Making moving art has become a way of healing for Jacksonville, Florida, artist Ron Schroer. Five years ago he survived a bout of lymphoma. After the last round of chemo he emerged with impetus to create, animate, and make art. As a way of continued healing and embracing life he set to work on some amazing kinetic art projects that have each required nearly a year to complete.
Schroer has worked as a cabinet maker, machinist, built automated entertainment robots, and worked with animatronics for nearly 2 decades. He had carried around his own ideas for a long time while working for other companies. However, after his illness, he decided it was time to break free of the corporate box and make his own art. He said: “Life is short and I’d be mad at myself if I didn’t start making stuff, if I didn’t start letting my crazy out before I pass away.”
He looked around his studio and saw junk that wasn’t ready for the scrap pile yet. Then he set to work on year long project building Ol’ Fence, a 6’ tall animatronic face made from found items; old fence wood, piano parts, and a talking drum. He uses a salad bowl set for eyes and part of the mouth. Schroer brought Ol’ Fence to life with over 30 movements and unique musical expression. The first thing he saw in the old wood was a mouth and from that he knew it needed a voice.
Check out this video of Ol’ Fence in motion.
The sounds from Ol’ Fence come from a parade drum with two heads. Similar to a talking drum, he uses a cylinder to change pitch. On one side he uses parts from an old piano to hammer the drum’s edge, side, center, and a cowbell for percussion. On the other side he uses a skateboard deck as a fretboard for a cello string and bow. Schroer describes these sounds as the groan and thump of Ol’ Fence’s voice. He said he likes taking familiar objects and taking them to a different place. He feels that’s the key to how his art brings a smile to those who experience it.
Along with letting his crazy out by making art, Schroer’s next project required him to combine woodworking, mathematics, and animatronics. Bigwheel combines a wood Penny Farthing style bike with a Theo Jansen mechanism. The walking, functioning wood legs replace the smaller back wheel.
The walking mechanism presented the greatest design obstacle. He worked with his brother Greg, a woodworker and shop teacher, to make Bigwheel. According to Schroer, the legs actually hold a lot of weight but he wanted them to be narrow enough to fit inside a regular door. He discovered the secret was the ratio in the linkages. Using animated software to find the perfect ratio, he experimented with different lengths to find different strides and modes of travel. Two banks of 3 legs each proved to be the right amount to get the bike up and walking. It worked, but this first version had some issues with a high center of gravity.
Add an animatronic penguin, make some improvements, and a new version of Bigwheel is born. The Bigwheel was top heavy so he moved the seat back and down solving the center of balance issue. This new version is designed so the rider uses their lower body to control the bike by pedaling, turning with the hips and squeezing the knees for breaking. The upper body and arms are free to control the animatronic penguin known as: Mechanicus Pysgocelis.
Schroer, aka “Boneshaker,” built his work to be sturdy enough to make the trip from Jacksonville, Florida, to the Austin Maker Faire in Texas May 16-17. Not only does he want his art to be around for a while, he knows his pieces must survive outside the studio. They must endure the stresses of being out in the world and hold up with little maintenance. He said: “I’d rather it break in the middle of build than when it’s in front of an audience.” He likes to build his stuff tough. That’s how he got the nickname Boneshaker. “You want it rugged… to function right out of the box. I like to play rough during a build, beat it up, put it to the test, bang it around a bit,” he said.
The art must endure and the artist must have endurance. In order to finish long term projects, Schroer suggests staying focused, avoiding distraction, and developing an attitude of perseverance. He pursues his art outside his day job on weekends and in his free time, moving between honey do lists and quality time with the grandkids. When it’s time to build he can concentrate in his Boneshaker studio where there is no T.V., just an auto-cad, a radio, tools, and materials.
Even though Schroer describes himself as a go with the flow kind of guy, he assures us that he has a lot of crazy built up and that he needs to let it out through making art. He’s been in remission for 5 years now and shows no sign of slowing down. Currently, he’s seeking a way to finance the construction of a Time Machine replica. He is also interested in future projects that will work with the wind.
Aspiring Makers can learn from how Schroer overcame the challenges of cancer and the daily grind and how he went on to complete large, complex, long term projects. His art demonstrates that making things can be a way of healing and a healthy release. He encourages us to engage in life through the creative process. His advice is: First, look at what resources you have lying around. Next, come up with an idea and do some prototyping (the last thing you want is to get 6 months into a project and find that it won’t go the distance). Then, consider the challenges: the deadline, money, and your time. Finally, don’t let life pass you by. If you are looking to get more out of life take Schroer’s advice, “Get up off the couch, shoot the T.V., and get to work building something.”
Schroer and the Boneshaker Big Wheel appeared at the Austin Mini Maker Faire. Check back often to make sure you don’t miss anything amazing at the Faire next year!