ANDREW SMITH DREAMS about finding old junk. In one recurring dream, he discovers an abandoned mill loaded with old gears and equipment. In another, there’s a barn full of wheels, gumball machines, and stoves. Some nights he’s wandering through a fantastic garage sale. In each of these dreams, he responds the same way: He can’t wait to get the stuff home.
Real life and dreams merge in Smith’s life. A resident of Lehi, Utah, Smith makes his living sculpting figures from scrap metal and machine parts. Some make noise, pump water, or chime the hour. One has a tornado inside it, created with a fan and a fountain mister. Most contain motors or serve practical functions like holding up lights, aquariums, or weathervanes. Each of them is one of a kind. And each begins with the arbitrary welding together of a few scraps or bolts.
His work is shown in numerous galleries, but also in places like the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Museum in Alexandria, Virginia. An exhibit, conceived of in connection with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, featured Smith’s art as a reflection of the theme: “Art of Invention: Invention of Art.” The largest piece in the show, a 40-foot-long kinetic work entitled Driving Force, sent power from a single motor through various turning wheels and pulleys across a wall of colorful shapes.
The piece turned heads as well, the museum-goers lingering to try to figure out how it worked. Children loved it, said Channing Huhn, manager of the museum store, and adults stood there, “just looking at the nuts and bolts of it and trying to understand how he came up with the concept.”
Smith sees his art as a bridge to people who might normally stroll right past a gallery but would stop to watch a ball roll down a track. “If I had a purpose or a reason or a meaning behind my art, it’s that there is no purpose or reason or meaning behind it. It’s just fun.”
Smith’s junk collection fills a 30-by-50-foot steel structure and the land surrounding it. The artist has organized his prize possessions into neat categories: piles of pipes of ascending diameter, containers of nuts and bolts, shelves stacked with vintage machine parts, and drawers labeled everything from ‘bottle caps’ to ‘pieces of the Berlin wall.’ If Smith needs a particular element for a project, he knows where to look. At the very worst, he admits, he occasionally has to hunt through a bin of small parts for just the right one, but this is cathartic for the artist, who recalls with fondness the old wooden Lego box of his childhood. “It’s a total flashback when I pull a bin out that’s just full of bits and pieces of sewing machines and typewriters and parts and bolts, and I’m just digging through looking for whatever the right little shape is going to be.”
Smith rarely begins with a preconceived notion of how a project will turn out. He doesn’t sketch or plan. “It’s more or less just starting and letting the artwork grow as I build it,” he says. “It’s almost more organic than mechanical in the way it works.”
Smith gets his materials from a variety of sources: scrap metal yards, antique stores, old mines, dismantled factories, farms, etc. Sometimes he’ll drive several times past something interesting—like a big rusty tank out in a field—before finally knocking on the landowner’s door to ask for it. “Much of the junk is totally pointless and very boring,” says Smith. But some items have a history, like the huge copper kettles from an old candy factory he included in the Moon Pool water piece for the Springville Museum of Art, or the metal boiler parts he excavated from a riverbed in Ophir, Utah, and used for the torso of a giant metal man. For Driving Force, the piece at the patent office museum in Virginia, he scavenged several of the gears out of equipment once used on a farm in Highland, Utah.
Since his primary intention is artistic rather than environmental, Smith says he doesn’t consider himself a “green” artist. But it does give him pleasure to save unique things and incorporate them into art that can be appreciated and seen by more people. “Rather than getting melted down and recycled or going to a landfill, the junk becomes new, gets a new purpose, a new life,” he says.
SMITH DID NOT INTEND to become an artist, even though his father, Dennis Smith, is a successful sculptor. Growing up, Andrew struggled in school and felt boxed in by social expectations. “If anything,” he says, “the only thing I wanted was to not have to grow up and not have to be a responsible adult.” Not surprisingly, the one high school class that captivated the future kinetic sculptor was physics; the experiments sent the wheels in his head turning like no textbook ever had.
Following graduation, Smith took a few art classes in college and dabbled in film, but the turning point came in the year 2000. Smith had been tinkering around in his father’s studio, using the tools to assemble pieces from found materials when something “started to click,” he says. “I like this!” One project led to another and the following year, Smith submitted a rolling-ball piece entitled Bearing See in the Springville Museum of Art’s Spring Salon. He remembers arriving with the large work and feeling somewhat embarrassed by its size and eccentricity. “All the other artists were just bringing in their artworks and setting them down. And me, I’m spending half the day setting this thing up and filling it with water … it was the biggest monstrosity.” Bearing See used 1-inch ball bearings that, once taken to the top, followed seven different routes to the bottom. It resembled a steamer ship topped with three large acrylic “smokestacks” filled with colored water and rising bubbles. The whole thing was powered by three gear motors and an air compressor for the water effects.
Bearing See went on to win the museum’s director’s award. “It was at that point I realized that I would probably do what my dad had done and make a living doing it,” Smith says.
Smith’s father Dennis can’t help sounding proud. He calls his son a “seat-of-the-pants physicist,” and describes a typical Andrew Smith creation as something “halfway between a tree house and a computer.” Andrew sees his art (and himself) as a blend of his father’s poetical sensibilities with his mother Veloy’s more pragmatic personality.
SMITH HAS LARGELY TAUGHT HIMSELF the necessary skills of his trade: metal work, welding, engineering, elementary plumbing, and basic electrical wiring. Even his more aesthetic choices come less from the mind of a serious artist than the heart of a boy still playing around with building blocks. “I have a very limited art knowledge,” Smith says unapologetically. “I feel like much of modern art is so heavy and so political, it’s almost like you have to be part of the elite to understand it … There’s a huge disconnection between the general public and the art world.”
Ironically, Smith’s sense of playfulness makes his art appealing to more serious gallery patrons as well. Alan Singer, an art collector who owns and displays several of Smith’s pieces in his homes in Deer Valley, New York, and Miami, says, “I buy things that make me feel good and Andrew’s work just makes me feel good … It’s deep but light. It’s thoughtful but not burdensome. It’s energetic but not exhausting.” The first thing to greet you upon entering Singer’s home in Deer Valley is a 6-foot metal man carrying a lamp. “He lights the way,” Singer says of this Smith sculpture. “He sets the tone for the house.”
Being childlike is easy for Smith. Some day, he plans to use his junk to build the ultimate kid playhouse in his backyard. He’s saving some of his favorite finds, like the helicopter rides from the old Saratoga Springs amusement park and the boiler he’ll turn into a submarine with odd gauges and knobs. He claims it will be for his kids but concedes it’s likely more for himself.
UVU Artist Series