Benjamin Cowden

The hardest part about featuring talented Bay Area kinetic artist Benjamin Cowden is choosing which ones of his many mesmerizingly fluid machines to show here. Benjamin is a skilled metalworker, having studied metal techniques in places as diverse as Cameroon and Costa Rica. He’s had artist residency in equally diverse places, such as the Appalachian Center for Crafts in Tennessee and the San Francisco dump’s Recology Program. He is a master of gears, even showing us how to hand-make our own for the elegant Geared Candleholder project that appeared on the pages of MAKE Volume 21. Benjamin is also an integral part of the Applied Kinetic Arts collective, who have exhibited at Maker Faire Bay Area for many years now. Check out his full portfolio for gorgeous images and video of his sculptures in motion.

One project you’re particularly proud of:
1. The Corpse Reviver cocktail machine. It is, for me, a wonderful blend of sculpture and utilitarianism. Since I built this machine for Roboexotica in 2009, it has never had a major mechanical failure, and has brought me in contact with many new people. I began doing metalwork because I was fascinated with tools, which has led me to focus on interactive mechanisms as a sculptor. But creating the Corpse Reviver, something that actually accomplishes a practical task but also provides a unique experience, brings a whole different level of satisfaction. I have plans to create more food and beverage machines in the future, so keep a look out!

BenCowden.CorpseReviver.FullCandlesCowden’s Corpse Reviver cocktail machine.

Two past mistakes you’ve learned the most from:
1. When I first began modelling my work in a CAD environment, I thought it would make everything easier, help me solve mechanical issues without investing so much time building mock-ups, and speed up my production time. I still use CAD daily, but I now know that a few hours banging out a physical prototype is worth many days of sweating through a virtual model, and just because it “works” in the computer doesn’t mean it’ll work when you build it.

2. I’ve always gravitated towards precision, and when I began working with mechanisms, I really let my perfectionist side rule. The problem is: when you want things to move, you have to give them a little room to slip and slide. My early machines had no tolerance or adjustability, and frequently bound up or moved very stiffly. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate looseness and imprecision. It really isn’t rocket science, so there’s no reason to treat it like it is.

Cowden’s It’s The Things You Can’t Change That Shape You sculpture.

Three new ideas that have excited you most lately:
1. Less of an idea, more of a website, I’m excited about, a site that puts designers in contact with manufacturers around the country (and world) who are interested in making the parts you need. DIY fabrication is great, but sometimes you just don’t have the tools. On the other hand, there are tons of shops around the country that have the tools, but need projects to put the tools to use. MFG allows buyers to post their designs, and suppliers to submit quotes and exchange messages about the project. You can pick a shop to work on your parts, track their progress, and leave reviews for other buyers. I use the site mostly to handle laser- and waterjet-cutting steel parts, but the site handles everything from textiles to electronics.

2. Making art out of trash. I recently completed a residency at Recology San Francisco (the Dump), where it was literally my job to dig through trash and make artwork out of the things people throw away. It’s part of Recology’s outreach program, which meant I also talked to tour groups of school children and industry specialists, etc. It’s such a wonderful program, I can hardly believe there aren’t more like it around the country and the world (there is a sister program in Portland OR, but that’s it).

3. 3D printing. Yes, I know, EVERYONE is excited about 3D printing. But this is why I’m excited: it’s a technology that is just as efficient at one-of-a-kind fabrication as mass production (minus the modelling time, of course). This makes it super ideal for small-and medium-scale production, which is the niche I fit within.

BenjaminCowden.ConcentricPendula.FullAngle3Cowden’s Concentric Pendula sculpture.

Four tools you can’t live without:
1. I keep a 6″ rigid rule handy at all times, and use it constantly. I’ve got slide squares, tape measures, yard sticks, calipers, etc., but the fact is, if I could only take one, I’d take this one.

2. My 8-1/2″x11″ graph paper sketchbook. I like the Moleskine, but others work as well. I used to go for the smaller sketchbooks, but there really is something to be said for having some room on the page to work through an idea. My sketchbook comes with me wherever I go.

Ben Cowden cake and eat itCowden’s Eating My Cake and Having It Too sculpture features a tongue that repeatedly licks a lollipop.

3. Metal lathe. It seems like the simplest of tools, and when people ask me what it does, all I can say is, “It cuts round things.” But it would be very difficult to do the things that I do without a lathe. Mine is just a small Proxxon model-maker’s lathe, which I hope to upgrade soon, but I use it almost every day.

4. Might as well say it: my laptop. I would be so lost in the world at this point without it. This is the everytool: communication, calculation, sourcing, designing, ordering, learning, organizing. In general, I believe that versatility is a weakness; tools that only do one thing will do it better than some multi-super-flashy-whiz-jobber. My laptop is a resounding exception to that rule.

The Wayward Calliope sculpture Cowden built inspired by the kids who come to Maker Faire, who are “energetic, sometimes even frantic, and almost always curious. They will try anything, they just grab it and see what it does.”

Five people/things that have inspired your work:
1. Arthur Ganson. I saw a video of his work during my first year of graduate school, in the midst of an identity crisis, and it changed the trajectory of my career forever. I finally saw his machines in person at the MIT museum a couple years ago, and they are even more wonderful up close.

2. Maker Faire. There is no other event that I look forward to as much as Maker Faire. Every year, I see things I would never have imagined, and I come away with new friends and a sketchbook full of ideas for new projects.

3. Number patterns. I love patterns in general, but nothing gets me quite as riled up as a good number pattern. Have you ever written out the Fibonacci sequence to the 48th number, and then added the digits of each number together until you get a single digit (ex.: 987=9+8+7=24; 24=2+4=6)? It would be false to say that my work is based on these patterns. Better to say that my work is an attempt to scratch the same itch.

Cowden’s A Pleated Horizon in action.

4. Tom Latané. Tom is a blacksmith in Pepin, Wisc., whom I had the fortune to assist at a workshop in Tennessee a number of years back. He makes forged locks, chests, and replica antique tools. Beyond his marvelous work and attention to detail, what inspires me about Tom is his calm tenacity, his ability to just plug away at a project without haste or compromise.

5. Material. I get so much of my inspiration from feeling things: handrails, walls, statues, suit jackets, cars, curtains, pipes, doorways. I guess you could say the entire built environment, but what I really look for are honest materials: the texture of uncoated things, the marks of construction, the wear and tear. I like what time and use do to things.

Ben Cowden Geared CandleholderCowden’s Geared Candleholder, which appeared in MAKE Volume 21. Learn how to make your own.