Tinkering taken to new levels

BRATTLEBORO — Bruce Campbell has had fun tinkering with things ever since he was a small child, taking things apart to see how they worked. All that tinkering has paid off, delighting gallery-goers of all ages in exhibits like the one still on view at Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts, "Thinking the Cosmos: Kinetic Sculptures," that will be up through Sunday, June 24. With an invitation to a hands-on experience by turning cranks to watch the mechanics of brass gears and levers make things happen, it is art that is meant to be touched. Campbell said, "'I like to watch people see how things work, it's my favorite part."

He first became fascinated with the architecture and engineering of animals after finding an intact bird skeleton. He also loved making things by hand — spending hours in his dad's workshop. His dad instilled in him the belief that you can make anything, you just need to talk to people, read books, and learn. And learn he did. His curiosity would lead him to do things like removing the back of the alarm clock to see how the gears work; or once, while his dad was at work , he took apart his dad's retractable tape measure to see how that worked. Unfortunately, when he put the tape measure back together the button sent the tape out instead of retracting it back in, but he learned from his failures.

His art had its beginnings when as an adult he would take a train from New York and carry coat-hanger wire and pliers with him so he could bend the wire into a hanger for his things. On one trip he realized he had forgotten his sister's birthday so he created a plaque, "Happy Birthday Heather" out of his trusty coat-hanger wire. That started him on the path of creating wire sculptures, beginning with small animals and insects, graduating to making the parts movable. As the animals got larger, and the kinetic features progressed he began thinking how much fun it would be to illustrate concepts like sunshine, eclipses, or starlight.

He was inspired by Alexander Calder whose sculptures embodied a sense of whimsy and the visibly hand-pounded rivets left traces of the maker. He was also influenced by Joseph Cornell who found things that most people would throw out and made art out of it — a man after Campbell's own heart who loved old things and giving a new life to old material. What Campbell doesn't find in old woodlots, he often gets from a woodworking neighbor on one side of him who often provides Campbell with leftover chunks for his bases

He scores metal scraps from a blacksmithing neighbor from the other side and has even used handmade nails from an 18th-century house.

But Vermont license plates dating from the 1930s are his metal of choice because he said, the rusty plates when soaked in vinegar reveal patina that is fantastic, the metal is great to work with and he loves the history behind them. He also loves poetry. His first "concept" piece illustrated Robert Browning's poem "Meeting at Night." When the handle is cranked it gives the illusion of the waves like Browning's poem "startled little waves that leap." All the moving parts to his sculptures are made by Campbell, assembled with rivets, wrapped wire, and solder, created from specs he plans out in the graphics program Indesign on his computer.

Campbell really got off and running with his kinetic sculptures after goldsmith and platinumsmith, and friend, David Walter invited him to show his piece at one of Walter's shows. Campbell's "Sun, Moon, Stars, Rain," inspired by an E.E. Cummings poem. It had such a great response it gave Campbell the momentum to create more.

On view at MGFA are 17 pieces that reflect not only his love of poetry but his interest in astronomy. For example, his piece "Great Conjunction" represents heavenly bodies that line up once every 100 turns of the crank, as infrequently as the stars and moon and planets do from earth's view. Or his piece "Summer Rain" made with copper strands hanging below a metal plate as warm rain and a brass moon and stars above the plate and a sun straddling both shows how different what we see is to what is happening above us. Turn that crank and sound is added to the experience as metal tapping imitates the sound of rain on the copper roof above it all. Sitting on a base of polished wood is "Alchemy," engineered to rotate brass and re-purposed metal in close proximity to each other representing an alchemist's theory that when two separate metals are close together the elements rub off on one another. The pieces in the Alchemist Series are all about making a change just as gallery-goers turning cranks make a change.

Campbell said, "When people come in they say you look like you are having fun. I would make them whether I sell them or not. I up the ante with each piece, making it a more difficult architecture and concept in an interesting way."

Mitchell said, "When visitors come to view the exhibit, "They are absolutely mesmerized. There is a kind of playfulness that all ages can enjoy."

If you missed Campbell in Mitchell Giddings' artist talk on June 9, it is worth a view at mitchellgiddingsfinearts.com or BCTV at brattleborotv.org. Better still, come down to Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts gallery at 183 Main St., to check out, touch, and play with the sculptures. The full exhibit ends on Sunday but a few of Campbell's pieces will remain on view at the gallery.

Cicely M. Eastman may be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 261



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