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

Idea

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

Toymaker

“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.

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Canadian Visual Artists: Ele Willoughby (aka minouette)

Ele Willoughby (aka minouette) is a marine geophysicist and printmaker from Toronto, whose linocuts and woodblock prints are inspired by science and the natural world. Clicking on any image in this post will take you to the artwork’s listing in the Minouette Etsy shop, where they can be viewed in greater detail.

Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission linocut from minouette's History of Physics series

Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission linocut from minouette’s History of Physics series

It seems you have achieved an uncanny synergy of science and art in your life – is the relationship fully symbiotic or do you ever find these two forces in conflict?  

For me, the intersection of art and science is a really fertile source of inspiration – I even write a blog about it called magpie&whiskeyjack. I think that most people have been misled that art and science are very different – that science is constrained whereas art is free and creative. In truth, science is a very creative activity. Scientists are always problem-solving and inventing new things: tools, techniques, or stories about how things might work (also called hypothesis making). Art can also be constrained – there are often specific procedures which must be followed when working in certain artistic media that are very much like executing an experiment.

A Tower of Giraffes linocut illustrates the collective noun for a group of giraffes

A Tower of Giraffes linocut illustrates the collective noun for a group of giraffes

I’ve used artistic skills as a scientist, both when it comes to designing tools and to scientific visualizations and communications. Building a prototype geophysical imaging device is not unlike building a sculpture. You spend a lot of time in hardware stores thinking about whether things can be adapted to your purpose, which is the sort of behaviour artists will recognize.

I’ve also used a lot of my scientific skills and knowledge in my art (incorporating electronics or thermochromic inks and using the history of science as subject matter). So, I would say that for me the relationship between art and science is symbiotic.

However, these two interests, or perhaps hemispheres of my brain, do occasionally conflict. When I’ve had a difficult day in the lab, you’ll find sketches in my lab book. I find scientific colleagues don’t think about colour in design the way I do – occasionally I’ve found a battle on my hands when arguing for certain scientific visualizations.

Bacteria surrounding Louis Pasteur in this portrait are printed in thermochromic ink and disappear when heated - just like in pasteurization!

Bacteria surrounding Louis Pasteur in this portrait are printed in thermochromic ink and disappear when heated – just like in pasteurization!

As an artist, I find I can really enjoy the work of other artists who use science as inspiration, but I personally could never use, say, a diagram or some sort of scientific apparatus for strictly aesthetic reasons – they aren’t just decoration. So, in that sense, the education does influence the way I think, and hence the art I create.

As a scientist, you build machines for underwater imagery and you also get to use them in marine expeditions. What was your most memorable, terrifying or awesome experience while at sea and did you have to wait till getting back home to make art inspired by it?

Sailing Ship II - block print with mixed papers by minouette

Sailing Ship II – block print with mixed papers

Goodness, I do have some stories. It would be hard to choose which one to tell! I’ll tell you about one experience which was difficult, then amazing, and which did inspire new art.

Several years ago, I was working offshore Vancouver Island on a Canadian Coast Guard vessel with a team of university researchers. I had been working on a method which allows me to measure the stiffness of seafloor sediments by lowering an instrument to the ocean bottom. We decided that it would be great to get a really long dataset, but that we couldn’t stay put; rather than lowering the instrument to the bottom and holding station for hours, we could let it fall to the bottom and retrieve it later.

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