Bill McKenney - Retro Robots
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Art America - Video Feature - Skip to 14:00
Like a toy maker from the Island of Misfit Toys, William McKenney creates assemblages from antiques, discarded kitchen items, and odds and ends he picks up from thrift stores, flea markets and eBay sales.
To be clear, the objects he creates aren't toys — in fact, he wouldn't recommend them for kids younger than 8, as some parts could be hazardous — but they do have the sort of charm and quirky personality found in the best handmade toys or in whimsical sculptures. They appeal to children and adults alike, and the artist makes a point of welcoming his younger customers when he attends art fairs.
"In my show, I have a cookie tin. I've taken old funny objects and put magnets on them, and when the kids come into my booth, … I'll invite them to help me create a little robot right on a two-dimensional cookie tin," he said. "It's been fun. It's been a big hit."
People have often suggested that he make several of these to sell. "I think that's already been done — it was called 'Mr. Potato Head,' " he joked.
McKenney has an online presence, with an Etsy storefront and both a Facebook page and Flickr feed dedicated to his work — dubbed Bill's Retro Robots. Each of the objects is a true individual, grown from his imagination and the artifacts he assembles; something like the soul-imbued hand-crafted main character — a small robot with big spirit — of the 2009 animated film "9" produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov.
McKenney began making these objects just a few years ago and said he has been attending art and craft fairs for the past year and a half or so — but the creative drive to make them draws from several aspects of his life. Members of his mother's side of the family were creative, he said, including his grandfather, who invented "machinery to manufacture cereal boxes and cans and things like that." His father's family were fishermen and carpenters.
McKenney himself spent years making treehouses and play houses and worked as a commercial fisherman for more than a decade. His old boat often broke down, and he had to repair it himself with whatever useful objects were on hand. This instilled in him the habit of looking for the potential of an object, rather than its original intended purpose, but McKenney was no stranger to using his imagination.
"When I was a child, I always looked at pencil sharpeners and thought they looked like penguins," he recalled. "I like to tell people it just took me 50 years to figure out I needed to make penguins. But at the same time, I saw other artists doing similar things with old junk and antiques, and I said, 'I get that.' I could see myself doing my own characters."
Narrative is an important part of the process for McKenney. He imagines motivations and actions for his characters and hopes to communicate that through his work. "It is really hard for artists, sometimes, to tell a story through art," he said, noting that, of course, the artist knows the story, but it's often difficult to convey it to an audience visually.
His wife adds names and written copy to the work he posts online, to prompt viewers' imaginations. "I love it when people look and get it — it's like we've connected somehow," he added.
And this desire to tell stories through his work is, like his creative drive, a thread drawn from the fabric of his life. He grew up in a family of storytellers, "part of my father's side," he said. "The fishermen would sit around a wood stove when I was a little kid and tell incredible stories about their adventures fishing, hunting and being out in nature. That's one thing I try to do. … I remember these stories, and I try to put mine in each and every piece if I can."
Article - Columbia Tribune.