Artist Tom Haney tells stories and ideas through handcrafted wooden figurines

Tom Haney is an Ohio-born automata artist, fascinated by mechanical movement. He talks to STIR about community as inspiration and the kinetic art movement.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Nov 05, 2022

Tom Haney is an Ohio-born artist whose curiosity is driven by mechanical movement itself. The spark was ignited in him at a nascent stage, when he was just two-years-old, and found himself enchanted by the workings of a mechanical diorama in a museum. Haney's fascination never stopped and took him on an unstoppable journey. After formally studying industrial design, Haney built a practice based on making props, miniatures for motion pictures and television commercials. At the turn of the millennium in 2000, Haney switched lanes to becoming a full-time visual artist, taking a step away from commercial ventures. Although Haney's work can be plainly described as 'kinetic art', his work is also sculptural in its traditional form while focusing on conceptual narratives as well. His installations are a mode of storytelling, and a remembrance of the beautiful tradition of handmade.

If you have never heard of kinetic art, then the simple way to explain it is to define it as a sculptural installation which leans on movement to tell its story. The exploration into kinetic art began in the 1950s, and it initiated an enquiry into elements of time, while also referencing the surge of technology and machines in daily life. Pioneering artists like Naum Gabo and Alexander Calder were the first to initiate this movement, setting the foundation for what we know of kinetic art almost seven decades later.

Beekeeper, 2020, wood carved, crank-operated, Tom Haney| Tom Haney | STIRworld
Beekeeper, 2020, wood carved, crank-operated Image: Tom Haney

Haney tells us about his personal figures of inspiration saying, "At an early age I was introduced to Alexander Calder's work. He's always been an inspiration - his creativity, his explorations, and his seemingly 'simple' artworks. I think I was probably introduced to his work by my older sisters, who were very creative/artistic on their own - and recognised my creative talents as a child." Calder is known best for crafting wire sculptures which served as abstracted, kinetic 'mobiles'. The American artist played with both, colossal and small formats in his work, and left the modern art world with indelible marks of a practice which showcased versatility and consistency at the same time.

Haney continues, sharing how his inquisitive nature led to an inventive practice. He says, "So growing up I was always fascinated by any kind of movement in artwork - but also with anything that had any kind of mechanical motion to it - museum displays; locomotives large and small; bicycles; the Wright Brother's flyer; automobiles; store window displays. My mind always went to, 'How is that done? How was that made? How is that possible?'. I always wanted to know what was going on in the inside. I guess I have always had a curious mind." Haney's works inspire the same curiosity in the viewer as well, embodying playfulness while sharing an idea - inspiring thought experiments within one's own mind. His automata creations also make me question - how much are we really acting independently, and how much of our thought and action is really driven by free will? Are we all little wooden figurines, controlled and driven by some invisible hand turning the key?

Interdependence, 2020, a kinetic rolling ball sculpture | Tom Haney | STIRworld
Interdependence, 2020, a kinetic rolling ball sculpture Image: Tom Haney

Haney's kinetic works are made using mechanical and electric means, each method being employed with their own charm. His creative process generally begins with a concept, which he models his figures and functions around. The conceptual nature of his kinetic works drives home the story, creating a piece with impact which is what made me curious about his work when I first came across it. For instance, his work Phrenology is a clear articulation of the rat race present not only the external world, but also the internal world.

Phrenology, 2018, Tom Haney | Tom Haney | STIRworld
Phrenology, 2018, Tom Haney Image: Tom Haney

The sculptor discusses the community of automata art creators, sharing that a worldwide community has been formed wherein the artists continuously engage with each other, and learn from the wide spectrum of kinetic art practices. He says, "In the 90s, after starting my own mechanical/figurative pieces, I discovered many artists doing similar work - thanks to the world wide web. I saw many folks exploring comparable work scattered all over the globe. There are not a lot, but those who are doing it are as passionate about it as I am… I think I have learned from each of them that automata can take on many forms - from simple and direct to complicated and intricate. Each maker has his or her own approach in style, and outcome. I think we all learn from each other, (a typical human process), I know I have learned a lot from just observing how others solve a specific problem. And the community is growing each day as people discover this 'old' art form - and add to the knowledge base of what's possible." 

The artist Tom Haney in his studio | Tom Haney | STIRworld
Artist Tom Haney in his studio Image: Tom Haney

Haney shares how he has been taking his artistic pursuits further, "Lately I have been concentrating on the faces of my characters, as well as trying to further my mechanical aptitude. Yes, it's a right brain/left brain thing, and I love it. I am always fascinated by people's faces - more importantly, how we perceive other people's faces. What makes a face pretty or attractive, or even interesting to others? And of course, learning how to make my figures move is an ongoing, never-ending pursuit." Haney has recently become more interested in the collaborative process of commissioned artworks. He has previously showcased at various galleries in the United States including Edgar Allan-Poe Museum, Red Truck Gallery and others.

Sea Monster, a crank operated automata Video: Courtesy of gallery Exhibit 320 and STIR
Tic Tok, 2019, abstract sculpture made with scrap metal  | Tom Haney | STIRworld
Tic Tok, 2019, abstract sculpture made with scrap metal Image: Tom Haney

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