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Going Mobile



Published March 17, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

What is it about mobiles that holds our attention? Is it the gentle, seemingly random movement, the sense of floating in space? Sure, these features both stimulate and soothe, which probably explains why mobiles are often foisted upon newborns. Aside from purely visual appeal, though, these suspended artworks seem to offer a deeper satisfaction, a quality we can never quite grasp in our messy, mercurial lives: perfect balance.

The intangible aspects of mobiles have not escaped Gordon Auchincloss, but, unlike the rest of us, this 34-year-old artist actually makes them. He thinks less about metaphor than physics. "I look at artwork not really thinking of why but how," Auchincloss says, "the mechanical aspect of how it works that way." Evidence of this interest -- steel, aluminum, paper, Plexiglas and stone -- is scattered around his Stowe workshop.

Many of his creations look exactly like what the word "mobile" brings to mind: flat metal discs that float on several horizontal planes, suspended from interconnected wires. Some are simply wire, bent gracefully into a sort of 3-D genealogy chart. On his free-standing kinetic sculptures, there might be only one fulcrum from which a wire weighted on either end can move freely 360 degrees. Talk about a balancing act.

While all artists have the ability to see what isn't there -- the potential of an empty canvas, an uncarved block of granite -- for Auchincloss the creative process literally begins in thin air. "Whenever I walk into a space, it speaks to me," he says. That was precisely his reaction not long ago to a new Waterbury restaurant called The Alchemist. As soon as he saw the interior, Auchincloss said to himself, "‘I want to put something here.'"

That "something" is currently under construction, along with a half-dozen other mobiles, in the double garage of the artist's West Hill Road home. There are no cars in sight but instead an anvil, a welder, a gas forger and other tools both modern and antique. Sheets of metal wait their turn on the cutting table, while other pieces have already been transformed into flat discs or twisted curlicues. One work is a large commission for a Virginia restaurant whose art budget is $15,000. A number of mobiles will go to the West Branch Gallery in Stowe -- Auchincloss has sold five works there this winter -- and others will be "trades" with friends.

Some of the mobiles are tabletop models of stone and metal. Larger works might weigh several hundred pounds. Auchincloss produces a photograph of his biggest work to date: an outdoor sculpture with red horizontal discs. Its "wingspan" is 30 feet by 15. Experiencing the heft of these elements before they become airborne and seemingly weightless is rather like visiting a toyshop and seeing the unmagical body parts of dolls. When it comes to mobiles, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

Evidence of his artistic labors over the past decade is scattered around the rest of the house, which Auchincloss shares with his wife Melissa, their 14-month-old son Gardner and a Clumber Spaniel named Charlie. The collective open space of the kitchen-dining-living-room is a veritable gallery: Various mobile models hang from the ceiling, their slight movements enticing you to look again and again. Other models sit on tables, toys for grown-ups begging to be touched. Wire figurines appear where you least expect them -- an "old banjo man" watches over a stack of plates in the cupboard.

The whimsical wire pieces represent Auchincloss' earliest forays into art making. A couple years after the Connecticut native graduated from New England College in 1991, he headed to Montana for a stint of western living. Anticipating automotive repairs on the cross-country trip, he took along a spool of wire, which he began coaxing into human and animal shapes. After seven months, Auchincloss returned east and landed a job at Shelburne Farms teaching environmental education and sustainable agriculture. "That was when I began making the wire mobiles," he recalls. In 1995 he moved to Stowe, settled on real estate for a day job, and kept "dabbling" with art.

Anyone who makes kinetic sculpture draws inevitable comparisons to Alexander Calder, the great 20th-century artist who allegedly first applied the word "mobiles" to his moving creations. Auchincloss unabashedly traces his artistic inspiration back to an experience at the late Calder's home in Connecticut. The estate's caretaker was a friend who invited him to visit. "I spent the night because we got hammered by an ice storm," he says. "There were big sculptures all over the grounds. That was the defining moment, looking at the balance and harmony of the work. When I was out in Montana, I was continually thinking of that experience and wanted to make something like it. Now it's my passion."

Rather than spend money on art school, Auchincloss has forged his idiosyncratic skills over the years by learning from other Vermont craftsmen, including metal artist Bruce MacDonald in Burlington, and blacksmith Richard Spreda and sculptor Chris Curtis of Stowe. Co-owner of the West Branch Gallery, Curtis first discovered Auchincloss' works hanging in a local store. "I liked the whimsy; thought it was joyful," he says. "I liked the simplicity, the motion. . . He's daring to follow in the footsteps of Calder. . . and I think it's good."

Auchincloss isn't bothered by Calder's towering precedence in the world of mobiles. After all, if no one ever wanted to build on someone else's idea, human creativity would have fizzled out a very long time ago. "Certainly they've been done -- Calder made every conceivable shape," Auchincloss says. "But to stop because of that would be cutting myself short."

Besides, he's having too much fun. Auchincloss himself is a work in progress: Though he still does independent contracting for ironwork or custom lighting, he's "warehoused" the real-estate license. "Primarily my time is working on pieces commissioned by designers," he says. That, and learning how to market and sell his apparently endless ideas. For example, he's designed and patented a nifty little stainless-steel bottle opener that fits nicely in the palm of your hand -- a testament to a burgeoning interest in industrial design.

In addition to the West Branch, Auchincloss has sold smaller pieces through other outlets in Stowe and at Frog Hollow, and has works in private collections around the country. Prices range from a couple hundred bucks to "upwards of $20,000." Rather than add galleries, though, he's interested in pursuing the giant projects commissioned by the "corporate-commercial world," he says.

"I'm eager to push the limits," Auchincloss reflect. "Finding the balance, the fluidity, the potential for how things will change." He pauses and looks up at the white-painted spirals of a mobile overhead. "Look," he says, amazed even though he created the illusion himself: "When you're under it, it looks like ripples of water."