You cannot truly appreciate a Steve Armstrong sculpture by just looking at it. You must turn the crank.
Each piece depicts a richly painted fantasy, complete with human figures expertly carved out of wood. When you turn the crank, wooden gears move, levers twist, rods shift and the figures come to life like an antique toy.
"I try to jog a memory, create a mystery, that childlike sense of wonder at discovering something new," the Lexington artist said of his work, a genre of sculpture known as automata. "I enjoy testing the limits of my imagination."
You can enjoy it, too. A couple dozen of the 400 or so pieces Armstrong has made over the past two decades are on display through Jan. 17 at ArtsPlace, 161 N. Mill St. The free show is titled: Steve Armstrong: 20 years of Mystery and Wonder.
Armstrong has pieces all over the world. One avid collector is Tom Cousins, the real estate developer who reshaped Atlanta's skyline in the 1970s and '80s. Locally, Armstrong's work is in the University of Kentucky Art Museum and Chandler Medical Center.
"I have a kind of a naughty piece at the Kinsey Institute," he said, referring to the famous sex research institute at Indiana University. "Not too terribly naughty."
Armstrong, 68, said it took many years to discover his calling as an artist, although he had plenty of clues along the way.
"I have always had a bit of curiosity about how things work," he said. "I was the type of kid who invariably took my toys apart."
Armstrong was the son of a career Air Force pilot. He lived all over the country, and in Japan from ages 7 to 10. That's when he encountered Japanese wind-up toys.
"I took a lot of those apart and never could get them back together," he said. "I was curious about what made them move."
Armstrong ended up in Lexington for high school, and after two years at UK served in the Air Force from 1967-71. He then returned to UK and studied art under the late John Tuska, who became one of his biggest influences.
Armstrong also became intrigued with Montessori education, which allowed him to use his knowledge of art and music (he has played guitar in a rock band since age 16). He became a certified Montessori teacher and operated a school in Lexington for 18 years while making art in his spare time.
"I dabbled in painting and printmaking and ceramics and wood-block engraving," he said. But what he enjoyed most were making carved-wood mechanical novelties that he sold at folk art shows. In 1993, he sold his school to become a full-time artist.
"I had an epiphany that maybe there was a fine art way to do these mechanical pieces," he said.
About that time, Armstrong ran into Tuska, who asked what he was doing. When he showed his former teacher three sculptures he had made, Tuska bought them all.
Another break came when Armstrong's former neighbor, Transylvania University art professor Jack Girard, saw his work and got a piece included in an art show. Gallery owner Heike Pickett tried to buy it, but she was outbid — by Armstrong's mother.
Still, Pickett asked to represent him, and Armstrong said he has been busy ever since. (He also is represented on the West Coast by the John Pence Gallery in San Francisco.)
Armstrong works from home, as does his wife, Diane Kahlo, also a well-regarded artist and a distant relative of Frida Kahlo, the late Mexican painter. Diane Kahlo is now showing paintings at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco.
When the weather is nice, Armstrong likes to work outside. When winter comes, he carves and paints his yellow-poplar figures and assembles the sculptures at his kitchen table. He has a big basement studio, but it is stuffed with odds and ends he has collected for possible use in future pieces.
"Any crazy thing that I can imagine I can bring to life," Armstrong said.
"There's nothing more rewarding for the viewer than to be able to interact with the piece, and really nothing more rewarding for me," he added. "I love to watch people turn the crank and experience a piece for the first time."