Get to Know Keith Newstead, Featured Artist in Curious Contraptions at the Exploratorium
by Kevin Boyd • December 2, 2016
British artist Keith Newstead has been making automata for more than 30 years. An automata, he says, is “a machine that features some form of human or animal life.” The Exploratorium’s temporary exhibition Curious Contraptions features several of Newstead’s automata, including Dieselpunk Pegasus, which was commissioned for the exhibition.
Curious Contraptions curator Nicole Minor talked with Newstead earlier this fall at his workshop in Falmouth, in southwestern England.
Q: Do you call yourself an artist, an automata maker, or what?
A: I call myself an automatist, mainly to confuse people, because they think it has something to do with eye surgery. [Chuckles.]
Q: How did you get started making automata?
A: I had trained as a graphic artist, but I got bored because nothing moved, and I liked the idea of graphic art moving. I tried animation, but that was so time consuming. And then I was [working as a motorcycle courier] around London, and by accident I discovered Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, where I saw Paul Spooner’s work. And I was just blown away by his stuff. So I just started making automata. After about a couple of months I took something in to [Cabaret Mechanical Theatre’s] Sue Jackson, and she liked it and it sold within three days. So gradually I gave up riding and went full-time into automata making.
Q: Can you talk about the Dieselpunk Pegasus, the piece the Exploratorium commissioned for Curious Contraptions?
A: So I had already made a Pegasus automata; and usually when I’ve made something, I wave goodbye to it and I don’t feel any sadness at all. But this one I particularly liked. So when the Exploratorium contacted me about a commission, I thought I’d like to explore that one a bit more, maybe make it a bit bigger. So I remade it, I made the legs move more by making the thing that turns the legs slightly bigger, and just kind of explored it more and used dieselpunk effects. I love dieselpunk because it uses lots of rusting effects and paint effects, like old industrial machinery from I guess the ’50s, ’40s . . . trying to get that look of post-industrial apocalypse. Also the movement—the guy that does the strandbeests, Theo Jansen—I used his leg mechanism, and kind of changed it to get a galloping motion rather than the walking motion.
Q: When you’re creating a new piece, do you think of the concept first and then the movement or vice versa?
A: When I’m making a new piece, the first thing is a good story. Especially If it’s [coin-operated], because people put their money and they watch the movements, and at the end you need something—a bang or a joke, something to make people laugh. So the story comes first, then the figurative element fitting in with that story, and then the mechanics.
Q: Do you ever have anything like writer’s block, where you get stuck?
Sometimes when I get a new commission and people give me a theme, sometimes I can’t think of anything. And I don’t do that thing of saying “OK I need to sit down and have an idea,” because that’s a waste of time. I’ll just sit there all day.
I don’t think, I just forget it. Then gradually when I’m not thinking about it little ideas will suddenly come into my head or I might have a dream, a little starting point, and then I start doing some drawing and working out some ideas.
Q: What are you favorite tools, the ones you use the most?
A: The one I use the most is the jigsaw, for cutting everything. Even if I need to cut something thick I’ll cut lots of small pieces and laminate them because I don’t have a band saw. And then the sanding machine, I tend to do all the shaping on that. And the pillar drill [aka a drill press]. I found a way to drill a hole in the middle of a metal rod perfectly accurately using the pillar drill rather than the lathe. It’s a very limited palette; I’m not into buying loads and loads of tools.
Q: What are some things that interest you about making automata?
A: Well, it’s using a mechanism to recreate some movement you might find in life.
And it’s also very accidental, so if you don’t get it right, it doesn’t matter because what you do get might be better than you wanted to get. Also the way of thinking, you have to do a certain amount of planning ahead, and a certain amount of prototyping, and make sure everything’s going to fit in the box underneath, and the thing on top’s going to be in proportion with the box. It’s nice, the engineering and artistic bits coming together. People are usually either engineers or artists, but you don’t get many engineer/artists.
To see more automata by Keith Newstead and other artists, visit Curious Contraptions: Featuring Cabaret Mechanical Theatre at the Exploratorium through January 29, 2017.
You can also visit Keith Newstead's home page.