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The Art of Robots

on Tue, 02/19/2013 - 00:00

Fraley's Robot Repair Shop
In August 2011, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl—in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership—announced the formation of Project Pop Up, an effort to better develop unoccupied retail space in the downtown area. The idea was to assist in the cultivation of unique and original use of vacant storefronts by offering one year of free rent to aspiring entrepreneurs as well as an additional grant to help offset start-up costs.

The effort led to a number of new establishments in the downtown area, such as Boutique 208 on Sixth Street and Awesome Books on Liberty Avenue, as well as Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop across from Heinz Hall, which remained an enduring feature of the Cultural District for well over a year. Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop was not a real robot repair shop, however—how many people have robots in need of repair these days?—but a form of exhibition art created by local artist Toby Atticus Fraley.

“I’ve been blown away at the response to this installation,” Fraley said in February 2013. “I really wasn’t sure how the public would react but it’s been overwhelmingly great. I get random emails from fans of the shop just saying how much they appreciate what’s going on down there and how they hope it sticks around for as long as possible. Every eleven days or so I’ll go down and rearrange the space a little and sometimes a complete stranger will just tap on the glass as they walk by and give me a thumbs up. I feel really lucky. It’s been such a fun project to work on and I’m thrilled every time I hear someone gets a kick out of it as well.”

Toby Fraley was born and raised in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and caught the creative bug at an early age. “Art has honestly just been a constant in my life,” he explains. “I can’t remember ever not being interested in art. Luckily I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love.” Fraley is not simply a “robot artist,” however, as his creative endeavors extend to Americana-themed oil paintings and the refabricating of old teapots and clockworks.

“I just love making things,” Fraley continues. “It’s pretty simple. I enjoy the challenge of creating something out of nothing, of taking useless raw materials and turning them into something of worth.”

While objects ranging from robots and teapots to clockworks and oil paintings may seem like a diverse collection of canvasses on which to operate, all of Fraley’s artistic achievements share the same retro and futuristic style.

“The old Popular Science magazines from the 50’s and 60’s that my dad collected were a big influence on me growing up,” Fraley explains. “They were more of an influence than any movie or TV show. It seemed like a reoccurring theme in those magazines were that in the future we’d have robot servants in our homes, flying cars, etc. Fast forward fifty years though and we’re still waiting for those amenities. I’m just trying to create the reality that never happened.”

Don L. Jones is another Pittsburgh native who was influenced by futuristic designs at a young age. “When I was a kid, my dad—who was a fabricator-maintenance welder—started to teach me fabrication techniques,” Jones says in regards to his own interest in art. “I spent most of my childhood in his garage building metal insects, model space ships and some robots. I attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for Visual Communications and in my last year was invited to submit an entry in the Science Fiction and Film Festival, which featured local as well as national artists. My eight-foot-long model spaceship, named the Zora Astra, won a special judges award.”

Jones spent the next twenty years of his life in advertising, but in 1998 decided to promote his sculptures professionally and quickly found success. Although his artwork extends from corporate commissions to art furniture—as well as the large-scale train layout at the annual PPG Gingerbread House Competition—he has likewise gravitated to robots in much the same way was Toby Atticus Fraley.

“I had some really interesting junk that I just couldn’t throw away, so I decided to experiment with robots,” Don Jones likewise explained in February 2013. “The first ones were life size and appeared throughout the city, including the 2004 Robot-X-Mass Public Art Installation on Fifth Avenue, PPG Place, Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Science Center and Fifth Avenue Place, along with various shows. Then six years ago they evolved into smaller-sized pieces using recycled and found parts. The response was great and fun so I decided to specialize in the robots and run with it. I love the hunt for the parts, turning old discarded junk into pieces of art, and last but not least, the positive interaction with the public.”

Although Don Jones does not have an installation display like Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop, he has likewise participated in Project Pop Up as part of their “Night Market” vendors during the January 2013 Gallery Crawl. And while Tony Fraley does not know how long his fascination with robots will continue—“I really kind of doubt I’ll be doing robots long term but who knows what’s down the road,” he says—Jones continues to find inspiration from the metallic creations.

“The reaction has been great,” Jones explains. “Kids and adults really love them. I think the reactions also help fuel my passion for my robot direction.”

In terms of the robots that both Toby Fraley and Don Jones consider to be amongst their personal favorites, Jones initially mentions Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet before settling upon B9 from Lost in Space. Fraley, meanwhile, has a slightly different viewpoint.

“It’s probably a stretch to consider HAL9000 a robot—he was likely more of an operating system—but I want to say he’s my favorite anyways,” he says. “2001: A Space Odyssey is just such a masterpiece of a movie.”

Toby Atticus Fraley and Don L. Jones may have different backgrounds, but their artistic representations of robots have captured the imagination of Pittsburghers nonetheless, with each piece in their individual collections being a “masterpiece of robot art” in the own right.

(Editor’s Note: Although Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop is no longer located in the Cultural District, it will soon become a fixture at the Pittsburgh International Airport.)

Anthony Letizia

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