Artist Profile

The mechanical marvels of Ben Trautman defy categorization

In this age of streamlined electronics, San Francisco sculptor Ben Trautman is an old-fashioned tinkerer. He likes to say he thinks with his hands; he doesn't draw his ideas or plot them on a computer. Insatiably curious, he is an acute observer of natural movement in living things. Like Leonardo da Vinci, who conceived fantastic machines in his notebooks, he couples observation with mechanical improvisation. "I was born in the wrong time," says Trautman, who gave a speech on his work last month at the Hayes Valley studios of Sagan Piechota Architecture.

Trautman has a Renaissance man's interest in the mechanics of how things work. He is inspired by bird wings, cricket legs, and fish spines, as well as clockworks, camshafts, and linked train wheels. Both elegant and humorous, his complex articulated sculptures are activated manually or by hand cranks (think Model T, not Porsche). Trautman works them like a puppeteer and each has its own distinctive character that is dramatically expressed when it moves. His kinetic sculpture — architectural, mechanical, and bio-morphic — eludes categorization.

"I am a sculptor. I believe in the mass and joints of bodies and bones and skin, but I am interested in how they move as well, the fluidity and quirkiness of organic motion," he explains. "The work inhabits a realm between art and architecture; the work wants to inhabit space, suggest architecture, create spaces for your mind to inhabit. The mechanical aspects of it also remove it from the typical gallery scene where you are not supposed to touch the art, where how things work is not part of the dialogue."

Trautman doesn't have a traditional fine arts background. He studied architecture and some basic engineering at UC Berkeley in the '90s. But he often found his mind wandering in school and would fabricate tiny structural "gadflies" that clamped to ceiling beams instead of working on his assigned projects.

" I was unable to break through all the constraints of architecture to get to the point where I was able to express all the forms and visions that were racing around in my mind. However, I do work with the language of architecture, just at a different scale," he says.

During an extended stay in Rome in 2005, he crafted a series of works from discarded fruit crates. Inspired by the ruins in the Roman forum, he connected fragments of cast cement with delicate wooden bridges painted bright yellow — his own fanciful restorations. For a Bay Area Discovery Museum commission in 2003, Trautman investigated and built prototypes of fish spines. His wood models for this project are like toys. The final result, a 10-foot jointed steel fish, captured the characteristic spinal movement, clanking and swaying.

Trautman is currently at work on models for three large pieces destined for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. An entryway piece is a horizontally suspended shivering spine, with twittering flange-like protrusions, activated by an elaborate, deliberately clumsy crank. Another sculpture features eight adjacent rectangular frames, like a strip from a Muybridge photograph. Each frame contains a slender jointed leg attached to a treadle, and each piece is connected to its neighbor by a horizontal central axle. When a crank is turned, it manically gyrates the whole like a chorus-line of nervous horses at the start of a race.

If they were made of gold and set with precious stones, Trautman's works would be the playthings of royalty. But many are wood and chipboard — modest like their maker, who is more Pinocchio's Geppetto than Fabergé. He is like a character from an Italo Calvino novel, who makes sculptures that move for the sheer joy and beauty he finds in their erratic movements. Trautman's eyes light up when asked what projects he would like to undertake in the future: Wind-powered houses for the Dutch landscape, or mechanical creatures that scaled the walls of skyscrapers would delight him. Visionary investors are invited to apply.

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