Benjamin Cowden Discusses His Kinetic Art with JEM Students
Mechanical sculptor Benjamin Cowden warned Academy of Art University students from the School of Jewelry and Metal Arts that packed a room during his recent talk that he was sleep-deprived. But even though Cowden—who will teach a kinetic art class at the Academy this summer—is a new father of a 7-week-old daughter, lack of sleep didn’t prevent him from delivering an engaging presentation. He described the sometimes unusual path he’s followed as an artist, a journey that’s combined formal education with diverse hands-on learning opportunities.
Cowden began his metal work training at the University of Long Island. While there, he participated in an anthropology project in Cameroon, Africa, in 1997 where he studied Baka Pygmies who forged utility knives from worn machetes.
“I became really interested in tools, in how we make tools that shape the world around us,” he said. “But there’s also a give and take in that relationship—our tools shape us, too.”
Later, Cowden took blacksmithing workshops at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina and was an artist-in-residence at the Appalachian Center for Crafts in Tennessee.
His passion for mechanical art ignited in 2004 while earning an M.F.A. in metal work at Southern Illinois University. During this time, he discovered the work of mechanical sculptors Arthur Ganson and Jean Tinguely. He got so “psyched on kinetic art,” he started making his own.
Referring to photos of various pieces from different phases of his career, Cowden explained how his skills, and what he tries to convey through his art, evolved over the years.
An early piece called Eating My Cake and Having it Too elicited some nervous chuckles from the audience. The machine—which Cowden intended to serve as a metaphor for the human body—features a silicone tongue, complete with dripping saliva, that licks a lollipop.
“Children love this piece, but it makes some adults uncomfortable ” he admitted with a smile.
Fascinated by the juxtaposition of controlled, mechanical movement and organic, human movement, Cowden incorporated human figures in many of his early pieces. In the dark Forward to the End, for example, a little man perches high atop a spinning mechanism representing the world he is powerless to control.
Cowden said he had a breakthrough moment while working on Gathering, a graceful piece that resembles a jellyfish. He realized he could create mechanical art that suggests the movement of living beings without including actual figures. Cowden continued to explore this concept during his residency at Recology, a San Francisco dump, in 2013. While there, he created a number of mechanical sculptures—including the simple, bird-like Cassowary—made almost entirely from discarded materials.
When discussing his design and technical processes, Cowden said he does lots of sketching to avoid mechanical flow problems. He emphasized that while technology such as CAD, CNC machines, 3-D printing and laser and waterjet cutting have made his life easier, they aren’t silver bullets.
“You still need excellent hand skills,” he explained. “And making things by hand is fun.”
Cowden ended his presentation with a few highlights of the class he’ll be teaching at the Academy. Participants will learn basic automata (mechanical movement) and work with micro-controllers using Flora wearable electronics. One student asked if the class will be suitable for those who don’t have “technical minds.” Cowden assured her it will.
“Take it,” he said. “It’s a great way to get your feet wet.” He added that the class will play to students’ individual strengths, challenging each person to come with the best ideas based on their skillset.
To learn more about Cowden’s work, go to benjamincowden.com.