Canadian Visual Artists: Tick Tock Tom

Tick Tock Tom is a scrap metal sculptor from Ottawa. His creations have appeared as props in movies and music videos, and for the last five years he’s been making one-of-a-kind award statuettes for the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

The Lion (Dante's Divine Comedy)

The Lion (Dante’s Divine Comedy)

I spoke to Tom over coffee on his visit to Toronto last week to drop off his latest commission: two sculptures based on the beasts from Dante’s Divine Comedy – the Lion and the Wolf.

When I ask how this series – which also includes the Leopard, completed earlier – came about, Tom laughs as he tells me about being inspired to read Dante’s classic poem because of a video game:

“I played this Xbox game called Dante’s Inferno, in which you play Dante and you hack and slash your way through hell. It’s all very epic. At the end of it I realized I was never forced to read the Divine Comedy in school, and my education from Xbox left me doubting. So I picked up the book.”

He found that Dante did not in fact hack and slash his way through hell, but journeyed through it. He even had a tour guide:

The Wolf (Dante's Divine Comedy)

The Wolf (Dante’s Divine Comedy)

“There’s some amazing imagery in the poem, apart from the animals that I used as a kind of beginning exercise. This poem used to be such a guide for people’s lives: don’t do this or you’ll end up doing this in hell. And the punishments were all very appropriate. Fortune tellers, for instance, are punished for their crimes of trying to see into the future by having their heads twisted on backwards so they can’t see ahead.

“I had the first piece – the Leopard – at the TOAE (Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition) last summer and I wasn’t sure if I was going to complete the series. But when I told the client who’d bought it the plan for the other two pieces, he commissioned me to make the other two animals.”

Idea - scrap metal sculpture with light bulb


The Lion has a door lock mechanism for its mane, hinges left over from a movie set for its paws and part of a motor in its body. Where do the various metal parts for his sculptures come from?

“I started out scavenging the trash for broken TVs and VCRs. Eventually if you tell enough people that you want their broken things, it just comes to you. At some point you have to say “Whoa, I only have so much space.”

“I’ve had a few jobs in assembly and manufacturing and some wonderful employers that let me dive into the steel bin every once in a while. But really it’s just a matter of keeping my eye open for things that I think I can use.”

Tom started making sculptures out of junk about thirteen years ago, with no prior art experience:

Time Machine

Time Machine was commissioned for a time travel short film The Escapement

“I’d always taken my toys apart a little bit too much when I was a kid but I never planned to get into anything like this.

“A friend of mine had this old computer monitor lying around and he gave it to me and said, “You look like somebody who can do something with this.” I’m not sure why, but he just chose me. To this day, I will parade him and thank him for getting me into this.

“I took that computer monitor home and took it apart, along with a VCR I had that wasn’t working, and made this humanoid head and gave it to my friend who gave me the monitor. He showed it to his boss and I got my first commission.

“Since then, I’ve just been trying to make better and better things.”

Tom’s early sculptures were put together using hot glue, but he soon began to improve his technique.

Toymaker scrap metal sculpture


“I think eventually my friend had to get rid of that head once all the teeth fell out.”

Employed in a succession of manufacturing and assembly jobs, Tom got to hone his metalworking and welding skills:

“I spent a year and a half in a metal fabrication plant working on a robot welder. The job itself was repetitive but every once in a while the robot would fall off its track and I’d get to go inside and reprogram it. From there I learned about the angles that one needs to weld at, the temperature, the speed.  And ultimately I was able to translate that into my own welding: my own angles, my own temperature, how long I held there. It was a year and a half of sometimes-not-so-exciting times but what I learned out of it was invaluable.”

2012 OIAF awardFor the past five years, Tick Tock Tom has been making award statuettes for the Ottawa International Animation Festival. The statues comprise a round metal plate representing an old-style animation wheel (phenakistoscope)  mounted on a handle. Tom’s involvement in their design not only improved on the original fixed-disk arrangement but also made each award statue unique:

“They allowed me to just go crazy on the design. I wanted to come up with a better holder for the plate. The phenakistoscope originally had a viewer that you looked through that would break up the image to allow it to look animated [as the wheel was spinning] so I wanted to accent that and I wanted to  give the idea that once you had this thing in motion it could function.

2012 Ottawa International Animation Festival Awards tail“The awards are a crazy honour. I’ve been introduced to this world of animation since I got into it and animators are just as crazy as artists. In fact, a bit more, if anything. They get complete creativity in two dimensions and can create whatever is in their heads. Most of the people I meet at the festival are so creative and excited to be doing what they’re doing. There’s a lot of energy to be drawn off that. So I take a lot of pleasure in making these awards for them.”

Tom’s current job building movie sets came about as a result of his art, as did many other extraordinary creative projects, adventures and friendships.

A couple of years ago he was flown out to Vancouver to participate in a dark fairy tale photo shoot for which he was commissioned to make a metal wolf mask:

Tom wearing the Wolf Mask at the Red Riding Hood photo shoot

Wearing the Wolf Mask

“I got flown to Vancouver because there was a shortage of people willing to slap 20 pounds of metal on their face. I got to stay out there for this Red Riding Hood themed photo shoot and I’ve met some amazing people that I’ve since become really good friends with.

“The adventure is half the reason I do what I do. If I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I’d be doing. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be having as much fun. “

I ask about the Bleeding Heart – a mind-blowing piece I saw in action at the TOAE last year – a metal heart that appears broken and is dripping blood. Its companion piece – Beating Heart – is quite healthy and has a heartbeat.

“The hearts were my first moving pieces. I created them for this love-themed show in Ottawa. So the symbol of love – I made it literal. One is more anatomical and the other one more fantasy. Functional versus the broken.”

Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart

The two hearts provoke strong reactions from those who see them. Often, those who love one really dislike the other. At FIMA (Festival International Montréal en Arts) last year, a woman was moved to tears while contemplating the Bleeding Heart – a revelatory moment for Tom:

“It was the first time that I saw my work move somebody so much.”

The heart has a great creation story behind it, too:

“Originally, the beating mechanical heart was going to move and have blood flowing through it. But at the end, I really liked what I put together and I didn’t want to ruin it by dyeing it red. So I started building another sculpture that was going to have blood flowing through it.

“But I was running out of time, the piece wasn’t coming together well –  it was all shiny and new and I was really kind of frustrated – it didn’t have any of the look that I wanted.

“So at one point in my frustration, I took out my angle grinder and I just started hacking and slashing at it. I was out to destroy it. All the scratches and scars that are all over it – there was some anger. There was some anger and frustration that went into that piece.

“I stopped as the cap broke off [the round focal point in the center] and I looked at it and realized that was when it came together. That was when I realized that I was building something worthwhile and I could finally see where it was going.”

Tom’s recently been asked to create a replica of the Beating Heart but as all of his sculptures are made out of one-off recycled parts, creating an exact copy of any one of them is essentially impossible:

“That’s an interesting challenge I’m about to get into, considering none of those components are around anymore, nor do I have any way of getting the exact same pieces. I have the original motor. It’s basically just a windshield wiper motor. I have to find a different set of gears for its front.”

Sprinting Rex scrap metal sculpture

Sprinting Rex

Another piece that draws crowds to Tick Tock Tom’s booth at exhibitions is a seven-foot tall running robot figure, Sprinting Rex.

“He doesn’t have any lights or bells or whistles on him. He’s just large. But the key with him is just that tease, that one frame of animation that was indicative of the motion that I was trying to convey. I find it hard sometimes to come up with artistic justification beyond  trying to convey motion and character.”

One of Tick Tock Tom’s works that does have powerful artistic justification is the Entrapment series – five wall-hanging sculptures, each with a Latin name: Officium (Employment), Ritus (Addiction), Morbus (Illness), Amor (Love) and Cupiditas (Dreams). That last one I have to get him to explain to me.

“Dreams and Ambitions, yes. There’s a really simple explanation for that one. At the end of that series I’d spent about two and a half months in my basement working on it and I realized at that point that it was my dreams and ambitions that were keeping me entrapped. “

Entrapment series - Officium (Employment)

Entrapment series – Officium (Employment)

Though sometimes trapped in the basement by his dreams and ambitions, Tom has a great philosophy about the time it takes to make a piece of art: it doesn’t matter how many hours or days go into making it, as long as the piece lasts longer than those hours or days.

“I sold Cupidatas last year at TOAE to a gentleman who ended up giving it to his son as a birthday present. He wrote me a little while later asking me to write down what I had told him about the series. So I told him about my trials and the amount of time I spent in the basement and that it didn’t matter how much time I put into this piece as long as it stood the test of time and was around for longer than I put into it. And that sometimes you have to put a lot more effort into something than you expect so that the end result is something that you can be really happy with. And he said: “That’s exactly what I wanted to tell my son.” And I thought that was really amazing.

Entrapment series - Amor (Love)

Entrapment series – Amor (Love)

“A lot of the enjoyment that I get out of presenting these pieces are the people’s interpretations of them. A lot of people pick up on the recycling aspect, the reusing of parts. And I really enjoy the idea that I’m stopping things from ending up in a giant trash heap. Because I used to work beside a dump back in the day and I watched it grow and grow and grow. And nobody has any idea how much stuff we throw out. This is my way of saying: “Well if I can come up with a way to reuse a few pieces — ” “

A metal claw created by Tick Tock Tom was used in this music video by Theaternia

You can see more of Tom’s work on his website, Facebook and Vimeo. He’s also on Twitter. He’s planning to exhibit his new works at TOAE and FIMA again this summer.

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