Neil Hardy – Automata

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Automata is one of the few crafts that has not originated from a practical need, like pottery or glass. Its purpose has always been to fascinate, intrigue and more recently give a sense of fun and whimsy.  I have tried to make pieces that basically make you feel happy to own, that do not take themselves too seriously, and do not require great aesthetic taste to appreciate. They should have no practical value apart from making you smile. They are like a film cartoon, something that takes skill and considerable time to make but with the sole purpose of amusing you.  I like the idea that something that often takes weeks to design and make for the first time is ultimately something so silly and pointless. With this in mind I like to show all the intricacies of the mechanics, the way in which it is put together and that there are no short cuts using motors, electronics or specialised materials. You turn a handle and things happen. You can see how each movement is created individually but the end result should be slightly magical, unexpected and whimsical.


New ideas come slowly for me and it is a question of sitting down with sheets of paper and just doodling until something comes along.  I have to take time to sit down and really concentrate on finding new ideas. It is probably the hardest thing I have to do and is just plain hard work.  As all my work is with animals, I often look through animal books and videos of their movements to look for ideas. The mechanical side too is as important and has to be considered along side the initial idea, and only when both come together can the work proceed.   Inspiration is important and can come from anywhere. A new work might come from a joke, a particular animal’s look, or an interesting mechanism. It’s important to have the inspiration to start the work. The actual realisation of the piece though takes many hours of sorting out the practical problems of designing the mechanism, finding a simple method to make the piece and making sure it’s fairly foolproof when the handle is turned by others.  

I worked as an architect for many years before stumbling on automata and felt this was something I could do better. I have always made things from an early age and gone through a few crafts before finding automata suited my talents in particular. In the past I have made and sold pottery, stained glass, and water colour painting.  I would really consider myself a maker rather than an artist. My work is as much about how a thing looks as about how it is made. Automata is a complicated craft as and has to actually ‘work’ rather than just look good. I am never too sure about whether any of the things I have done are artistically good, but I do know my automata works! I think that’s why I found this craft suited me best as it is not quite as subjective as many arts.

Most of my work is repeated as it is the only way to keep the costs down. It would be totally unreasonable to try to sell just one of pieces as the time taken to develop each piece is far longer than making a piece that is tried and tested. Having said that I believe repeating pieces does perfect them too. They very slowly evolve, become more precise, work more smoothly, and become less cluttered. My work is better after I have made it a hundred times or so!  I have never really marketed my work that much. Fortunately galleries have come to me through word of mouth generally. If I did not rely on the money to make a living I would like to make larger more complex pieces for museums.  But even so, in a world of high tech machines and gadgets there is still a wonder for the hand made piece. In fact I think the more stuff that is factory mass produced the more desire there is for the hand made.  It does though become relatively more expensive as the mass produced products become cheaper.

My wish would be to produce a few great pieces that were seen as the pinnacle of automata making. Also, there are so many new materials out there now that I have no real knowledge about. Skill in plastics and resin would be interesting I think.  I work from home in the basement to my house with a window looking out my garden. My cat comes and sits on the window ledge sometimes and life seems good.
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