Life in Lockdown: Creatively crafting automata
By MAS Team | 28 April 2020
During lockdown, you'll likely find Ian St George tinkering in the shed creating mesmerising moving scupltures.
The semi-retired GP has filled in his extra hours in lockdown adding to his collection of beautifully crafted automata – wooden sculptures with mechanisms in them that allow them to move.
"What I like about automata is the whimsy – the humour and the playfulness – as well as the melding of art and science, truth and beauty; mechanics and sculpture."
Ian has always had a creative streak and has long been interested in woodwork, cabinet making and woodturning, but sculpture is the artform he most admires.
He stumbled upon automata last October when looking online for plans for a hen house. Since then he used YouTube and websites to teach himself the mechanics of the moving sculptures.
"These objects may seem like toys and certainly children like them, but the whimsy calls for some maturity and I think of them as moving sculpture or kinetic art if you will.
"There is a big cadre of automaton makers out there, with different styles, different materials, different degrees of complexity, some clever mechanics, some real artists – a few both.
"The genius whose automata I first saw and still most admire is Carlos Zapata. His mestizo sculpture is beautiful in its own right, but when it moves it becomes magical realism: to me his is the Gabriel García Márquez of automaton makers."
First up were simpler ones like the skier and the swimmer, but more recently Ian has been exploring more challenging automata like creating a realistic movement of a human foot.
"I wouldn't describe myself as a creative person, but more a moderately good craftsman."
Ian was working one day a week as a GP in Wellington but due to his age has relocated to his property in the Wairarapa for the lockdown.
The 50-acre property keeps him busy with chestnuts and mushrooms to pick, gates to repair, an energetic dog to walk and he also spends a day a week editing the New Zealand Native Orchid Journal.
Over the past month he's created about a dozen automata and has discovered his favourite part is figuring out the mechanics of it — he's less enthused about having to get creative with the rest of the design.
"When I feel like it, I head out to the shed. It's kind of addictive so if I start too early I won't be seen till beer time which is five o'clock. Once you start on them, you need to concentrate on them for some time."
When asked to choose a favourite, Ian said it was a little like choosing a favourite child.
"Anything that you make like that is, in a way, an offspring, you do go through a labour to produce something that's alive and kind of nice.
"I like Hemingway. I write a lot and when I do I try to keep the style simple. I believe complex ideas are best understood when expressed in short words and sentences. I concluded the same should apply to making automata. Use simple mechanisms and let the art speak for itself."
We want to hear about how you're living and working under lockdown. What projects have you been working on from home? How are you managing family life, your mental health and keeping in touch with your communities? If you'd like to share your story, email as at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us how you're living and working under lockdown.
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