The day was a swarm of gray clouds, a velvety urban humidity rolling inaudibly over the somnolent city. Driving up the City Road, we stop just before reaching Hamilton House, in front of this purple painted house adorned with a delicately hand painted flowering bush in a true Bristolian fashion. Eyeing the nebulous landscape overhead, we knock, wait patiently, and a few seconds later the pale blue door creaks open and there appears Jack, welcoming us in high spirits. We shake hands and exchange smiles, and we are immediately swayed by his exuberant complexion and inquisitive receptiveness. Sitting down with Jack in the dimly lit kitchen, he started speaking urgently and passionately, opening up about how everything started in his father’s garage and how he grew up surrounded by a family of makers and crafters who encouraged him to learn and discover through deconstruction and reconstruction.
It is indeed difficult to pin down the precise qualities that constitute Jack’s expansive personality, and even harder to pigeonhole him into a specific artistic category. Mostly known as a “maker of things”, Jack calls himself an opifex, inventor, designer, artist, mechanic, craftsman, illustrator, signwriter, automata maker and baker, not necessarily in that order. Inspired by vintage European and American design, illustrations and products, as well as industrial machinery from 1910-1930, Jack creates highly sophisticated and ingenious machines, automata and toys in a flawless congruence of engineering and art, science and performance, technology and poetry.
Continuing our conversation about the complexity of his creative endeavours and the perks of breathing life into inanimate objects, Jack showed us his first motorised automaton, a robot named “The Craftsman”, and a cleverly designed mechanism called “The Cannonball Run”. We then headed to his studio at Loft 6D, where he gave us a tour of the place, introduced us to the “Banned Boy” ‒ one of his latest motorised characters ‒ and told us about Old World Mettle, his old-style commerce venture and his experiment in sustainability aimed at getting people interested in making, repairing and recycling. Building everything from scratch, Jack creates work that continues a long tradition of inspired invention and ingenuity, and is a refreshing reminder that the good old-fashioned mechanical toys and contraptions never lost their magic and are very much alive and functional in today’s digital age. And when we said our goodbyes with a hug and a warm handshake, we glanced at his hands for the last time, closely, furtively and intently, and saw the mirror of a curious soul, the tireless wings of a working man and the indispensable tools of a dreamer.
Who is Jack Stiling? What is your story?
Most know me as a maker of things, which I like. For a professional title I’ve tried: opifex, inventor, designer, artist, mechanic, craftsman, illustrator, signwriter, automata maker, baker. ‘Maker of things’ is a good resolute conclusion made by most after they’ve given up, including me.
Born into a family of three brothers, I was one in a bunch of artists, though we all did it differently. I chose the broncho heading down the penniless artist path and held on. It was my big brother that got me into bike mechanics; he’s still doing it 13 years later. ‘Discovery through disassembly’ was our unspoken motto, though we didn’t always get as far as putting things back together. It was my introduction to tinkering. A lot of BMX bikes, scratch built petrol racing cars, I remember an old engine was dragged back from the local allotment one time. Coupled with my dad’s fascination with steam fairs and locomotives and Mum’s ability to seemingly make or do anything, it was only a matter of time until I started to invent. Unfortunately for dad, it all started in his garage.
In education I was practising art and design technology in parallel, earning about the intricacies of expression alongside practical techniques. It was in the old fabrication workshop in college where my fascination with the hand-made began. I started absorbing skills, anything that would help me realise my current or future ideas. From that point I only got more ambitious. I made an arms-worth of steel armour after college and got a place on a contemporary crafts course in Falmouth. In those 3 years I was constantly pushing myself. I wanted to mix the complexity of art with the complexity of movement and mechanism. Developing my practise in a grey area, I was playing where the art world and traditional craft lock horns, so the tutors left me to it. For the final show I produced my first motorised automata, a robot named ‘The Craftsman’. It embodies 3 years of discoveries, failures and solid head-scratching. I loved it.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
There are loads. Pulling up to steam fairs with my head out of the window to smell the steam and coal. Walking around village and folk fayres. Playing with my brothers on three built-in lever-operated tractors in a sand pit. Walks with my mate and his dog in the neighbouring hill and fields. Once we spent all day battling gauss bushes and foliage down an old path to find a rusty truck, which was gone. I found some aviators though.
What was your all-time favourite toy as a child?
Airfix models… no, lego… nope, Mamods! yea, Mamods!
We’re curious to know more about your ingenious toys and automata. When and how did you start inventing them and what do you find fascinating about creating these peculiar 3D creatures and contraptions?
The automata work came into being at uni when I finally worked out how to make things move and keep moving for more than a few days. From a maker’s perspective, every single piece of an automaton poses a problem somewhere down the line and I’ve always liked a challenge, the more ridiculous the better. From an artist’s point of view, it is a perfect way of combining technology, engineering and arts that can interest people who ‘hate’ art or ‘don’t get it’. It communicates not only through sight, but motion, sound, texture. It is breathing life into the inanimate. I put them together, but it seems much of the time they make themselves.
Toys are a continuation of sculpture, but smaller, more tangible, more affordable. An added benefit is the sentimentality people have for toys, so it has an emotional connection to its audience too.
What are your major sources of inspiration?
It all depends on the project. I mean it’s everything essentially, how can it not be? There is so much… The overarching style comes from American and European design, illustrations and products and machines from 1910-1930 at the moment. I’m endlessly fascinated by animation, paper or stop frame and have a soft spot for illustrators, having nearly gone into it myself. Characters, people and stories, old or new are endless sources of inspiration. Just take a seat and crack out the sketchbook. I also love the things yet to be explained, dreams and ‘raw imagination’.
Tell us about your creative process. How do you go about developing an idea for a new piece? Do you make any preparatory sketches or studies?
I was always scorned for this in education. I draw, sometimes even technical drawings, but more often than not the initial sketch is no more than a doodle in my notepad. It’s funny really. I’ll agonise over things like tiny logos but when it comes to building a mechanically timed four mechanism piece, one sketch, an idea in my head and a lot of staring into the abyss seems to do it. The ideas have come from dreams, shanty songs, tales and rhymes. I’m just always thinking of the next project or the current one, of 5 ways to make that move, or what it would be like if that existed, or wouldn’t that be cool. It’s a kind of curse really, good thing I like it.
Tell us a bit about Old World Mettle, the next chapter in the story of Stiling’s Workshop.
Old World Mettle is my little experiment. It serves several purposes. Getting people interested in making, repairing, recycling and an old style of commerce. Disguising art and then taking it directly into the public eye as an undercover gallery. Or should that be out-of-cover? Opening up my practise, skills and mentality to collaboration with other artists and creating a platform for workshops, teaching and learning. And of course, making some money, because automata are great until you try to sell one.
Toys are fantastic objects, no one suspects them. It may look innocent but the more you look the more you find, and suddenly you’re beginning to look at that tin can in a different way… To quote the business plan: A toy is a catalyst for imagination, an exploration of an idea, just as a sketch is drawn before a mural and a model before a technological breakthrough. They have acted as representations of our culture for generations, miniature mirror images of man’s discoveries, achievements and pastimes.
How did you find your current creative space and what do you love about it?
The studio was my saving grace of Bristol when I first moved here. It was a rocky ride. I moved here with my friend and collaborator Alex Goodman, a printmaker and storyteller. She gave me a foot in the door of a studio in the south of Bristol which, even though it was filled with brilliant people, wasn’t right for the carnage of my making process. Me and Alex shared that tiny space for 6 months, then we moved and shared an even smaller one. Why? We were broke, and we still are I think. Anyway, Alex set up in her beck garden and left me with the second space, which I’ve now turned into what you see. It’s made of about 70-80% crap I found in skips, hallways, alleys, anything that would work, and has scrubbed up well I think. The best thing here is that I’m surrounded by artists and makers in the same boat, recently self-employed and making it work, however hard. It’s a damn fine crew to be among. A smile creeps on my face when I’m working late at night to the sounds a live radio broadcast two doors down. It’s exactly what I hoped Bristol to be.
What would your dream project be?
Running and building an art academy, Professor Xavier style. A place of learning, experimentation, imagination, play, social change and art based salvation. I keep staring longingly at derelict buildings around Bristol.
Which other automata artists do you follow for inspiration? Who do you admire and which one do you feel the closest connection with?
There are only a few about, almost all of them are in Cornwall, so I’ve had the pleasure of meeting them. I’m currently working with Fi Henshall, we’ve always got on well and she’s supported me a lot. Her style is pretty distinct from mine, but it’s reassuring to hear her swearing at her work just as much as me with mine. She’s raising her two great kids as well as purely making automata for a living, fantastic person. Just down the road is Rob Higgs, who made a giant steam engine and a spaceship drilled into the ground in the local kids playpark - what’s not to like? I would love to meet Paul Spooner after seeing some of his interviews. His work is much more traditionally focused, but his way of capturing character through carving and movement is just brilliant. I view him as a kind of wise elder figure, though he would laugh at that I should think.
What was the best piece advice you have ever been given?
It’s too rude, and I’m quite sure it’s not the best, just the most memorable. Advice given by a stain glass window maker. “When it comes to running a business, be 1/10th a [see you next Tuesday]”. Most of my good advice comes from a lot of fantastic business owners and creatives that I meet, most of all Andrew Grundon, a signwriter and good friend.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
Just a good long walk back home does it. Though when being in the city I sit in my chair, point two speakers into my face and listen to some damn good music, or meet up with a pal. I can’t stop the inspiration, it follows me around wherever I may be.
What are some of your favourite places to hang out in Bristol?
The Canteen for a brew and some live music. I’ve never heard the same thing twice, love it. Redpoint to hang off of some walls. Under a crane outside M-Shed. The waterfront there has got a good view of the city and a nice combination of old and new.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
Cor, I haven’t explored enough yet. I’ll get back to you on that one. Japan and Cuba (or Colombia) are the two next on my list. Traditions vs. modernity in their societies, and the styles that come from the two… beautiful.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
I’m no expert, but so far it seems when all is said and done, it’s the people around you that make your life what it is. It’s about how much you can give with your time, how hard you try to make positive change where it is necessary, to pursue what you feel you have to. Nothing can change your fortune like a few good conversations with the right people and relentless optimism.
What are you currently working on?
Three toy-selling stalls, two automata for Kew gardens, a hand painted sign, restoring a 108 year old lathe and an 80 year old press, designing moulds to press boats from, three short films, a 1920’s style le man racing car, clockwork trains, getting my automata in shops around Bristol, getting the toys in shops around Bristol, my tax return, lining a work jacket, upholstering two chairs, flying backpacks, oh, and I’ve got another automata of my own to do.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
For the immediate future, to survive being self-employed for the next few months. For the summer, get the toy stall into a steam fayre (a personal goal). The next is to make Old World Mettle a fully-fledged shop, bit of a big one that. Then it’s running workshops and teaching, then the academy if I’m still alive. I’m determined, but I guess we’ll see how far I get.
Can you recommend us:
A book: Assuming you’ve read some obvious ones, Cannery Row by John Stienbeck.
A song: Lady Grinning Soul, David Bowie.
A film: Muppet Treasure Island
Jack answers Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire:
1 – Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
A printer’s kiss, tyres smeck tarmac in bleary fog.
2 – Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
3 – Look at your watch. What time is it?
4 – How do you explain this — or these — discrepancy(ies) in time?
5 – Do you believe in meteorological predictions?
To an extent.
6 – Do you believe in astrological predictions?
Not really, but I love the concept.
7 – Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?
8 – What do you think of the sky and stars by night?
It’s endless, so full of potential.
9 – What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?
10 – What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?
An awe of craftsmanship, and a sense of tangible history.
11 – What would you have “seen” had you been blind?
12 – What would you want to see if you were blind?
A true smile.
13 – Are you afraid?
14 – What of?
Running out of time to fulfil my ideas.
15 – What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
Hunt for the Wilderpeople,Taika Waititi.
16 – Whom are you afraid of?
I don’t know them yet.
17 – Have you ever been lost?
18 – Do you believe in ghosts?
19 – What is a ghost?
A spirit or energy imbued in an area or object.
20 – At this very moment, what sound(s) can you hear, apart from the computer?
Music (Donovan – Happiness Runs), cars running on wet road.
21 – What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard – for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?
Her scream shook the trees and curled the waters.
22 – Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
Sat at a computer for half a day.
23 – Have you ever been to confession?
24 – You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.
I’ve had a looot of sex before marriage.
25 – Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?
A box carried around by street pedlars as a kind of mobile museum. You would pay them to show you the exhibits.
26 – Do you believe in redemption?
27 – Have you dreamed tonight?
28 – Do you remember your dreams?
29 – What was your last dream?
I was setting off with a group of people then woke up.
30 – What does fog make you think of?
It’s like closing off the world to focus on something.
31 – Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?
32 – What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?
Fliers, a framed print, a business card, some moth splats.
33 – If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?
Build a house that doesn’t exist to public eye.
34 – What is a madman?
Someone free of every connection to their mind and surroundings.
35 – Are you mad?
36 – Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?
37 – What was the last weird book you read?
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip – George Saunders and Lane Smith
38 – Would you like to live in a castle?
39 – Have you seen something weird today?
40 – What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?
A Scanner Darkly.
41 – Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
42 – Can you see the future?
43 – Have you considered living abroad?
44 – Where?
45 – Why?
I was sick of England and its lack of support of the arts.
46 – What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?
And now for something completely different – Monty Python.
47 – Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?
48 – What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
A Clockwork Orange.
49 – Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?
50 – Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?
51 – What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?
52 – Do you like taxidermied animals?
53 – Do you like walking in the rain?
54 – What goes on in tunnels?
Who knows? I like to take a look. Shouting and singing mainly.
55 – What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?
The cornerstones of the building across the street out of the window.
56 – What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?
“About bloody time” he said.
57 – Without cheating: where is that famous line from?
Not a clue.
58 – Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?
59 – Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
The biscuit melted in his tea.
60 – Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
61 – Look at your watch. What time is it?