Thursday, June 25, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Make Mobiles

I didn't realize until I started to research mobiles that one individual is generally acknowledged as the inventor of the art form: Alexander Calder. I was certainly aware that Calder's fame rested largely on mobiles and I've seen a number of them, but I'd assumed that the mobile's origin as an art form was hidden in the misty recesses of time.

Turns out that's not really true, although one can make the argument that the common American weathervane, responding to air currents by pointing into the wind, has the necessary elements to comprise a mobile. Including, in some cases, a certain artistic sensibility. (By the way, Belarus also lays claim to pre-Calder mobiles.) But Calder not only transported the concept embodied by the folk-art weather vane into the abstract art movement and, thus, the museum, but even gave it its name: mobile. He also invented "stabile" to describe those boring inanimate sculptures which, by the way, was the medium of choice for both his father and grandfather. He had quite an artistic pedigree and one of his earliest experiences with sculpture was modeling in the nude for his father at age 4. I have a feeling that might be frowned on today.

Regardless of origin, the fact is that mobiles can be fascinating pieces of art. Unlike most other forms, they're three-dimensional rather than two, and unlike all other forms, they're built to move in response to air currents. This makes a mobile with even a few independent parts an object of infinite views, and to me can elicit the same fascination and infinite musings as watching a real log fire on a cold winter night. No matter how long you look, you never want to look away for fear that you will miss whatever unique composition will appear next.

Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that all mobiles are either installed in museums, chiming in vaguely Oriental scales on back porches, or hanging over baby's cribs. This would seem to leave a tremendous gap that is begging to be filled. I suggest that you use a HarvilleQuarter to make a beginning.

Mobiles have many aspects to recommend them, including the possibility of making one entirely out of found objects, i.e., you can build a mobile without spending a cent. Even if you're a bit more fastidious about your raw materials, you can create a mobile for a few bucks. In addition, mobiles can be sized to fit a corner of your desktop or a corner of your backyard. You can create quite a spectacle --- neighbors will watch your progress with interest, and possibly awe.

It also appears that an interesting, even artistic, mobile can be designed and constructed by those without the ability to draw a decent stickman. A mobile can comprise a few abstract shapes hung on a few wires from horizontal struts to stay roughly balanced, with perhaps an interesting texture, color, gloss or timbre to catch the light or create a few pleasant musical riffs. Your library or bookseller can certainly locate a few books (some more oriented for children, but who cares --- you're in your second childhood) that will explain the basics, suggest some materials, and include some designs that you can copy. Of course, the Web is another resource, where you can even procure kits for making mobiles.

No one else has to know that you didn't design your particular mobile in a burst of artistic creativity as you teetered on the border between genius and madness.

If you do decide to create your own mobiles to hang over a baby's crib - say your grandchild's or a favorite neighbor's - please do exercise caution to ensure there is no chance of parts falling into the crib where baby will choke on them or gash himself. Common sense paired with an abundance of caution is definitely called for. Also bear in mind that the baby will be gazing at the mobile on his or her back, from underneath, so make sure that there are interesting things to see from that vantage point.

The Calder mobile at the top of this post is titled National Gallery III [maquette], 1972 and hangs in the Washington National Gallery. The image was taken from, the Web site of the Calder Foundation. The birds mobile is included, with detailed instructions for its construction, in the book Magnificent Mobiles by Melanie Williams, (c) 1994, Quintet Publishing Limited.

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