Automatons Keep Gears Turning In D.C. Artist's Brain During The Pandemic : Coronavirus Updates An artist in Washington, D.C., who got laid off during the pandemic, fills his days by making automatons — mechanical sculptures that come to life with the turn of a crank.
NPR logo

Automatons Keep Gears Turning In D.C. Artist's Brain During The Pandemic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/926051654/926051655" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Automatons Keep Gears Turning In D.C. Artist's Brain During The Pandemic

Automatons Keep Gears Turning In D.C. Artist's Brain During The Pandemic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/926051654/926051655" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NOEL KING, HOST:

An artist in Washington, D.C., lost his job because of the pandemic, so he went into his workshop to find order and comfort. He's been making automatons. These are mechanical figurines that come to life when you crank them. Here is his postcard from quarantine.

DON BECKER: My name is Don Becker, and I am 57 years old. I was working as a scenic painter for an events company. I got laid off. No crowds, so no events.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: An automata (ph) is a mechanical sculpture, anything you sort of turn with a crank to get things to move. You know, it's a watchmaker, clockmaker sort of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: What I've got here is a little woodcutter who is standing in front of some trees. And he's got his axe all ready to go. When you turn the cranks, he starts to turn. And as he turns, his ax comes for the tree. And right before the ax hits the tree, the tree bends out of the way, so he misses. Well, he's going to give it another shot. Whoa - tree does the same thing again. At this point, the third tree, which is sort of standing off the side, the limb comes down and knocks him on the head. So a little tree payback, so to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: I like to make my automata with all the guts seen, all the little gears and all the levers and cams right there so you can actually watch it. If you just see a little man standing on a platform jumping up and down, it's like, OK, yeah, that's kind of fun. But I think seeing the gears and the very - you know, because it takes a lot of time to make it all work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: A little guy in a straight jacket, and he's in a little padded cell. And when you turn the crank, he flips back and forth trying to beat himself all around the padded cell. I find it most humorous (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: You are telling a little story, a little vignette. There's a quote from an automaton maker in England, something along the lines is that automata is jokes for people with short attention spans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: This is a new little guy here standing on a platform with a mask on, so when you turn the crank, he then drops the mask from his face. And just as he does that, this giant coronavirus will then come out of nowhere and just squish him completely down to a little pile of goo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: It's nothing for me to just be in my studio eight to 10 hours a day, and I don't even have a clock in my studio (laughter). That's the knock on the door from my wife saying, are you going to be in there all night? Have you eaten anything? She's the timekeeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BECKER: I just make them for myself. I have sold them in the past. But at this point, I just make it because I just think it's fun and a great way to spend the time as I'm finding ways to deal with time on my hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: That's Don Becker. He's an artist who makes automatons in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.