When I was in 3rd grade, I received a copy of National Geographic’s “Our Universe” for Christmas which featured a couple of future scenarios painted by the artist Syd Mead. Certain things get embedded in your mind at that age, and from the moment I saw his artwork I was hooked. Syd Mead’s work (for the uninitiated) started off on the tale end of the 50’s rocketship fin forward future and evolved into the genre defining vision of 21st century tech utopia. He was the key visual designer behind Tron, Blade Runner, and Time Cop, among-st many other great and terrible films. Mead definitely has a style, his technique is the perfect discipline of a mid century professional design illustrator who fell in love with the machine and learned to paint it, the way other’s would paint a figure. The machine always is at the center and everything else including the environments and people are really there to set off an obsession with machinery. His work has a feeling and color pallete (something that feels right on the other edge of dusk) and certainly a nostalgia for what the the future made from fiberglass and microchips wanted to feel like. He is a tremendous designer and apart from the lush illustrations, he (especially at his peak) developed a set of forms that gloried in a world made out of buttons and servos. Everything in his work looks fast, but also has an approachable candy like essence. His designs are inviting, maybe comfortable even as they are surrounded by aggressive super forms and monoliths creating a hazy metropolis backdrop to a night on the town, or a construction review meeting. He did a lot of speculative design for the greats of American Industry as it was reaching the apex of it’s curve. His work was at it’s peak right before our notion of high technology evolved from machinery into information. Everything he designs, draws, and paints feels kind of like the movie Tron. From the everyday components that make up a city, it’s doors, telephone buttons, coffee machines, and massive skyscrapers, to asteroid mining megaships possibly in the middle of a distress call but looking technologically fashionable even as disaster looms. All of his designs have an ellipse and line combination that feels inspired by a mix of circuit boards, calligraphy, and offset with a sweeping curve, and they all revel in the movement of light off of formed and curved surfaces. It feels like what the neon bubbled 80’s wanted to become if they didn’t have to move into the plaid pouting 90’s. If you haven’t seen his work then look it up. Here’s a link to the painting I saw in the National Geographic, but just look up Syd Mead and Blade Runner and you’ll get the picture.
The machine I painted today (A Sard D100 made in Italy) is a perfect example of the styling I’m talking about. I don’t know who designed this, but I promise you that they had a couple of Syd Mead books in the library. The big curved glass canopy with the dark rail detailing takes the cake, but the other elements such as the angled body, the curved bumpers, and especially the inset grey wheels are all Syd Meadisms as well.
The machine itself is apparently the only one of it’s kind in the country. I found it at Specialty Building Systems in Seattle which is a granite, marble, and tile shop. It’s function is to be able to grab slabs of stone and move them around. The long arm allows it to reach all the way into a container crate and lift stone from the back. I’d never thought of this, but it’s pretty clever. If you have a heavy object like a big tall piece of stone and it’s in a crate then it could be very challenging to remove it. you’d have to pull it out, put it on a cart, do something. This arm is thin enough that it can pick it right up, and because the whole things is back weighted, it has a huge lifting capacity without becoming front heavy. While I was painting this a man came up and said it looked like a scorpion. Yes it does, but it looks more like a Syd Mead painting which is even cooler.
I have a show going up from Sep 8-Oct 11 at Annie’s Art and Frame in Ballard. 2212 NW Market St, Seattle WA 98107. It will be all watercolors and prints of machine’s that I have painted over the past year. Opening reception is Sat Sep 8 6-9. Come check it out!
I used to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with it’s grainy footage of cheetah’s chasing antelope, hippos roaring their maws from muddy banks, and elephant stampedes. The fact is however, that I have always been more fascinated by the mechanized creatures that inhabit the urban environment. These machines are so ubiquitous that it’s easy to take them for granted, but consider this: much like an animal, machines are a picture of efficiency and purpose when applied to the proper task. They excel at doing what they were built for and fit into an interrelated ecosystem of mechanically enhanced labor. Like the house cat is a relative of the lion, the common garden shovel is a distant cousin to a 20 ton excavator.
Every week I drive around Seattle looking for new machines in the wild. I do my best to channel Wild Kingdom’s host Marlin Perkins, reporting back in vivid technicolor the wonders of the construction site. Where he had a helicopter, I have my Honda Element. I roam SODO instead of a Sub-Saharan savanna, and being stuck on Mercer during it’s endless overhaul is actually kind of a treat as dozers, graters, and haulers push around piles of dirt and concrete. Machine Safari is drawn and painted one machine at a time – almost always on site. Next time you drive by a machine, or even open your tool-shed, take a closer look and imagine the world you already live in.
I like being down in SODO Seattle; I’m sure I’ve stated this before, but it bears repeating. You can meet great folks working on good machinery down there. About a year ago I painted a large Cat D-8 bulldozer at Evergreen Tractor. I frequently find myself driving down in the area looking for equipment and by far the most impressive machines are always at Evergreen. They are a family run business that rents and repairs the big stuff that’s hard to stumble upon outside of large scale construction. On Tuesday I painted a mid size excavator that I’ll post at a future date, so I decided to head back the next day to paint some of the attachments for that machine.
Being around the equipment for me is always a treat because I love the purity of function with these tools. Painting a truck sometimes can still focus on the glamour of the vehicle, but when you get into observing a bucket, you find the form stripped away of anything superfluous beyond it’s intention and function. I get an opportunity through my south Seattle adventures to talk with people working in the job shops and industrial facilities. Most people I meet really like what they do and understand that they are kind of a dying breed in a city and society that is focusing almost exclusively on attracting a generation of people (myself included) that work in the realm of software and service.
To paraphrase a friend this week, “Seattle is a city that is quickly filling in all of it’s interesting and unpolished gaps and crevices with condos and crepe shops”. It is not the developed facade of high rent condos that make for a fascinating city. That is just glamour, and we need glamour I suppose as an image of cleanliness and success. But what really is the delivery on an image? Success for the few who can afford it? Success as long as the gardener and painter can be held on retainer to pull the weeds and Spackle the blemishes? It’s the down and dirty, surprising, worn, hard working, practical, rough, rocky, cracks in the pavement that expose the backbone of a metropolis. I really hope this city can keep supporting industry, manufacturing, fabrication, and work spaces that actually do work. As we become more of a service and knowledge based society we seem to be pushing aside and forgetting the essential value in building and fixing the physical tools and facilities that are all around us. I’ll be painting more down there this year, hopefully getting into more shops to document some of the machinery and processes that happen inside. I recommend travelling south on Marginal way and just observing the way things work down there. It’s dusty yes, loud, dirty, all the above. But it’s also elegantly functional and productive, stripped of glamour and all the more valuable for it.
Much thanks to the guys at Evergreen for showing me around. I’ll be back!
On Saturday I gave a talk at the IDSA (Industrial Designer Society of America) Western Conference with the intention of adding some levity and honesty to the expectations of what a career should be. I am thankful for the positive response I received. I really enjoyed myself and met a ton of great people. My plan is to do more of this. (At least enjoying myself and meeting great people, but also hopefully more public speaking.)
The conference was at Bell Harbor slightly north of Pier 66 in Seattle. I decided on Sunday to return to the venue to draw one of the Grove Cranes that were sitting on the pier. It’s rare that I find a good vantage point above a crane since I’m usually at street level. At Bell Harbor there were a number of them on the pier and from the 3rd floor conference space I could sit out on the balcony on a sunny day and draw to my hearts content.
There is an interesting dimension to event spaces. They are by definition places that exist for the gathering of different organizations, groups, and individuals. The IDSA conference was made up of a mix of design students and professionals networking, seeking work, and communicating about the design profession. Conversations naturally turn towards the topic of design and design work and are informed by a particular thought process if not personality type. In marked contrast to this is the group of individuals that were attending the Seattle Chocolate Salon convention that held the space on Sunday. Drawing in public requires a high degree of active observation and by proxy an equally high degree of passive listening. I never try to hide the fact I’m drawing or disappear into a space, but I can sit quietly for hours as groups of people come an go around me bringing and taking their ideas and conversations. It turns out that a Chocolate convention draws a diverse crowd. Between the table of aging sorority sisters who placated their bleach blonde leader’s relentless tales of beer keg tribulations, and the conversation of an aspiring geek writer who’s fantasy novel focused on the intrigue and innuendo of a society that he referred to as Darwin’s Fist, I was never bored. In all truth I can only sit passively for a short time and I did turn to the writer to reward him with the complement that he had the most interesting idea of the afternoon. He was wearing a camouflage surplus outfit and smiled at the acknowledgment of his genius and then thanked me by offering a formal hand to forehead salute.
Seeing that I was at a chocolate convention it would have been highly inappropriate for me to have not sampled the goods. I did just that and have three favorites.
Pacari Chocolates out of Ecuador. I meant to buy their Raw 70% Cacao bar which was so smooth I almost slipped into a chocolatey coma but I accidentally bought their Raw 70% Sea Salt chocolate bar. Also very tasty, I was still slightly disappointed that I came home with the wrong treat. Worth the checking out.
Intrigue Chocolates from Seattle. They had a Saint Basil Chocolate Truffle that I thought was just about perfect. I would have purchased this as well but I’d already spent my allotted weekly chocolate budget on the Pacari bar.
Monterey Chocolate Company. Olallieberry Chocolate bar. What’s an Olallieberry? I don’t know, but it’s a tasty treat when mixed with dark chocolate.
So there you have it, Dynamic Cranes, Public Speaking, Decaying Sororities Sisters, and the Power of Chocolate. A good weekend indeed and LONG LIVE DARWIN’S FIST!
Posted in location drawing, Seattle, urban sketch
Tagged bell harbor, construction machines, cranes, darwin's fist, grove cranes, idsa, industrial design, intrigue chocolate, monterey chocolate, Olallieberry, pacari chocolate, painting, public speaking, seattle, sketching, urban sketch, watercolor