Mechanamorphic SculptureThe Kinetic Art of Wm. Dubin


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In the late 1960's, having finished a day’s work in the studio, I went to the local magazine store, and, while looking at a group of model railroad magazines, I found my first issue of Model Engineer. Thus began a series of events which led to the sculptures pictured in this article.

I was a sculptor, working in hard woods at the time, but I was aware that I was missing something which carving wood didn’t offer. I understood this when I saw the photo’s of finished models and the plans for building them in M.E. What I was missing, was precision. This awareness effected me in a profound way.

Within 6 weeks, I had purchased a metal lathe and a few accessories. Fortunately, this came with a very good manual, as I had no idea what to do with this tool. A fellow sculptor with whom I shared a warehouse, constructed a metal table for my lathe, helped me level it, and gave me my only lesson in its use.

The first pieces I built had very little to do with steam engines. They were abstract and very organic, with only a vague machine reference. After building 4 or 5 of these, I realized that the closer I came to an actual steam engine, the more successful visually the sculpture would be. This led to the construction of two pieces, an untitled engine with a square tube boiler, followed by “Ophelia”, a horizontal mill engine mounted on four front columns with a single large rear one. “Ophelia” was the first to be kinetic, she had a small motor in her base, and two leather belts which went from it to pulleys on her crankshaft. Both sculptures were exhibited in San Francisco in 1972.


This question goes to the heart of what I do. I am a sculptor . When I construct something, it is specifically to make “art”. While my sculptures have a great deal in common with model engineering, it is with the process of model engineering, rather than the end results. My sculptures are a way for me to express my ideas and reactions to the world I live in and to my experience of that world. Each piece I construct constantly evolves as my reactions to what I’ve just built alters my ideas of what I’d like the final piece to look like. This is very different from model engineering, where the adherence to a specific prototype dictates most, if not all of the final appearance of the model. This is not to say that model engineering isn’t artistic, quite the contrary. I continually see models which are amazingly artistic, however the intent of the model engineer is to closely resemble a prototype, not to create art. It is in this intent that the two differ.

There are exceptions to this position of intent, (aren't there always?) While this occurs with many examples of model engineering, I think it seems to happen most often in the work of Cherry Hill. This exception occurs when the model engineer constructs with a conscious emphasis on an aesthetic, that results in work that goes beyond engineering , into making each part a uniquely beautiful object. In my sculpture, I utilize visually realistic engineering to the degree that my personal aesthetic requires it. In Cherry Hill’s work, the first requirement is the engineering itself, but in looking at pictures of her work in progress, you immediately become aware of her visual aesthetic as well.

This postulates two levels of engineering: the first, an aesthetic based engineering; the second, one in which the engineering does not go beyond function. In the first example, the finished piece compliments the prototype, but goes past the visual impact the prototype would make. This quality is elusive, but it exists and can be easily seen in the best work of model engineering and the fine arts.

What happens in these pieces, is a meeting of creativity, craftsmanship and a highly evolved personal aesthetic of beauty combining to produce a category unique to both model engineering and sculpture.


I come from the time period in art (the 1950’s) when Abstract Expressionism defined my creative experience. Nothing could be further from the process of precision required to construct either a well engineered model or my sculpture. I reached a compromise with my requirements for creative freedom versus the need for precision, by not relying on a blueprint or set of plans to follow. Instead I make decisions as I go along. My method is to sketch an idea based on the machine’s configuration: mill engine, beam engine, etc. Once I have a basic idea, I move to the computer, where I use a drawing program, Corel Draw. Corel allows an intuitive approach to drawing, rather than the mechanistic feel of a CAD program. It also utilizes shading for dimensional roundness and the ability to use shadows. The sculpture is further refined on the computer until I have a clear idea of its general shape. This drawing will continue to change as the piece is constructed. I try to record the evolution of my ideas in this drawing. The drawing of “Persephone”, which is based on the Bodmer sliding cylinder engine serialized in Model Engineer, demonstrates the point at which I started the sculpture.

The first parts built are the floor, which I think of as a landscape. You will notice I use a lot of rivets. Rivets allow two things to happen, they are excellent fasteners, and they provide visual reference points for the eye to follow. Once the landscape is complete, I build the entablature and the columns that support it. It is these columns which differ so much from any prototype, there is noway an engine of this size could operate on “legs” this skinny and not vibrate itself to pieces. But here is one of those instances where the difference between model engineering (following correct engineering principals) and art diverge. As a sculpture, there is less need for principals of engineering than for principals of aesthetics. Fortunately, the builders of many early steam engines allowed their imaginations to go wild, specially in the beam engines, so I have some prototype examples to work from.

The last parts made are the mechanical ones, the crank, rods, shafts, valve systems, etc. I have it easy here. My piston rod goes through a gland, but there’s no need for a piston inside the cylinder. The same is true for the valve, it isn’t there. In all other ways, my sculpture utilizes the same working parts as you would expect to find on an actual engine. Oh, one other difference, (I finish my sculptures by using chemical patinas instead of paint. I think of my pieces as) artifacts, left by another, older culture, abandoned on some unknown landscape where they exist as enigmatic objects. The patina’s enrich this concept.


My tools are identical with those used by model engineers, with the possible exception that I might use more tools specific to jewelers. I have a Sherline lathe and milling machine with DRO, and a Sakai ML 360 lathe for larger parts. I think of these tools as part of my creative process. I use them for creating in real time: for example turning the decorative elements on a column. This is done free form, moving the tool bit in an out until I get a shape I’m happy with. What I want, is to let the shape simply ‘happen’, to develop it with as much spontaneity as I can. This makes it a bit difficult to duplicate parts. It’s important to me, that the freedom to create the shape independent of a plan remains primary. Of course it is also necessary that a shape be made to fit, but this aspect is secondary to my process. The spontaneity being the primary goal.

This brings up craftsmanship. In art school at the time I attended, craftsmanship was considered the enemy of creativity. The belief being that you can’t have both spontaneity and craftsmanship. Obviously this isn’t true, but it does present a difficult contradiction to work through. My solution has been to increase my technical abilities with each new sculpture, by pushing myself in areas I’ve not tried yet.


There are a handful of important artists who have contributed to my direction, and it might be helpful in understanding my sculpture if I briefly mention them. Of great importance is Marcel Duchamp, who in paintings like “The Bride” (1912) interchanged mechanistic parts with biological parts in ways that suggested new species, neither human nor machine. Roberto Matta took these ideas and transferred them to a science fiction realm (outer space) where they engaged in horrific mechanical combat. Jean Tinguely built actual machines, assembled from junk parts with motors and wheels that moved and ended their existence in acts of self destruction. These artists influenced me before I started this series of sculptures. After building my first machines, I saw the work of Don Potts, a San Francisco sculptor. Don constructed a series called “My First Car”. These were about 3/4 scale dragsters, each slightly different, but all based on a “master” Car. These sculptures were totally unique at the time.What I saw in Potts’ “Car”, was the fact that something could reference the idea of a prototype, but not be a model of it. His sculpture was no more a “dragster” (even though one version contained a drone aircraft engine and radio controlled movement), than my sculptures were steam engines. They are alterations. This awareness has allowed me to get closer to a prototype steam engine while maintaining a critical distance from both the prototype and the idea of a model.


“Mouchette” started from my fascination with the Side Rod Engine, described by Stan Bray in Model Engineer, 1987. The more interesting points of this engine were crossed with ideas from the Stuart Turner mill engine “Victoria”. The sculpture resembles neither engine. “Mouchette” gave me the opportunity to put lagging around the cylinder. I used 1/4 inch wide brass strips, milled a 1/8 inch decorative channel in it, and attached each to the cylinder using 00-90 screws. “Mouchette” also has an overhead lamp based very loosely on an overhead gantry, and a very oddly designed line shaft with work pulleys. “Mouchette” is a fast engine. She runs from an approximate 35 RPM up to 250 RPM.

“Medusa”, started from a desire to build a diagonal engine, based on the advertisement from Reeves. Something got crossed up in the drawing I did for her, and I ended up adding a horizontal section. This required elevating the piece, and I got interested in the problem of descending columns on a slant. About the time I figured this out, I got the pamphlet published on the ‘Robey’ engines, and immediately knew I had to adapt “Medusa” to a bevel gear driven shaft with ‘drop valves’. Of course the ‘drop valves’ aren't there, but the four tiny eccentrics are, and they do work, the illusion of a drop valve system survives. Having gone that far, I found I had room for a feed pump, which I added, and then decided to add a boiler. Of course the boiler is just an illusion, there’s nothing inside. Of interest perhaps was my solution for seeing “water” in the water gauge. I used a piece of 3/16 inch silver wire, which catches reflections exactly like glass and water do.

“Babette”, is my second attempt at constructing a table engine based loosely on the “James Coombes” engine. My first attempt worked, I did everything correctly, but the thing was plainly ugly. It’s hard to describe, but everything about the engine I had designed was visually wrong. The word ‘clunky’ describes it best. This sculpture was disassembled a few hours after it was completed, and a few of its parts were used in other pieces. The rest remain as a reminder. What this taught me was an odd lesson. I had designed this sculpture with principals of engineering in mind: would the entablature hold up on thin columns, or did it require thicker ones? This type of thinking is absolute for an engineer, but I’m an artist, and the question had little meaning. As a result, Babette’s entablature stands on very thin columns, but one’s that visually compliment the sculpture. With “Babette”, I wanted to try an experiment I had been thinking about for awhile. Part of my interest in the steam engine is based on my reaction to the erotic content I feel is inherent when seeing the engine in motion. I had purposely used longer crank webs and longer connecting rods to accentuate this, and, to take it even further,I felt that if I slowed down the speed to a crawl, the effect would heighten the eroticism, and add a nearly hypnotic tone to the sculpture. Using gearing, and a very slow motor, I brought “Babette” to a speed of 5 RPM and a top end of approximately 35 RPM. This is so successful visually, that I’m planning on “Persephone” running at one quarter RPM. This awareness of the erotic content I feel with the steam engine, is purely personal, however it is a necessary element to the understanding of my art.

“Babette” is named for my Grandmother, who was my introduction to the elegance of the Victorian period. As an elegant sculpture, she required elegant materials be used, and so I added decorative pieces of sterling silver. This works very well with the steel and polished flywheel rim. “Babette” is the most complex sculpture I’ve built to date, she required nearly a year of work to complete.


For the artist, it is crucial to maintain a necessary balance between technical achievement and creative content. My sculptures share both these qualities, and holding an equilibrium between them is the most difficult part of what I do. Each new image I devise requires a machining technique to produce it in such a fashion as to not overwhelm it, and yet allow it to function. The trick, I believe, is to take these two realities, and to create a third, totally unique conception from them. It is this unique conception that my sculpture is finally about.

Wm Dubin

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