Lee Valley Tools Woodworking Newsletter
Vol. 3, Issue 1
September 2008
Automata: A Fascinating Woodcraft

A Recent History of Automata
Contemporary automata making began in the 1930s after Alexander Calder from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, built his famous wire circus. It included the use of corks, strings and other assorted materials. Sam Smith of Southampton, England, entered the scene in the 1960s and showed a passion for wooden automata. His work had considerable influence on future generations of automatists, many of whom went on to influence contemporary automata.

In the early 1980s, Sue Jackson founded Cabaret Mechanical Theatre (CMT) in London, England. It is a hybrid of gallery, museum and shop, and displays a huge collection of automata. CMT artists such as Paul Spooner, Matt Smith and Ron Fuller, along with other automatists such as Frank Nelson, have since brought contemporary automata making to center stage.

Interest in making and collecting automata has grown in Europe, the United States, Japan and Australia. In the US, there are more than a dozen automatists, including Dug North and Steve Armstrong, whose works are well regarded. In Canada, at least one couple is known to be selling their art.

Automata Ideas and Designs
Automata makers' ideas can come from experiences, stories, the work of other automatists or the work of other artists. For example, my creation called The Making of a Couch Potato is based on a cartoonist's comic strip entitled The Ascent of Man. Some artists choose a certain theme, such as entertainers, animals, etc., upon which they focus their creations. Often, the origins of their designs can be easily traced. For instance, Pierre Mayer, a French artist who creates magic automata, often draws his ideas from magic performances he has seen.

The Making of a Couch Potato
The Making of a Couch Potato, by Charles Mak, shown partway through the construction process.

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