Renowned artist Arthur Ganson has become famous turning mechanics into high art. Originally he had his sights set on being a doctor but since pre-med didn't fulfill the discipline requirement for his college, he chose art. Then, it started to choose him. "I always enjoyed building things as a kid but that's where it ended," he says. "I had a 3D design assignment and I chose to attempt to make a working slot machine all out of wire. That really worked and that was, in a way, my first success."
Ganson starts to explain further and the memory shocks him. It's 36 years ago and yet the mechanism is still so vivid. The wall-mounted device he created in 1976, a foot tall and six inches wide, was a complex arrangement of wires and mechanical devices that allowed the user to put a quarter into the top and find its way to a collecting cup. It seems like the journey of the currency was half the fun as Ganson excitedly explains it. "Here's how I remember it … The quarter would be put in and cause a little wheel to spin and, while it spun, then the quarter would go to another part of the machine that would cause the weight of the quarter to cause a little arm to come to rest on a spinning wheel. Eventually it got there but, again, it worked."
Dreams of an Artist
After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, the path of the stethoscope was retired in favor of the dreams of an artist. It was, as it often is, a gradual process to professional success. "I was continuing to make machines and I supported myself doing carpentry and house building. When I could show my work, I would." Where it would eventually lead him even he could never have guessed.
"I eventually moved to Boston around 1981 and got a showing at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. A guy named Crispin Miller who was a graduate student at MIT saw my work and he wrote an interdepartmental memo telling colleagues to see this weird stuff. So people from MIT came." As he says this, there's a genuine awe in his voice that this actually happened. What followed was something beyond unusual—the Office of the Arts offered him a four-year residency in the engineering department at MIT. Yes, that's right, in the engineering department.
"Getting together with juniors and seniors as a part of their engineering classes, I was a part of what they called the real world projects—students meeting with people outside their own classwork and creating projects. I had quite a few students interested in working on things after we got to talking." Though his residency finished up in 1999, you can still see evidence of his time there. The response was so strong that his creations now have been on display at the MIT Museum on an ongoing basis for roughly 15 years, says Ganson.
The Dream - detail.
Though he says he's been fortunate to have admirers of many of his pieces, after all these years there is a standout: "The Wishbone." In fact, it's been in everything from a Microsoft Windows commercial to a short film.
He explains its origins: "It actually came from finishing a chicken. I'm there at the kitchen table and taking the wishbone and I start to play with it. I looked at it and thought it looked like a cowboy that had been on a horse too long and I started to make it walk across the table. Yes, it usually starts with me playing with an object, that's my process, close to a puppeteer. Then I got a feeling of what I wanted the gesture of the movement to be—what kind of machine that would cause the wishbone to go in that way."
"It wasn't hard to build, it was made out of wire, pretty much all wire and powered by a one and a half volt battery," says Ganson. "I designed it to walk across any table so the machine had a couple of wheels. The walking aspect is organization of two motions rocking left and right and rocking on a vertical axis. Once combined in the proper way, you get a walking machine. Both of those motions are directed by one wheel that has two linkages on either side of it, geared down, driven from a smaller wheel which itself is on a much larger wheel—which is also driven by the motor," he adds.
Fear Can Equal Failure
Ganson says anyone who has the impulse to want to make machines that capture an idea or emotional feeling should work with what they have—and not be afraid to fail. "If they follow an impulse that feels personal, one of the hardest things is to build something where you may feel naïve about how to build it," he says. "But don't be afraid of it not working. Some of my best work came from intuition and just letting myself go. Sometimes that's the hardest thing to do."
Eric Butterman is an independent writer.
Some of my best work came from intuition and just letting myself go. Sometimes that's the hardest thing to do.
Arthur Ganson, Artist
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