Friday, July 17, 2015

Art=Toys=Art in Cathy McClure's hands

Cathy McClure at July 11 CQA meeting.

Seattle-area artist Cathy McClure was one of 10 kids in her Arkansas farm-country family when she made a visit to a local carnival, an event that was to provide the key direction for her ensuing artistic journey. McClure led a fascinated CQA audience along this journey--complete with a menagerie!--at the group's July 11 meeting. "I was both attracted to and repulsed by what I saw at that carnival," McClure related, "by the carnies themselves....and especially by the toys offered as prizes on the midway." This was her first real exposure to massive quantities of the stuffed (and overstuffed) toys that would later become the basis of her art pieces.

McClure demonstrates one of her "bots" at the CQA meeting.
McClure earned a BFA in metalsmithing at Texas Tech in 1995, enjoying the creation of 3-D pieces from flat, 2-D materials.  An MFA at the University of Washington followed, in 1997. That was also the year she was selected from among 428 applicants as the winner of the 19th annual Betty Bowen Memorial Award. She had been creating such "functional" pieces as a sterling silver teapot (truly an art piece!) when she felt she could be doing...more.
McClure's silver teapot is actually functional!

The "more" turned out to be kinetic art, with a key initial piece being "Carnival of Life," a zoetrope [Sugg. see Wikipedia] involving placing the work on a rotating table in a dark room illuminated only by a strobe light. The viewer would see what appear to be elements on the rim of the table continually bowing down and standing up in sequence as the table revolved, whereas in reality all of the pieces were fixed in position. [A video of this piece  in action may be seen on McClure's website:]
The toy market is measured in billions of dollars per year...
...and too many end up broken or discarded.

Around 2003, in a further return to thoughts of that carnival of her childhood and the garish midway toys, McClure began to collect broken toys from toy and thrift stores. "This is a gluttonous arena of overstuffed toys," she said. "The toy market in 2012 was over $84 billion, with $20 billion of that in the US. Mostly they were all made in China, so broken or unwanted toys were just thrown out. There was no way stores could return them to the manufacturer," she said, "so I began to experiment with other ways to use them."
McClure begins the process of "de-stuffing" a broken animal toy.

McClure cut away the fuzzy or shaggy outer "skins" of the toys (mostly animals) and removed all the stuffing, leaving only the plastic body skeleton and, most important, the battery-operated mechanisms that caused the toy to move and speak.  In a lost-wax process, she replaced the plastic shape with metal--silver or bronze--with the aid of a small casting operation in Rhode Island. Some of the original plastic parts from the original toy are retained as a reminder of the toy's origin, an example being the flexible, segmented trunk of a toy elephant.

The plastic "innards" of a stuffed elephant, above, and McClure's silver version, "Trumpet," below, with original flexible, segmented trunk and battery-operated mechanism retained.
McClure calls the finished animals "bots," and the critters are both amusing and slightly eerie as they honk, bark or squawk while performing their original walking, bobbing, hopping or scurrying moves--but in elegant lines of polished silver or bronze metal instead of colorful fuzz! "Somehow they sound louder, more cranky, kind of upset once they're de-stuffed and cast in metal," she laughed.
Above, a stuffed bunny reduced to its plastic skeleton, and McClure's "Silly Bunny," below, in bronze (left) and silver (right).

In 2006, McClure created a zoetropic piece titled "3-Ring Circus" that combines bots with other constructs, complete with appropriate music "that sets the tone as the piece lures you into a deceptively magical world," said McClure. [A video of this piece may be seen on her website:]
Above, scene from McClure's two-months' residency in New York, with the artist at work (below) getting down to the innards of an Elmo toy.
McClure's "Hokey," based on an Elmo toy.

Not all of the toys she works with are reconstituted in metals. McClure had the pleasure of a two-month residency in New York where she had workspace and the equivalent of a "storefront" in which to create art pieces from both the "skins" and the plastic bodies of toys. The de-stuffed plastic bodies were displayed on shelves, and she made wall pieces out of assemblies of discarded skins sewn on canvas. Making use of the traditional "everything but the squeal," she went on to create rings out of the eyeballs removed from the toys!

McClure sewed an assemblage of discarded toy "skins" on canvas for wall hangings.
A true "hairy eyeball" (above) made into a ring! Other rings, below, created from eyeballs removed from toys.
One of her installations involving just the plastic "innards" from toys is endlessly fascinating--18 plastic "Mickey Mouse" figures, independently hard-wired to an activation button that a viewer can push to start the figures moving. With arms flicking up and down, the "Mickeys" move forward, back and slightly sideways in an ever-changing pattern that's both balletic and slightly militaristic as they bounce off one another. [See video on her website.]

Above, McClure "de-skinning" one of 18 "Mickey Mouse" toys (below).
The finished installation of 18 "Mickeys," each individually hard-wired to a viewer-activated button.
The toys--bots--that McClure renders in metal form are where she creates income, so their parts are created in multiples, e.g. 50 of a particular leg or body, and lined up in her studio ("a 2-car garage!") awaiting assembly. "As I need one of the battery-operated mechanisms for each piece, I sought out and was lucky to find a source for the original mechanisms," she said.

Line-up of cast toy parts in McClure's studio.
She frequently has other artists helping create parts of her installations, e.g a woodworker putting together the "rings" for the revolving parts of her zoetropic carnivals. "I often have to solve problems en route," McClure said. "For example, I was having trouble installing the elephant bots on 'Midway' and finally ended up using small chains--which I realized also symbolized the plight of elephants' lives in carnivals and circuses," she added.
A woodworker friend creates "rings" for McClure's "Midway" installation.
Above and below, stages in the creation of McClure's "Midway" installation for exhibit at Bellevue Arts Museum.

McClure's "Midway" exhibit was featured at the Bellevue Arts Museum in 2011-12. She will have an installation at 1925 3rd Ave. in Seattle later this summer as part of the Seattle Art Fair.
Above and below, McClure's "Midway" installation at BAM, 2011-12. That's her "Chicken" bot in the glass case, above.

She is currently working on paintings for a children's book and--a bit mind-boggling--she is making plans to create a human-scale "Hokey" figure, based on the innards of the Elmo toy! It will resemble her bots of the same name, but at that size definitely will not be made in sterling silver! "I want it to be a balance between the artist and the viewer, between seriousness and play, between childhood and adulthood," she explained.
An obviously hokey photo of McClure's planned human-scale "Hokey"!

For more information about McClure and photos and videos of her works, go to