College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Art inMotion

Physics-alum-turned-artist builds kinetic sculptures powered by wood and springs

By Lara Ehrlich ✺ Photos by Pat Piasecki

The only sound in David C. Roy’s gallery is the melodic click of wood on wood as his sculptures swoop and swirl in hypnotic patterns. Two gull-like figures glide around one another in Frolic, while bowed fans give the illusion of latticework unfolding and collapsing in on itself in Labyrinth.

The pieces are self-powered, sustaining their movement through mechanics the Connecticut-based sculptor developed by drawing upon his study of physics and interest in engineering. “I was fascinated by the pendulum swinging inside the clock,” says Roy (CAS’74). “I wanted to make motion.”

Roy inherited his aptitude for mechanics from his father, a jet engine designer. “I can look at machines and understand them very quickly,” he says. When he is ready to transform his pieces from dream to design, he sketches them in Adobe Illustrator, animates models in After Effects, and finally cuts and assembles the pieces in his workshop.

“I kind of know how they’re going to work, and then engineering is getting specific; it’s finding the right materials and techniques,” he says. Roy starts with processed wood from a birch tree that grows only along the Baltic Sea (it’s more stable and solid than American plywood). His process involves inventing parts along the way, like the brass weights he developed to balance his sculptures’ wooden wheels. Depending on size and complexity, each sculpture is composed of dozens—if not hundreds—of components. A recent work, Evolution, has about 65 pieces, including 24 wooden parts, a few plastic spacers and washings, and approximately 30 metal bearings, springs, screws, nuts, shafts, brass weights, and pins. On the other end of the spectrum, Roy’s most complex sculpture—Silver Symphony, a freestanding chime piece—has at least 300 parts.

In his Connecticut workshop, David C. Roy (CAS’74) designs and assembles the hundreds of pieces that make up his kinetic sculptures, including Solo (left) and Dimensions (right).

As a physics major with an engineering scholarship, Roy never gave art a second thought until he visited his childhood friend Marji, then a sculpture major at the Rhode Island School of Design—and now his wife of 42 years.

“I had no idea you could be an artist if you couldn’t draw,” Roy says. Through Marji’s work—specifically a wooden chain and gear wall sculpture that turned when cranked—he realized art was about more than sketching and painting. Roy was full of suggestions for how Marji could develop more efficient and exciting motion in her work, but she just gave him a smile and told him to make his own sculptures.

It would be a few years before Roy would take her up on the suggestion. After graduation, he worked as an insurance programmer, but was so bored, he quit after nine months. He began working with wood. Roy’s first product, Xylo, was a small tabletop piece reminiscent of a xylophone composed of wooden slats that revolved like propellers when set in motion. Roy’s work was popular at craft shows, but customers requested pieces that could run longer—Xylo spun unaided for about five seconds. He began to experiment, focusing on making sculptures he’d want to hang on his own walls.

The key to the motion in Roy’s kinetic sculptures is a spring he learned about during a side gig as an independent toy designer selling concepts—spinning airplanes, see-sawing clowns—to toy companies in the 1980s. (After about seven years, he became disenchanted with the final products the companies produced—too generic, he says—and prefers to manage the creative process from beginning to end.) A Playskool designer showed Roy a spring he kept in his office as a curiosity object. While it was too expensive for toys, the designer thought the spring might come in handy for powering Roy’s sculptures.

The spring was new to Roy, but its function appealed to the engineer in him. When wound around two small spools, the spring stores energy. In Roy’s sculptures, wheels and levers regulate the release of this energy, setting—and keeping—the works in motion.

A recent piece, Dimensions, features two wheels composed of curved spokes. The front wheel rotates clockwise, while the back wheel rotates counterclockwise, creating the impression of a trellised circle spinning into itself like a portal to another world. To set the sculpture in motion, Roy gives the back wheel a little push. It rotates until it loses steam and falls backward to rotate in the other direction. This change trips levers that release a small amount of energy stored in the spring, pushing the wheel back into its original rotation and keeping the sculpture moving without a hitch.

“All my pieces are the controlled release of energy,” Roy says. “The art is making the motion interesting.”

David C. Roy invents the specialized materials he needs to bring his visions to life, like the brass weights he developed to balance his sculptures’ wooden wheels. Once he has the engineering down, he goes through several redesigns to ensure each sculpture, such as Solo and Dimensions, is as aesthetic as it is kinetic. Video by Joe Chan

As Roy honed the mechanics, his sculptures began using energy more efficiently, and running longer. His early pieces swooped along for approximately 20 minutes, while Dimensions, his longest-running piece, moves continuously for 40 hours.

They’re running more quietly, too. In the beginning, his sculptures produced a noticeable “thunk.” Now, Roy has become adept at modifying the clicking of the wood and even creating soundless sculptures. “Getting things simple is much harder than making them complex,” he says. “You can do a lot of levers and things and it looks neat, but it’s inefficient.”

Once Roy has the engineering down, he has to think about how the pieces actually look on the wall. And paying attention to design presents its own challenges. For example, he is working on a new freestanding chime piece; while he already perfected the mechanics in a previous iteration—the 6-foot-tall Silver Symphony—he is trying to develop a smaller version that will fit comfortably in his home. “I have gone through several complete redesigns that would have worked mechanically, but didn’t look right,” he says. “This is an extreme case, but shows how solving the mechanical problem was relatively easy for me compared to making it into an aesthetically pleasing machine that still behaves as I’d like it to.”

Each piece needs so much testing and modification—some sculptures require as many as five major overhauls before Roy is satisfied with his creation—that he produces sculptures in limited editions so he can refine them and keep his prices reasonable for collectors. (“As a result, we have the most interesting-shaped kindling,” Marji says of his experimentations.) Roy has his customer in mind from the start; his mechanics are straightforward so anyone can take a sculpture out of the box, hang it up—and keep it running. “I’ll hear from people who have had them up for 25 years,” Roy says. “It feels good that they’re still working.”

What started in a craft show booth is now an international business. Roy’s sculptures have been displayed in science and art museums, art galleries, and corporate and private collections around the world. Customers find his work through word of mouth, his website (woodthatworks.com), and YouTube videos; some grew up with one of his sculptures and saved up for their own. For “many people we sell to, it’s the only piece of art they have purchased or will ever purchase,” Marji says. “We like that a lot.”

“This was always a shoestring operation,” Roy says of his career. When he started out, his only goal was to stay out of debt. “If I was going to do this, it had to support us,” he says. “I wasn’t going to be a starving artist. I wasn’t going to work as an engineer during the day and do this on the weekends.”

The couple has not only managed to remain debt-free, but built a house and gallery/workshop, raised two daughters, and sustained a four-decade marriage and business partnership.

Roy’s pieces are as familiar to his children and grandchildren as a favorite chair (“They think everybody’s grandpa does this,” Marji says), but to the uninitiated—and even longtime collectors—his softly clicking sculptures propelled by nothing more than wood and springs are feats of engineering art.