Robots: The Way We Look At Them Now

We humans have long been fascinated by the thought of machines built in our own image. From ancient times, inventors have tinkered with mechanical helpers to do our bidding, and storytellers have told cautionary tales about the dangers that lie along that path. Today, robots — a word not coined until the early 20th century — are everywhere in our daily lives. Far from the clunking, clattering, vaguely humanoid creatures of old sci-fi movies, modern robots build our cars, vacuum our floors, and are learning to be more like us every day.

Preston McGhee’s Mini-Bot Charm

In part because of their constant presence in our lives, robots have become the focal point of the creative message for many environmentally conscious artists. They build the non-functioning humanoids from discarded parts left in cellars or curbside salvagables, with the goal of creating something people can relate to visually, while finding innovative uses for waste.

Preston McGhee got his start in the robot-art field by collecting old TVs, VCRs, and computers back in 1982. Working in an electronic repair shop, he found himself assembling leftover parts one afternoon, and his adorable little capacitor robot was born.

McGhee says his love for robots stems from a natural appreciation for the mechanics of the human form. “The simple geometric shapes of electronic components lend themselves to constructing humans and animals,” he explains. See also: Five Important Seattle Art Shows.

Though he makes larger pieces, his charm-sized robots have proven to be his most popular.

Stemming from a love of exploring the artistic possibilities in found items, Nemo Gould creates various-sized robots from discarded parts. As one of the more sculptural robot designers, his work conveys a reminder that much of what has been science fiction is now unfolding before us.

The Cyclist 2009 (11″ x 14″ x 6″). Made from brass lamp pieces, garlic press, bicycle brake parts, film editing machine parts, boat motor parts, erector set chain and sprockets, aluminum flywheels by Nemo Gould.

“I’ve always liked robots because they are a very concise metaphor for humanity’s desire to master the forces of creation with the best intentions,” he says. “If man is in God’s image, then robots are in man’s.”

Minotaur 2011 (97″ x 60″ x 42″). Made from a meat slicer, vacuum cleaners, bullhorns, chair and able parts, motors, LEDs, refrigerator parts, belt wheels, milliamp meter, shoe trees, springs, cable, pulleys, misc. aluminum scrap by Nemo Gould.

Back in the 20th century, Mark Brown was a saw painter who frequented flea markets in search of materials. Something about the vast array of metal objects available sparked his imagination, and in 2001, he began designing whimsical human shapes from scrap.

“I realized that I didn’t have to work only with saws; that I could work more three-dimensionally and I could use some of these great metal shapes, such as coffee pots and cake pans, to make figures,” he recalls. “They were cheap and came in endless variety, and also came in forms you could never imagine.”

Penguin Clock made from found objects by Mark Brown.

For a half-century, Clayton Bailey has been pushing that thought even further with his lifelike, often anatomically correct, robot designs – then standing it on its head.

Bailey finds scrap metal and other parts at local flea markets and salvage yards for inspiration for his “wondrous” creations. They tap into our pre-conceived images of “science” and give us permission to laugh at them, and ourselves, something that would fit perfectly well in the Seattle Art Museum.

“In our modern world, where objects often have a single life, I aim at inventing a new existence for them by diverting them from their initial function,” he says.