Automatons Keep Gears Turning In D.C. Artist's Brain During The Pandemic

Oct 21, 2020
Originally published on October 21, 2020 9:20 am

When a Washington D.C. artist lost his job during the pandemic, he found comfort and order amidst the clutter of his home workshop.

Don Becker, 57, got laid off from his job as a set painter for a company that makes displays for conventions and large meetings. So he turned his attention to making automatons. They're mechanical sculptures that come to life with the turn of a crank.

Becker's creations don't just move; they tell a story.

His woodcutter automaton features a round-bellied lumberjack standing in front of some little trees. He has an axe and a determined expression.

"When you turn the crank, he starts to turn and as he turns, his axe comes for the tree. And right before the axe hits the tree, the tree bends out of the way and he misses, Becker said."

The woodcutter tries again.

"At this point, the third tree, which is sort of standing up the side, the limb comes down and knocks him on the head. So a little tree payback, so to speak," he says.

Automaton makers are part sculptor and part watchmaker. Becker's figures are only a few inches tall. Most of the space is taken up by the gears, levers and pulleys that make the figures move. Each one of the parts is meticulously handmade. Instead of concealing them in a box, Becker leaves the mechanics out in the open.

"If you just see a little man standing on a platform jumping up and down, it's like, OK, yeah, that's kind of fun. But I think seeing the gears and seeing how it all works really adds to the sculpture," he says.

Automatons have been around for thousands of years. Some of the first ones date back to ancient Greece. Archytas of Tarentum, who was friends with Plato, made a mechanical pigeon that was powered by compressed air.

Becker has been making automaton for five years. His latest creation is tailor-made for this moment in time. It features a little man wearing a mask.

"When you turn the crank, he drops the mask from his face. And just as he does that, this giant coronavirus will come out of nowhere and just squish him completely down to the ground ... into a little pile of goo," he says.

Becker said making automatons has helped him cope with being unemployed and being stuck at home during the pandemic.

Don Becker's "Angry Man" automaton slowly rises, shakes his fists and blows his wig off when you turn a crank.
Barry Gordemer / NPR

"It gives me a sense of learning things and keeps my brain active. It's very solitary and very quiet. I don't have any music playing. It's nothing for me to just be in my studio eight to 10 hours a day and I don't even have a clock in my studio. That's the knock on the door from my wife saying, are you going to be there all night? Have you eaten anything? She's the timekeeper."

Becker does not plan to sell his automatons.

"I just make it because I think it's fun and a great way to spend the time as I'm finding ways to deal with time on my hands."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

An artist in Washington, D.C., lost his job because of the pandemic, so he went into his workshop to find order and comfort. He's been making automatons. These are mechanical figurines that come to life when you crank them. Here is his postcard from quarantine.

DON BECKER: My name is Don Becker, and I am 57 years old. I was working as a scenic painter for an events company. I got laid off. No crowds, so no events.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: An automata (ph) is a mechanical sculpture, anything you sort of turn with a crank to get things to move. You know, it's a watchmaker, clockmaker sort of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: What I've got here is a little woodcutter who is standing in front of some trees. And he's got his axe all ready to go. When you turn the cranks, he starts to turn. And as he turns, his ax comes for the tree. And right before the ax hits the tree, the tree bends out of the way, so he misses. Well, he's going to give it another shot. Whoa - tree does the same thing again. At this point, the third tree, which is sort of standing off the side, the limb comes down and knocks him on the head. So a little tree payback, so to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: I like to make my automata with all the guts seen, all the little gears and all the levers and cams right there so you can actually watch it. If you just see a little man standing on a platform jumping up and down, it's like, OK, yeah, that's kind of fun. But I think seeing the gears and the very - you know, because it takes a lot of time to make it all work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: A little guy in a straight jacket, and he's in a little padded cell. And when you turn the crank, he flips back and forth trying to beat himself all around the padded cell. I find it most humorous (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: You are telling a little story, a little vignette. There's a quote from an automaton maker in England, something along the lines is that automata is jokes for people with short attention spans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: This is a new little guy here standing on a platform with a mask on, so when you turn the crank, he then drops the mask from his face. And just as he does that, this giant coronavirus will then come out of nowhere and just squish him completely down to a little pile of goo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: It's nothing for me to just be in my studio eight to 10 hours a day, and I don't even have a clock in my studio (laughter). That's the knock on the door from my wife saying, are you going to be in there all night? Have you eaten anything? She's the timekeeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: I just make them for myself. I have sold them in the past. But at this point, I just make it because I just think it's fun and a great way to spend the time as I'm finding ways to deal with time on my hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: That's Don Becker. He's an artist who makes automatons in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.