Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘sculpture’

04 MAY, 2010

Ben Simon’s Gaga Guitars


Kinky keys, or what Bob Dylan has to do with model railroaders and Van Gogh.

Ben Simon is an artist in every sense of the word — part musician, part wood carver, part mixed media sculptor, part something else entirely. He makes incredible, crazy guitars and performs with them on the New York subway, blending the charismatic quirk of a street musician with the art world street cred of gallery-worthy custom work.

Today, we sit down with Ben to ask him a few questions about the inspiration behind his extravagant instruments, his creative process, and how ordinary people react to his extraordinary art.


Hey Ben, tell us a bit about your background, what inspires you, and your brand of creative curiosity.

The giant extincted lizard thing. Looking at the world from different locations in outer space. Racism in the USA, learning to relax… My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, and when I finally made it through high school I continued to move. I guess I can identify with the mover. I don’t really know. I’m inspired by God’s light.

I’m working toward opening an instrument building program for kids who have some extra types of needs (kids with nothing). I’m inspired by something if I think it can be useful to an emotionally tormented teenage kid. For more information about this, please send me a note.


We’re all about the cross-pollination of disciplines and arts here. How did you arrive at this beautiful intersection of sculpture, woodwork and music?

I guess it happened naturally. I got a job at a custom woodworking shop in 2005 where I was allowed to come back to the shop after hours and work on my own stuff. I went to an arts high school and made some amazing friends that have always been a part of what I do. It’s not any different than anything else. I’ve been free and blessed to make stuff any way I’d like.

Lots of people never have a chance, but my life has been filled with chances. Wide open spaces to explore. If I died and my soul is lost, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.


How long does one of your guitars take to make, on average?

About two months. Each one has a learning curve. I’ve been woodworking for five years, so there is still tons that I don’t know. There are some tools that I don’t have that would make the process smoother. Not rushing is nice. Moving slow around the power tools is important. Depending on what the design is, I could probably finish in three weeks.

'This is the first guitar I built. It has about 15 different types of wood and was built in an improvisational style. I built some cutting boards that looked like the body on this guitar. The guitar has GFS pickups, a Hipshot trilogy bridge and a built in digital delay. All kinds of exotic and domestic woods.'


You play your marvelous instruments on the New York subway. What kind of music do you play? How do people react?

For a while I was playing one called “Guitar2d2″ that features a built-in circuit bent Yamaha keyboard and Boss drum machine, 3 amps and a few effects pedals. It has 5 speakers and is battery-powered. I improvise a lot and play songs. People often have funny reactions. Probably because “Guitar2d2″ is so big and different-looking.

We are making a documentary right now: In the film, I’ll be building a guitar dressed a bit like a Star Trek character, complete with voice changer. Then, the plan is to play that guitar on the street in the costume and sell the DVD. This will probably get some funny reactions.


This is hard, but let’s try it: Your all-time favorite visual artist and favorite musician…

Van Gogh and Beethoven I guess.

There’s so many people that make awesome stuff. I like this fellow: I cried at an Ornette Coleman concert in 2008 because it was so beautiful. I go to see Bob Dylan every chance I get. I’ve been listening to a lot of Sun Ra. There are great artists everywhere — most we will never hear of. Ever heard of slide guitarist David Tronzo? Didn’t think so. We’re talking about the most amount of vibrance a human is capable of vibrating. Every color. All the rhythms.

My Dad would probably never call himself an artist, but he has built in his house some of the most detailed H.O. scale model trains around. He did this whole scene of Boston circa 1958. I’ve witnessed him put thousand of hours into this and other layouts over the years. His work has been in Model Railroader a few times, but mostly it just sits by itself.

I feel like this is common, especially in people. Often when you meet a new person, you enter into a world containing various amounts of anonymous art work. I wonder: What is art work? How much can one look at? What will be found?

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09 APRIL, 2010

The Art of Book Sculpture


Surgical typography, a beautiful ghost, and why the reading of art is the new art of reading.

We’ve already seen artists make magic out of materials like paper, cardboard and even toilet paper rolls. One related creative trend we’ve been seeing lately is that of book sculptures. (We wonder if it has to do with the speedy demise of print as artists try to find new ways of engaging with these analog cultural artifacts whose core function digital platforms are deeming obsolete.) Today, we spotlight five of our favorite book sculptors.


Artist Nicholas Galanin‘s What Have We Become? series offers incredible, haunting 3D portraits hand-carved out of several-thousand-page tomes.

A North American indigenous artist, Galanin’s work is inspired by Native American culture and reflects a certain layered authenticity difficult to capture in words.


Paul Octavious takes the concept of book sculptures quite literally — his typographic creations, sculpted out of piles of books, are a brilliant example of richness in simplicity.

Both playful and sophisticated, defying the laws of physics, the sculptures are a wonderful celebration of everything a good book stands for: imagination, balance, and delightful escapism from the constraints of reality.


For the ultimate meta-conceptual book art, look no further Royal College of Art graduates Hanna Nilsson, Sofia Østerhus and Markus Bergström, a.k.a. Bygg Studio, who have created an entire alphabet out of stacked books.

As bonified typography geeks, we’d love to see the series turned into an actual, usable font.


The great gift of literature is its ability to make incredible scenes spring up from the barren black-and-white landscape of the printed page and come to life before your eyes. British artist Su Blackwell does pretty much the same.

From Pandora’s box to Alice to Margaret and Marjorie, Blackwell’s brand of storytelling plays on stories we know and love but tells them in infinitely imaginative new ways.

The intricate, whimsical scenes reconcile serenity and urgency in a palpably delicate way, almost as though they set free the characters and settings trapped inside the books for centuries.


Brian Dettmer is a surgical sculptor with a penchant for the esoteric, obscure and near-obsolete. His remarkable book sculptures are meticulously carved into vintage volumes using a variety of tools — Xacto knives, surgical clamps, pliers, tweezers — and are painstakingly cut away one page at a time.

From atlases to dictionaries to paperbacks to encyclopedias, his artistic ingenuity — as well as his scalpel — knows no boundaries.

An intersection of pop art, ancient craft and scientific fascination, Dettmer’s creations are the epitome of architectured whimsy, precisely measured to tell a story yet artfully flamboyant in a way that makes the story wildly captivating.

Rather than trying to subvert things and impose his own message, Dettmer aims to play on and reveal hidden undertones of the books themselves through his sculptures.

I try to reveal some of the undertones and unconscious stories books tell. If I’m working with a book that was full of information, the book becomes a sculpture and the information can become concrete poetry within the sculpture. With certain books like medical books, the text itself can become a metaphor for love and relationships rather than strictly the physical body. A lot of images and different types of field-specific language can be exposed in different ways to make it more universal.

Print may be dead, but its ghost is a thing of beauty.


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30 SEPTEMBER, 2009

Responsive Shapes: Minivegas Digital Sculptures


What Daft Punk have to do with sculpture and the evolution of storytelling.

If you didn’t catch us raving about it on Twitter earlier this week, here’s your chance to catch up on this brilliant piece of work by directing collective Minivegas — a virtual gallery, featuring a visualizer rendering digital sculptures in real time in response to sound and gestures.

The gallery walls are adorned with album artwork of the mp3’s loaded into the visualizer (including the appropriately chosen Daft Punk classic, Technologic), with the music itself driving the shape-shifting mutations of the sculptures. The shapes can also be manipulated with hand-motion using a webcam.

Refreshingly innovative, this work illustrates an exciting intersection of multiple senses and multiple media — a beautiful epitome of the evolution of modern storytelling.

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07 APRIL, 2009

The MacGuffin Library


The secret lives of props, or what Hitler and Mickey Mouse have in common.

Cinema history trivia: MacGuffin is a term, allegedly coined by Hitchcock, which stands for a cinematic plot device, most likely on object, whose only purpose and value lie in driving the filmic narrative.

So how would such an object — whose very essence, form and function are defined solely within the context of fictional circumstances — inhabit and relate to the real world? This is exactly what non-traditional product designer Onkar Kular explores with his project The MacGuffin Library.

The objects that he creates are neither products, nor sculptures, nor props, but a strange medley of all three, challenging the way we perceive art and design. They stand somewhat awkward and unsure of themselves, reminiscent, in all their black polymer resin glory, of Frankenstein’s monster.

Each MacGuffin comes with a one-page synopsis of a non-existent screenplay that inspired it. There is a plot for every taste as themes range from futuristic thrillers to midlife crisis dramas.

The exhibition is incredibly engaging since the role of each object is not specified in the adjacent synopses. Endless possibilities of interpretations and lively discussions arise.

Unlike other, more traditional art exhibits, where one sees, nods, and moves on, the enjoyment of The MacGuffin Library lies exclusively in the quantity and quality of the viewer’s own engagement. So go ahead, engage.

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