Blue Greenberg: Gregg Museum honors work of visionary tinkerers

Jan. 24, 2013 @ 04:06 PM

The Gregg Museum of Art & Design, N.C. State University: “Farfetched-Mad Science, Fringe Architecture and Visionary Engineering” and “Humanature: Photographs of the Unnatural World” by Peter Goin, through April 26.

There is not a reader among you, I would guess, who does not have a crazy relative who tinkers and invents or has friends who have such a person in their families. Just imagine all those ideas together in one place and you have some small idea about this exhibition at N.C. State’s Gregg Museum.
One look around this large gallery where a three-wheeled painting machine, a perpetual motion monster; flying fantasies made from Styrofoam, party sparkles, and florist’s ribbon; a complex computational device to figure the date of the end-of-the-world; a design for a flying machine that looks strangely like a modern helicopter; a healing machine and a UFO nestle side-by-side and you think you have entered a warehouse for the mentally deranged or the studio of Rube Goldberg.
The exhibit is the brainchild of Director Roger Manley and Tom Patterson. Manley walked me through the exhibit and his enthusiasm was catching. With Manley, you move at breathtaking speed, trying to take notes while keeping up, as he stops at his favorite objects and tells a story about the artist, his background and reasonable explanations about the reasons for the particular object or drawing.
For example, we stopped in front of what appeared to be wood clocks, painted red with numbers written over them. They were made by Zebedee B. Armstrong, from Thomson, Ga., who had an eighth-grade education, a wife of 40 years and two daughters. He first worked on a large farm and then had a job at the Thomson Box Factory. In 1972 he had a vision about the end of the world and began building complex computational devices to calculate what day that would be. Then he developed a scheme to make money based on the day of the end of the world. If he knew exactly when the world would come to an end, he could sell a savings plan with a promise to pay the day after it’s all over. He never paid anyone and enjoyed living on these folks’ dimes and dollars.
We next looked at Emery Blagdon’s “Healing Machine.” Blagdon, according to Manley, had grown up in Nevada in a region where lightning storms created remarkable levels of static electricity. At a young age he lost his parents and a sister and when he inherited a farm he used one of the barns to create an indoor environment which he called his “Healing Machine.” He decorated it with wires, bottles, springs and beer can tabs; there were constructions resembling mobiles, chandeliers, television antennas and all sorts of substances which might help charge and heighten the device’s energy. When Blagdon died, two New Yorkers who knew about the contraption bought the contents of the “Healing Machine” and ultimately sold it to the Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisc., where it is on permanent display.
Taking up one whole corner of the gallery is Richard Brown’s “Future Past.” Brown owns a flower shop in Littleton; the front of the store is a traditional flower shop, but behind the counter is a room filled with visionary sculptures made of florist’s materials like Styrofoam, floral wire, hot glue, glitter and ribbon. From these materials he makes towering cities, aircraft, tall cranes and “floaters.” Brown had a vision about Jesus, who took him into the future where he looked back on a past yet to come. This gossamer fantasy is what he saw.
We looked at Charles Dellschau’s architectural-type drawings of flying machines; his drawing of a helicopter was executed in 1919. Dellschau was born in Prussia and came to Texas and worked as a butcher in a German-speaking Texas community. He spent much of his life drawing and painting images of airships and flying machines and filled more than a dozen large notebooks. He also wrote extensively about an organization called the Sonora Aero Club which seems to have existed only in his head. And then there is Charles Carroll, the offspring of several generations of builders. At 14 he began making miniature cities, carefully carved from Balsa wood, and went on to a career in the museum world. Today he is the registrar at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University; his intricately carved cities are what he does in his spare time.
It is obvious some of these folks lived in a weird world 24 hours a day and others lived just like you and me, but enjoyed in secret an outrageous and visionary other life.
Manley said many ideas started off to a chorus of nay-sayers but turned out to change the world, like flipping a switch to get lights, sending a message which instantly reaches someone 10,000 miles away, making an image on a light sensitive surface or flying humans around the world at one time.
The walls of the museum lobby are covered in blackboard material, which students have filled with formulas, proofs, diagrams and constellations; the computations are reminiscent of Russell Crowe’s board-after-board of calculations in “A Beautiful Mind.” This area connects the inventions to Peter Goin’s documentary photographs. And in a way they are equally farfetched. Goin has documented “environmental management.” He shows us photographs of large trucks dumping new sand at Virginia Beach where the beach has eroded; rocks made of cement to make the N.C. Zoo look more realistic; fake deer to entice hunters off-season in order to protect real animals, and new dunes being created by piling up Christmas trees and letting the sand settle over them.. Here, you wonder at a world, which builds too close to the ocean, ruining our beaches, and then turns around spending millions of dollars to rebuild our shoreline. I left the galleries scratching my head and wondering who is really crazy.
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.