British Columbia

Vancouver artist creates intricate, animated sculptures

A Vancouver artist digs into a centuries-old art form known as automata which uses complex design and intricate mechanics to bring whimsical characters and stories to life.

Autonoma artwork incorporates woodwork, metalwork, textiles, paint and mechanics

Describing his piece "Steampunk," David Dumbrell explained that "the dog is wearing 'doggles' [and] the man is wearing goggles." (David Dumbrell)

A centuries-old art form known as autonoma, which has its roots in Swiss watchmaking, has found a home in Vancouver.

The practice involves working with tiny gearing and mechanical components which become integrated into characters, props and sets that come to life to tell an animated story.

Vancouver artist David Dumbrell started working with autonoma six years ago. His goal was to get good enough to display his work in the Artists in Our Midst Art Walk. This year, that dream came true.

Patience required

Each piece is a mix of textiles, wood, metal, sculpture, painting, metalwork and mechanics coming together in a theatrical and often whimsical tableau scene.

The tiniest of details are covered, from tiny buttons on hand-sewn shirts to the sock-and-sandals pairing on the feet of a man braving "Vancouver Weather."

Dumbrell spends about three months on each piece, sometimes longer.

A retired wood worker, he said patience is something he didn't actually possess until he became an artist.

"I'll leave the studio very discouraged; in that, it's not working and I don't get it and I'll never figure this out," he told Sheryl MacKay, host of CBC Radio One's North by Northwest.

Complex sculptures, simple stories

Dumbrell films each of his pieces, as a photograph would never capture the whole experience.

But for all of the tiny gears turning and shifting inside the mechanisms, the stories the characters tell are simple and universal.

In his latest piece,"The Acrobat," Dumbrell recreated a Victorian-era piece that appealed to him precisely because of the complexity of its design, which he said posed the greatest challenge yet.

When the mechanic element of the piece is engaged, an acrobat lifts herself into the air, resting the palms of her hands on the backs of two chairs. She raises her legs high above her head, lowering herself back to the ground.

Then, in an impressive twist, her tiny hand clasps the back of the chair, lifting it and placing it back in its exact position so the movements can begin again.

"I really enjoy the feedback I get when I'm watching people watch 'The Acrobat.' It's, 'How did you do that? How was that done?' And they're trying to see inside," mused Dumbrell.

David Dumbrell works on 'The Acrobat,' a complex recreation of a Victorian-era piece that required absolute precision in its design. (David Dumbrell)

"Sometimes I show the inside and other times I like to keep it hidden because there should be a little magic, a little mystery."

On display

Dumbrell's work will be on display in his Kerrisdale studio as part of the 25th annual Artists in Our Midst West of Main Art Walk, Sunday May 28 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

You can see a gallery of his work here.

Listen the artist in conversation with Sheryl MacKay below: