little green caterpillar I had seen a few years earlier while hiking in western Utah, remembering my astonishment at its smooth wave-like movement. Because I also craved a good math problem, I first spent a couple months working on an equation that would describe the movement. Then I bought seven Ford Escort windshield wiper motors from a junkyard and made my first caterpillar using resistors and pieces of tape measure for switches. It walked 2 feet in 17 minutes, although, I admit, rather lacking in gracefulness. Needless to say, I’ve been hooked on kinetic sculpture ever since.
The next two years brought two more caterpillars as I experimented with motor control and analog cams. The cams worked surprisingly well and since then I’ve always been drawn to motion that is derived from the physical geometry of cams, levers, helices, and pulleys. Compared to the brute force method of using lots of individual motors and digital circuitry, the analog has the elegance and embedded meaning of an analytical solution. In 1999 I began an artist residency in Ahmedabad, India studying with artist Dashrath Patel. The streets there were so full of life that I needed to look no further for inspiration. I bought three cycle rickshaws and lots of bamboo and made a series of mechanical butterflies that flapped and fluttered through the city. Butterflies, after all, seemed like a good thing to make after caterpillars. Dashrath taught me how to direct the eye toward the moving parts of the sculpture, and let the static part recede. And the rickshaw itself has fascinated me ever since. Over the years I’ve made a dozen cargo rickshaws and that in turn has led to collaborating on some large-scale pedal powered vehicles.
In 2003 I moved into my current studio and began work on another caterpillar. But after several months I became frustrated by the stubbornness of the ground. I wanted a smooth motion, something that I would feel expand in my chest like a blossoming flower when I breathed in, and yet the ground kept being a thorn in the math, transforming what I imagined as continuous flow into a series of awkward steps. Then I looked up. My new studio had high ceilings. I began working on a suspended sculpture. Seven months later I finished the Square Wave. The first time I turned it on it gave me goose bumps. I built the Round Wave (a single raindrop), and next the Spiral Wave (the spiral eddy that trails the stroke of a paddle). Since then I’ve made about thirty kinetic sculptures. Despite huge differences in scale, material, movement, and resolution, each of these pieces belongs to the same family. In each I have made a connection to natural rhythms. In each there is a physical expression of abstract mathematics. In each I have tried to make something beautiful. When someone sees one and breathes in, and tells me that they feel the sculpture resonating in their chest, I know I’ve been successful.
After college I supported myself by working a few months each year for a company that builds magnetically shielded laboratories for geologists. It was an ideal job and paid enough that I could scrape by between stints. I got to work with a great crew and picked up both construction skills and a sense that if a team works really hard for a couple months, a seemingly insurmountable task will eventually give way. Plus, there’s nothing like going camping with geologists to expand your sense of time. In 2005 I got my first big sculpture commission and I’ve been a full time artist ever since. About half the sculptures I make are commissioned, often destined for a particular atrium or lobby. I like how a physical space can act as a kernel for the imagination. Decisions about movement, scale, material, transparency, and lighting, (all of which contribute to the sculpture’s presence), often become apparent by considering its future surroundings. Even more satisfying, the commissions have given me the chance to work with amazing people around the world. As the sculptures have become larger and more complex they’ve led me away from a solitary practice and brought me into deeper relationships with friends who help with intractable math problems, philosophical quandaries, engineering challenges, filming, welding, knot tying (some of the sculptures have a lot of strings), CNC machining, laser cutting, powder coating, anodizing, trucking and most of all, keeping a good sense of humor when confronted with tens of thousands of parts. Even on the sculptures that I build single-handedly, I feel very well supported.
What am I doing right now?
I live in Berkeley with my partner Amber and our two kids. I go to the studio Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. From twenty years of making wave sculptures, I’ve learned that everything is always changing, and yet simultaneously everything stays exactly the same. This contradiction disappears if you stand back far enough. Both art and math derive their powers when they reach out towards infinity, and so the two must blur together at their far edges. I make no effort to separate them. Recently the caterpillar rose to the surface again and I’ve spent the last two months working on a new design. My tools are a tad sharper and the ground has lost some of its stubbornness. I move through the day in a circular arc, comforted by the confidence that I will never find a complete solution, and yet with increasing excitement as the sculpture takes form.
Reuben Heyday Margolin
October 16, 2017