A former abstract painter, Eliza Twichell now turns her attention to creating automata, which are mechanized creatures and scenes. Her new installation at Axle Contemporary, “Ask the Honest Oracle,” opens in the mobile gallery’s van on March 9.
“Ask the Honest Oracle” consists of three life-size pieces. At the center of the exhibit is the Honest Oracle, a six-foot tall figure bolted to the wall that’s made out of a 1’ x 12’ board, plywood and paint. Visitors can ask him a question and get an answer by turning a crank.
Twichell also has constructed two talking heads, complete with moveable gears and levers. One figure is incessantly talking, while the other rolls its eyes in disgust. The third piece is a thought bubble. Visitors sit in a chair, ask a question and turn a crank to see words on stretched canvas attached to a wood frame.
“I have always been a tinkerer, always been curious about how things work, and I like to fix things,” explains Twichell, who earned a master of fine arts degree at Pratt Institute in New York.
“As a kid I loved those Easter eggs you could peer into, advent calendars, dioramas at museums and glass paperweights with mysterious galaxies of colors and swirls.
“I think building little scenes are grounding for me,” she adds. “My childhood was a little unstable, so controlling a little bit of the environment- the movements, characters and such- is very satisfying.”
For the past 15 years Twichell has been building interactive things in wood. “The ideas come from my experience as one more quirky human on the planet,” she says. “I figure if I think something is funny, awkward, poignant or scary, someone else will too. I love to use animals in my pieces, because I think animals keep us honest.”
Twichell describes the problem-solving aspect of the automata as challenging and infuriating. She’ll draw up plans for the mechanism in detail, make changes and then make more changes.
“When I start to construct it, I run into problems I didn’t foresee and have to make even more changes,” she explains.
“When I finally get the thing to work the way I want, it’s a moment of relief and celebration.”