Robots of the Mind

Putnam Valley artists craft a dozen ‘antique’ automatons

Though there are many esoteric definitions of automaton, plain old sculpture suits Sara Carbone and Roger Phillips just fine.

“Only when we are immersed in the make-believe aspect of things do we call them automatons or automata,” Carbone explains.

By any name, the creations are entertaining and intriguing, as witnessed by the 130 people who turned up April 15 and 16 for the opening of Imagination and the Machine at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon.

The dozen sculptures represent automata from around the world and throughout time, including an Egyptian mummifying machine, an ancient Roman wine server, a 1950s robot, a Depression-era marionette theater and an insect lure from the Hudson Valley. The exhibit also includes schematics and pencil sketches.

The automatons are meant to evoke “creative machines people put together to entertain people, usually with a big box-attached mechanism,” Carbone says. “We’re not clockmakers, so instead we dip into the realm of fantasy. None of them actually move; we’re not engineers, so we just made that consistently the case.”

KORAHow K-ORA Was Built

By Sara Carbone and Roger Phillips

Her body is a dryer vent with a glass cloche dome for a head. We used inverted test tubes for her eyes, filled with fairy lights to simulate a positronic brain. We found a Geiger counter gauge for her chest and old ceramic wire nuts and Bakelite dials for her body.

She is stamped with 1950s-style warnings made with a hand-operated label-maker. Her back is packed with 1950s electronic components and glass fuses. There is a simulated printout sticking out of her back featuring background radiation level measurements, soil composition and air-quality readings.

One of her arms has a vacuum to suck up fumes to analyze and the other arm was blasted off in an accident. We created the black dusty-looking explosion marks around the damaged arm using exhaust from a vintage convertible. She has various beakers filled with colored resin and glass syringes on her tray that sits on wheels. She took about two months to make.

The backstory is that she is a radiation detector supposedly built by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission that was used by scientists in Nevada to test soil and air from radioactive testing sites. She is on loan from the Atomic Heritage Foundation. Accompanying her are four printouts printed from the back of her body.

The self-described “creative duo,” who live in Putnam Valley, were inspired in particular by the clock that dominates Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo. They named their first automaton, “Solange,” after Phillips’ mother.

“We started thinking we’d purchase all the parts, but soon we decided to make everything ourselves, from scratch,” says Phillips. “Our first idea was inspired by the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire [in Greenwich Village in 1911], though we set it earlier in time — I went to FIT [the Fashion Institute of Technology] and was deeply involved in fashion. I came up with the idea of a robot that would save these women.

Roger Phillips and Sara Carbone

Roger Phillips and Sara Carbone

“We began by wandering around [the crafts store] Michael’s, choosing things. A backstory emerged, which was integral to wherever in the world she came from. We realized we were free to do anything we wanted, as we didn’t have to make them move, though we always try to make it look like they might.

“We took things from my mother’s sewing kit and incorporated them. We also aged her to match the time period — paint was a key ingredient — and gave her weird-looking hands. After we finished, we were ready to do another, and quickly asked ourselves, ‘How about we do 12, to match a clock?’ ”

To gestate story and character, Phillips created drawings and Carbone invented personal histories, with distinct handwriting for each. Phillips, now retired, was a graphic artist and illustrator in the advertising, software and awards industries. His expertise pairs up neatly with that of Carbone, a former actor, singer/songwriter and home-school parent who makes a living as a copywriter and spent 20 years as an academic tutor. She recently wrote and performed a one-woman musical “dramedy” that celebrates her Hispanic roots.

Together they also write children’s books; upstairs at the Howland Cultural Center is a “story walk” with enlarged pages from Frog and Weasel: A Sunday Drive.

In a mad scientist meets quirky artist/writer/actor meet-up, once they started with the automata, they kept going.

6 Tips for Building Believable Automaton Sculptures

By Sara Carbone and Roger Phillips

To age certain metals, soak them in vinegar, ammonia and lemon juice.

Invest in a good glue gun, as it is invaluable for accuracy and neatness.

For real-looking barnacles that simulate underwater living, spin hot glue from a glue gun on a piece of metal and dab it white when it dries.

Don’t be afraid to mess with your completed creations to create authenticity: burn, paint, scrape, smash and tear at will where needed.

Car engine oil makes a great aging agent for cloth, while tea bags and dried instant coffee crystals age paper quite nicely.

Always make sure to securely weld your World War I-era robot’s head to its neck before transporting it.

“As one was halfway done, we thought of the next,” Phillips says. “One of the most fun aspects was making things look like they were actually from the time period depicted, including hand-crafted barbed wire, knobs and spools morphing into any number of things, while using everything from an old Dymo label-maker to discarded toys to create a surprising environment for each sculpture.”

“We made them partly because we love them, but also to share them,” says Carbone. “The look of the Howland Center is kismet — so beautiful and resonating with history.”

The cultural center thinks so too — the exhibit is up for a lengthy six-week stay.

Other ideas are already gestating: “We have three new ones — well actually 20,” Phillips says with a laugh. “One uses an LED screen for a face.”

“Another is an astrologer’s assistant,” Carbone pipes in.

The Howland Cultural Center is located at 477 Main St. in Beacon. Imagination & the Machine, which runs through May 28, is open from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

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