A melding of mechanics, function and art

Gerberich exhibit this season at Museum of Life and Science
Nov. 08, 2013 @ 07:09 PM

Steve Gerberich is a self-described art mechanic. It’s a unique and true job title.

The Brooklyn artist known for years for his uptown Manhattan store window creations also has several touring exhibits of artistic creations using springs, sprockets and pulleys. His materials are mechanical or were once functional: A metal teapot. The wooden leg from a table. A flyswatter. A fan. A wheelbarrow handle.

His traveling exhibits have visited the N.C. Museum of Life and Science six times in the past decade, and the latest is being set up this week. “Best of Springs, Sprockets & Pulleys: The Art of Steve Gerberich” opens Nov. 16 at the NCMLS in Durham.

The creations on display were picked from Gerberich’s show that was in Durham in 2003, he said, including old favorites and new.

“Everything is different every time. Every time setting up is the best one,” Gerberich said Thursday among open storage crates and pieces already wired and ready to run by pushing buttons, pedaling or cranking. Outside the assemblage, two pieces were already open to the public, including “Swat that Fly.” Kids stepped on the pedal to make it work -- wind power turning pieces to “chase” a large synthetic fly next to a tower of kitchen bowls.

Gerberich finds stuff at auctions, farm sales and tag sales. He likes things in quantity. “Swat that Fly” began with a gross of flyswatters he bought 20 years ago.

“It starts with a basic object and evolves from that. Sometimes I develop a theme and collect for it,” he said. Other pieces in “Best of Springs, Sprockets & Pulleys” include “The Flying Geese,” with moving wooden geese hanging from suitcases; and “The Wind Machine,” which is powered by an old industrial exhaust fan that blows whirligigs, including one from late Wilson whirligig artist Vollis Simpson. “The Gerberich Grand Orchestra,” Gerberich’s favorite, is comprised of mechanical musicians inspired by the artist’s great-great-grandfather’s conducting of an orchestra in 1886.

Three traveling shows fill four semi-truck loads. “Wherever shows end up last is where I store it,” Gerberich said, so that includes Washington state, Vermont and Iowa. The new Durham exhibit was trucked down from Vancouver.

The exhibit uses “simplified principles in analog fashion,” he said, like a hand-cranked bicycle generating electrical current. Pieces are connected with pulleys and objects made of metal, wood and plastic, some turned into the shape of a person, often with a teapot head. It’s a visual cornucopia of movement.

“I get a lot of movement out of one motor,” Gerberich said. “The thing about this work is you use your own vision to trace back the source of power. Everything’s exposed.”

If you’re thinking of the old board game Mousetrap, Gerberich is, too. It was totally inspirational growing up, he said, along with visits to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Those helping Gerberich set up the exhibit this week included volunteers who are retired engineers.

“I’m learning so much from them. It’s phenomenal, the talent I’m working with,” he said.

For this year’s exhibit, there is also a contest for people to create their own mechanical sculptures in “#GetGerboized.” Gerberich will pick a winner, who will receive an hour workshop with him in February.

“We hope people are inspired and go home and create,” said NCMLS spokeswoman Leslie Pepple.

“That’s key – to inspire someone to think ordinary objects are interesting, not the latest app on an iPad,” Gerberich said.