Utah-based artist Andrew Smith creates fantastical kinetic sculptures with found objects and beyond. We caught up with him recently to chat about the challenges in making kinetic sculpture, his influences, dreams of junk, and the disconnect between the general public and the art world. Since his pieces come to life with movement, the best place to check them out is on his YouTube channel, but for much more, check out his website and Flickr stream as well.
1. How long have you been making kinetic art, and how did you get started?
I started doing my art 10 or 11 years ago. It really sort of started by just playing around with a few ideas I had. I’ve always been a hands-on type of person. As a kid I was always involved with very creative activities, Legos, tree forts etc. As I got older I had fun ideas for things that I thought would be cool, but never really saw myself as the one to actually make them. Around the time I was dating my wife I started actually trying to build stuff. She was always working on some sort of art project or something, and that sort of gave me the push to start trying things and it just built from there. Like most artists, I look back at my early works and cringe at how horrible some of them were. Not only aesthetically, but the durability and the mechanics of those early pieces seem so primitive to me now.
2. Are all your works kinetic?
Not all of my works are kinetic, however most of them are in some way or another. The core of my work is the kinetic and rolling-ball-type pieces, but I also do a lot of water fountain works as well as welded assemblage figurative pieces. Although the different areas of my work often overlap, for instance Moon Pool [seen at top] is a large water fountain with kinetic elements and Long Road Home [above] is essentially a large figurative kinetic piece.
3. What are the unique challenges you face creating kinetic works?
I think the biggest challenge is creating unique movement or objects that capture the viewer, and making those elements mechanically reliable and durable. As an artist it is fun to just create these machines and use the movement to make these things come to life. The mechanical side is where things can get difficult at times. That is why I tend to approach my work with a “form follows function” mentality. So much of the look of a piece is determined by how things are put together to make things function during the creation process. However, during that process, rather than making things clean cut and precise, I still approach it as an artist. It’s sort of like adding images to a collage — I work with the materials available.
Smith’s Tornado 3.0 is a seven-foot-tall steampunk-style tornado vortex generator.
4. Where do you source your materials?
I get my stuff from all over the place. The core mechanical elements are almost always purchased new from Grainger, McMaster-Carr, or other industrial parts suppliers. All of the mechanical movement in my sculptures rely on these newly purchased parts. Usually this consists of mounted ball bearings, rod ends, roller chain, etc. These parts are almost always total overkill for the purposes of my art. But the last thing I want as an artist is to have clients calling me up with mechanical breakdowns. I want to know that when I sell a piece of art, it is going to last a very, very long time.
All of the “junk” elements are usually added after the fact. This is what gives the artwork so much of its look and character without having to rely on it mechanically. This type of stuff I get from anywhere and everywhere — scrapyards, antiques stores, auctions, military surplus, even the side of the road. I even have people drop it off at my studio.
5. Who or what are your inspirations?
It’s hard to really say where my inspirations come from. So much of it is just by observing the world around me, seeing how things work, etc. I think when it comes to specific artists, the two biggest would have to be Alexander Calder and Jean Tinguely. For the most part neither of them took their work too seriously. For them it was just having fun and creating something beautiful, making normally static items come to life.
Growing up I loved watching how things worked. One of my favorite movies as a kid and still to this day is called Gizmo, a sort of documentary that captures all sorts of inventions and creations during the first half of the 20th century. I was mesmerized by the creations in that film.
6. Your father is a sculptor as well. How has that influenced you?
It would be impossible to mention inspirations without mentioning my father, Dennis Smith. As a professional artist he exposed us kids to the world of art. He didn’t do this in a pushy or intrusive way. For the most part, it was just part of growing up. About 150 yards down the hill from the house was “the lower studio.” This is where my dad worked on his assemblages. He was constantly welding items together, creating these elaborate, metaphorical pieces of art. As a kid I was always exploring the piles of junk he used for these assemblages. It really was impossible to grow up in this environment without letting my imagination run wild.
When I was around 20 years old I started actually creating my own works. My dad let me use the lower studio and even his junk to start putting things together. It was at that time I realized how much I loved creating my sculptures. His works were very metaphorical and philosophical, without any sort of mechanical elements (that wasn’t his strong suit). My work, on the other hand, became very kinetic and mechanical. I didn’t like putting heavy meaning behind my work. Since then, I began collecting my own piles of “junk,” and as my dad has phased out of that area of his work, I became devoted to it full time. In 2005 my wife and I bought a home in Lehi, Utah, about 5 minutes away, and I spent several months hauling tons and tons of junk to my new studio.
7. Do you really have dreams about junk?
Yes, I actually really do have dreams about junk. I am fascinated by old things, antiques, unique items, both in general and for my art. Seems like I always dream about an old barn, or factory of some sort, full of just awesome stuff. The problem is, in these dreams, I always have this panic of trying to hurry and figure out how to haul it all home.
8. Tell us about your design and build process. Do you find the parts first and let them determine what you’ll build or do you have a vision and then find parts to suit it?
Each project is different in its own way as to how I approach the design process. In general, if it’s a commissioned work I usually work within the basics, dimensions of the space, type of piece (kinetic, water, rolling ball, etc.), color, and general look and feel of the piece. Usually, other than that, so much of what happens in a piece is more or less discovered during fabrication. I often will search for a “core” element or item that the piece is built off of. From there, it’s a lot of trial and error, trying different items or movements in a piece. If it works, I will weld it solid, “make it final.” If it doesn’t, it gets cut off and I try something else. Sometimes if I get stumped I will go and search through the piles of junk, and oftentimes that spawns an idea or concept that becomes part of the piece.
9. You’ve mentioned feeling like there’s a disconnect between the general public and the art world. Please explain.
I feel like so much of modern art is focused on the social aspect, creating art that is meant to stir emotion, by being overly political, controversial, and offensive. I’m not saying that this type of art should not exist — it has its place in modern society and in no way should be censored or “forbidden.” I guess I just feel like so many artists resort to using blatant “shock and awe” to try and convey their point, rather than taking the time to create something truly beautiful (or not) to stir emotion in the viewer. The sort of “in your face, like it or not” approach that has become the norm in so many situations is really a turnoff for the vast majority of the population. Art should be something that inspires humanity, creates emotion and thought, good or bad, for society as a whole, not just for a certain demographic. I think that’s why there seems to be a growing disconnect between the general public and the art world. Art is no longer the creation of beauty, inspiration, and thought. But it has become a political tool to try and force one’s point of view on the viewer. Anybody can offend, not everybody can inspire.
I guess that is why I don’t like to overlay heavy thought or meaning into my work. That’s not saying it isn’t there or doesn’t creep in from time to time. For me, it ruins the fun. Ironically, if my work had a meaning, it would be that it has no meaning.
10. What’s next for you?
Honestly, I am not quite sure what’s next for me at this point in time. I really am just focused on moving from project to project. The concept of “feast or famine” for an artist really seems to be true, at least for me. I would just be content to find a nice middle ground that gave me the flexibility to work on more personal projects.