Innovative Lives

Metaphysics in Motion:
Arthur Ganson

by Martha Davidson

Innovative Lives: Arthur Ganson

Arthur Ganson wearing a Toobers and Zots hat Playing with objects and ideas—bringing them together and setting them in motion—is the work of kinetic sculptor and inventor Arthur Ganson, who describes himself as a cross between an engineer and a choreographer. Often whimsical, sometimes wistful, his sculptures are handcrafted machines that captivate viewers of all ages. The machines don’t serve a practical function. Ganson's purpose in creating them, he says, is to explore the world and his relationship to it and "to make you think about things."

On October 4, 2002, Ganson met with 160 Virginia students from the Francis C. Hammond Middle School of Alexandria and the Neil Armstrong Elementary School in Reston in a Lemelson Center Innovative Lives program at the National Museum of American History. In a lively session that included video clips, slides, and the hands-on creative challenge of designing headgear with his toy invention, Ganson told the students how he came to be an artist and inventor. He demonstrated some of his favorite sculptures, described his process of invention with examples of his sketches and notes, and showed animated cartoons and drawings he made as a child.

As volunteers from the audience twisted the colorful Toobers (foam-covered wires) and fanciful Zots (foam forms that link the Toobers) into zany hats and masks, Ganson explained that he had invented that toy by accident. While working at a Texas museum, he stepped out to the street for a break. A festival was going on, and he saw someone several blocks away carrying what looked like an animal made of foam tubes in bright colors. "What a great idea!" he thought. "I wish I’d invented that!" When he got a closer look at the toy, he saw that it was really made of long, twisted balloons. He realized that the foam tubes he'd imagined seeing were his own original idea, an invention he thought of by making a mistake. It took several years and a lot of hard work to bring his idea to physical form, but now his Toobers and Zots are on the market, distributed by HandsOnToys, Inc., the company he formed with two partners in 1993.

Students create hats with Toobers and ZotsGanson's interest in making things began in his childhood. Born in 1955, he grew up near Hartford, Connecticut. Although he had a brother and sister, he was a lonely child. He did not relate well to other children and had few friends. He spent most of his time alone, drawing and making all kinds of things out of Tinkertoys and other materials. Ganson was particularly interested in the way things moved, and he loved to make models. He often built models from kits, but also made vehicles of his own invention, such as the "ice cars" he developed with another boy on his street. They fashioned toy cars from wood and aluminum, mounted gas-powered model airplane engines on them, and attached little skis underneath. Then they would tether a car to a central point inside a circular track that they had iced over, and watch it whiz around in circles or flip over a ramp. Sometimes he would model little people out of Play-Doh. His figures would become accident victims, and Ganson would be the surgeon who saved their lives.

Ganson as a child with TinkertoysAmong Ganson's favorite books were the stories of Dr. Seuss, whose playfulness delighted him (Toobers and Zots would look at home in Seuss’s invented worlds). He also loved the elaborate contraptions depicted by cartoonist Rube Goldberg, and he experimented with cartoons of his own. Ganson’s cartoons were animation drawings that he made along the edges of book pages; when the pages were flipped, the drawings came to life: race cars speeding over rocks, objects transforming into people, spaceships crashing into walls. Eventually he put his drawings on index cards and made an animation machine to flip them, adding sound effects with his own voice.

His parents firmly supported him in all of his creative projects. "They were used to me being serious about things and knew that I had to do what I was most interested in," Ganson explains. One thing he became very serious about was the guitar. After hearing flamenco (a traditional Spanish style of music) for the first time, he was consumed with a passion for playing. He took guitar lessons and spent hours practicing, finding solace from his loneliness in the music.

Young Ganson plays guitarGanson entered the University of New Hampshire intending to study medicine, but he was dissatisfied with the rote memorization required in some of his pre-med courses. He switched his major to art and began making machines out of wire for a design class. Ultimately he entered a fine arts program that had an intense studio component and a senior exhibition, and he stayed an extra year to earn his B.F.A. in 1978. Although Ganson loved making mechanical pieces, he never took an engineering course, preferring to work out technical problems intuitively or by trial and error. In those years he encounterd the work of artists who seemed like kindred spirits, such as the Swiss master of kinetic sculpture, Jean Tinguely, whom Ganson acknowledges as an influence, along with Paul Klee, Alexander Calder, and others.

After college, Ganson moved to Boston, where he continued to make his machine sculptures, often using everyday objects such as coat hangers. Occasionally he drew inventions that were functional, such as a 1979 design for an in-line roller skate, devised before such skates were available, though he never pursued the idea.

To support himself, he worked as a bread baker and then did carpentry, which allowed him to work independently. He met his wife, Rocky Tomascoff, through a mutual friend. They were married in the barn of Connecticut artist Tim Prentice, who had become both a friend and mentor. Tomascoff teaches art to children at the Perkins School for the Blind (where Helen Keller was once a student). She is Ganson’s primary emotional support and a trusted critic of his work, providing useful feedback on his pieces as they evolve.

Ganson's bedroom ceiling with foam cloudsTheir son Cory was born in 1990. As a little boy, Cory also had a fascination with mechanics and movement, especially in the form of bulldozers and earthmovers. He would draw them in elaborate detail, sometimes in cross sections. Father and son spent many hours discussing every knob and gear in Cory’s drawings. "Having him in my life has been tremendously inspiring in many ways," says Ganson. One of the most obvious ways can be seen in a piece titled Cory's Yellow Chair. In this sculpture, a tiny model of Cory's real yellow chair seems to explode and then reassemble itself, over and over.

Ganson's bathroom walls are covered with toothpaste from around the worldThe Ganson-Tomascoff home reflects a playful approach to life. The bedroom ceiling is pasted with DayGlo stars in the constellation patterns of the couple's wedding night, with foam-core "clouds" suspended beneath. One cloud is automated to descend from the ceiling to the bedside, bearing gifts on special occasions. The bathroom is "wallpapered" with tubes of toothpaste from all over the world (many of them brought by friends), attached to a wire grid so they can be removed and used as needed.

Ganson participated in the World Sculpture Racing Society, an annual event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for several years in the 1980s. He and other artists ran the race pushing specially designed sculptures. One year his entry was titled Faster! It consisted of a plastic cast of his hand attached to a rolling cart. As the cart was pushed, the hand, holding a pen, wrote the word "faster" on a card in cursive script, even going back to cross the "T." When the word was complete, Ganson would stop, take the card, and hand it to a spectator, then continue to run, faster, while the hand wrote the word again. In other races he ran with a giant speedometer/odometer, and a multilegged bird- or insect-like sculpture titled Dododecapede.

Ganson's sketch for "Faster" sculptureThe ideas for Ganson's sculptures often come from objects he finds, such as dolls or a Chinese fan. Even eggshells and cat whiskers have inspired him. The conception of his sculpture Machine with Chicken Wishbone came when "I was playing with the wishbone and I started to think that it looked kind of like a cowboy who’d been on his horse too long, so he was a little bowlegged…. And I started to make it walk across the table. Then I had the idea that I could make a machine to make it walk." In the finished piece, the wishbone ambles slowly across a tabletop in a movement that indeed evokes the stride of a bowlegged cowboy. It pulls behind it the large apparatus that enables it to "walk."

Once Ganson is excited by an idea, he does more creative thinking, often in places he finds particularly conducive to that activity: a favorite rock, an outcropping where he paces in circles until it becomes a kind of meditation, or even his bathroom. "Whenever I make anything, I usually have no idea of what I'm doing when I'm getting started," he explains. "I spend some of my time completely lost, and then have other times where I am totally focused." As his ideas come, he makes sketches. Initially, the sketch may be only a diagram showing the relationship of parts or concepts. As his thoughts develop, his drawings, often accompanied by notes and calculations, help refine his concepts and work out the mechanics of the piece.

Ganson uses the rocky terrain near his home for inspirationThen he begins constructing experimental models or prototypes. "Only after I've begun to work with something do I have an idea that, OK, maybe it needs to go in this direction. I spend a lot of time making mistakes. I spend a lot of time taking things apart that don't work." He knows that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process. And it is not necessary to design everything completely before construction begins. "I always prefer to 'think' with the materials in front of me as much as possible. This is partly because I am always concerned with the visual component, and sometimes I cannot imagine clearly enough how things will look or feel without the real 'stuff' in front of me."

The sculptures are not computerized (except for a small chip in the table for Machine with Chicken Wishbone). He occasionally uses CAD programs to work out aspects of design where extreme accuracy is essential, but prefers to tinker with parts and figure things out on his own. Margo's Other Cat was inspired by a computer program that simulated an object moving on the Moon. Ganson thought he could "make a machine that will take a little chair and have it move with the same grace as objects in the simulated Moon environment, and have it pushed around by something." The miniature chair appears to bounce into the air over a tiny rubber cat that moves back and forth in a regular motion. The movement of the chair is irregular, and it bounces even higher when it hits the cat. But the sculpture operates mechanically, rather than by computer; Ganson was interested in real, not simulated, motion.

Ganson's works have been described as gestural, humorous, evocative, and introspective. They don't rely on explanations, but present objects in motion that can be universally understood--although each viewer brings unique associations and interpretations to the experience. When Machine with Chinese Fan unfolds, the pink paper fan may seem to be a flower opening, a bird's or butterfly's wing, or even a sunrise. As Machine with Oil reaches down into a vat of machine oil, lifts its arm and drenches itself in the viscous liquid, people smile at a mechanism that seems to be luxuriating in a sensuous shower. Twenty-seven Scraps of Paper, a system of gears supporting thin rods on which rest slips of white paper, evokes the motion of a flock of birds in serene, steady flight; the faint, squeaky sound of the rods and gears has a poignancy that enhances the effect.

Museums, galleries, and individuals have collected Ganson's work. He made his debut in the New York art world with a solo exhibition in 1998, and he has been an artist-in-residence at science museums and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although his sculptures have forced him out into the world and require engagement with other people, he feels that he is the same shy person he was as a child. But now, his recognition and success and the demands of daily life impinge on his creative energy. "The making of art is playful at its core, and that's why I do it, but ... meeting deadlines, paying bills ... the practical concerns of life do not let the creative flow happen purely. This has been more and more of an issue. I have moments now and then when I am in that creative flow, but [my] time is broken up severely."

Ganson is still drawn to music, playing guitar when he finds time, and he has the desire to play the violin and even to build one. "I find [the violin] in many ways more attractive than the guitar...even more attractive in some ways than making sculpture. I think this is because playing music involves my body in time and space, and it's very much a meditation."

Music, meditation, movement, machines--all part of the art of Arthur Ganson, art that links the physical and the metaphysical, and that transforms ordinary materials into experiences that are much more.

Videos and images of his sculptures can be viewed on Arthur Ganson's Web site.


All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 9 March 2005.

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