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A man of many automata

Graphic designer creates kinetic sculpture with something to say


Bob Holcombe can find inspiration in something as simple as a mailbox.

"When I drive, I tend to take old highways or back roads, and you may see a mailbox that someone has created with random objects," said Holcombe, a graphic designer for the department of communications at K-State. "Folk art is what inspires me. The artists aren't necessarily trained, but they have something to say."

Bob Holcombe's 'Normal'When Holcombe's not making graphic design materials for K-State Research and Extension, the Louisiana native finds creative release in painting and designing automata, a type of kinetic sculpture. Automata usually employ a hand-cranked mechanism to animate a scene. Holcombe also collects and restores power tools from the 1920s and '30s.

Holcombe received a master's degree in fine arts from Illinois State in 1982, but after graduation he didn't make any art for 20 years.

After some positive life changes and finding particular inspiration from Helen Brockman, the 105-year-old Manhattan resident who is a fashion designer, retired professor and author, Holcombe began creating art again in 2002. He started painting still lifes, several of which have been displayed at the Strecker-Nelson Gallery.

"His still lifes are quite exquisite," said Jay Nelson, co-owner of the Strecker-Nelson. "They are simple, straight-forward compositions. There may be a painting of an oak leaf on an aluminum pie plate, but there is an underlying sophistication and reference to art history."

Holcombe has garnered the most attention for his automata, which are wry and whimsical, interesting and subversive.

If the pieces' statements aren't clear to every viewer, "they are evident to me," Holcombe said, "and that's what matters."

"He has a uniqueness of vision," Nelson said. "These pieces may seem like 'naive art,' yet it's obvious from the manner in which they are done that they are pretty sophisticated."

Bob Holcombe's 'Listening and Not Listening'For one piece, "Normal," Holcombe sculpted a human heart -- complete with ventricles and an aorta - and mounted it on a wooden box with cranks on either side. When the crank on the side labeled "normal" is turned, the sound is that of a healthy heart. When the crank labeled "danger" is turned, the heartbeat is off-kilter.

"I wanted to make a statement about the over-consumption that seems to be characteristic of current American culture," Holcombe said.

Holcombe has created about 40 automata since 2002.

Since he began creating automata, Holcombe has noticed that his life has improved.

"I find that I get crabby if I'm not doing this," he said. "It keeps me busy and keeps my mind sharp. Creativity is an outlet, and we all need a creative outlet."


Photos: Bob Holcombe's automata include "Listening and Not Listening," a comment on people's tendency to hear what they want to, and "Normal," which produces a healthy or unhealthy heartbeat, depending on which crank is turned. Some of his inspiration for forms comes from educational props of the 1930s.