VERSAILLES — Steve Armstrong's work is laboriously crafted, but like all good art, it appears effortless.
The Central Kentucky artist's three-dimensional pieces are a demonstration of mastery in both form and function. All of the figures are carefully carved out of wood by hand, as are the gears working the pieces.
"It is important for him to hand-carve, to go through the process of things." said gallery owner Heike Pickett, who has represented Armstrong since 1993 and is hosting his newest exhibit, Klockwerk: New Automata, at Heike Pickett Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Versailles.
Gears aren't something you see too often in art, especially in such elaborate, moving formations as Armstrong's. The art he produces is called "automata," machines imitating the human figure. Automata date back to ancient Egypt.
Armstrong said the automata were a result of combining his background in carpentry with his many interests, including history, science, music, folk art and antiques.
"I think the secret to uniqueness is to let the art reflect who you are," he said. "I bring all these things together in one piece."
Armstrong first began to sell his work at antiques fairs, until he shifted into the fine-arts realm. His former professor at the University of Kentucky, John Tuska, took an early interest in Armstrong's art. Going to his studio to see what he had been up to, Tuska "bought everything I'd made," Armstrong remembers.
Pickett and Transylvania University professor Jack Girard further supported him, helping to bring outside attention to his art.
Armstrong's new exhibit shows just how far he has come since beginning his work on automata, working to figure out simple movements and transforming them into multi-functional machines that can even run for short periods of time on their own.
"The first mechanism I did was pretty basic and simple, and came about through trial and error," Armstrong said.
One piece in the current exhibit, Heartland, is an example of a complex network of movements stemming from one operational piece. Rather than a strictly figurative work, it is a grouping of industrial buildings with many moving details. Another is Butterfly, in which a butterfly moves across the air above the piece as an onlooking idol's eyes roll back.
Armstrong has been kind enough to share the inner workings of the pieces with his audience. There is always a way to see inside the art even if the mechanisms aren't left completely exposed. The gears and cranks are educational and interactive aspects, but they're also beautiful.
The pieces range from the understated Casseopia, with small, carved bits of catlinite stone and ivory, to the complex Fandango and The Fruit of Our Labors.
The latter represents Armstrong's advancement in his construction abilities, working with the prototype of the piece for more than a year, Pickett said. The piece is quite large and is operated by a whimsical wind-up mechanism so that it can be wound to run independently, speeding up as it winds down. The pendulum was inspired by Armstrong's interest in clocks.
Pickett reflected on a recent show that Armstrong participated in, where signs had been hung warning onlookers not to touch the work. In his case, this was a hindrance, because the protruding cranks must be used to make the pieces come alive. Use can cause minor wear and tear, but it ultimately elevates the pieces beyond just their appearance.
However, Armstrong doesn't slack off on the appearances. The work in Klockwerk is almost all wood and acrylic paint, but the surfaces are impeccably worked and take on all manner of textures. He creates crackled surfaces and metallic finishes with ease. Sometimes elements are even left bare, to show off an unusually beautiful piece of wood. He occasionally uses found objects, as evidenced by Compass, with a carved figure encircled by an iron ring.
"My best source of ideas comes from actually working. I keep getting flooded with ideas for the next five or 10 pieces," Armstrong said.
He has several ideas for the future, introducing more exciting themes and elaborate mechanisms. However, as he battles developing arthritis and the complications of moving and displaying large pieces, he said he is looking to scale down the work. What he really wants to work on, he said, are pieces that would be "almost cinematic" in their movements.
"My imagination runs amok," he said. "I'm not going to have time to get to all the ideas."