Fiery robots descend on the Telluride Fire Festival

by Patty Templeton

Glass blowing, fire spinning, aerial silks, and blazing robots – these wonders and more are at the 3rd annual Telluride Fire Festival. From Jan. 20 to 22, the adventurous and artistic gather to create and view different forms of fire art, with free performances and art installations from 5 to 8 p.m. each evening of the fest at the Oak Street Gondola Plaza and a hellton of affordably-ticketed workshops, music, and events to attend.

Justin Gray, a featured artist at the 2017 Telluride Fire Festival, is owner/operator of Graywrx, a machining and fabrication shop in California’s Bay Area. He works in prototyping, robotics, sculpture, and fire art. This year, he’ll display a family of fiery robots that range from shorter than a ukulele to bigass, fire-belching behemoths.

How often do you go to festivals?Once a year, at minimum. [The roving festival] Maker Faire for sure. Then, if we get lucky, Maker Faire will bring us to other events. Really, it’s one big, knock-down-drag-out-all-in event and that’s Maker Faire San Mateo. We bring everything that runs and drives from the shop and they give us this huge 60-foot by 60-foot sand-filled arena to do absolutely anything we want. We can fly drones. We can set things on fire. We can crush things. Whatever the hell we want and they absolutely love it, and we love it.

Do you sell any of these robots? I absolutely keep every single one of these. These particular robots are not built for sale.

Where do you find your materials? I’ve always been a scrapper. When I was a young teenager, I was in the dumpsters all over Berkley and Oakland. When I was 18 years old, I moved to Oakland, and my neighbor, Custom Alloy Scrap Sales, was storing junk in public spaces. I thought it was just garbage. I would raid those bins. Come to find out, years later, I was stealing, but I thought it was scrap and weird objects that had no value. Now, I’m good friends with the owner and we still work together.

Your robots look like they each have different personalities. Do you plan that out?It is 100 percent organic. There is no planning of the personality besides a quick sketch of the overall look.

What is an unusual source of inspiration for you? I am a nerd. What can I say? I’m into science and bugs. Biomimicry is a huge thing for me. I am deeply obsessed with the way that bugs look and the way that they work. Their exoskeletons and coolants … I’m covered in tattoos that I designed with a friend that are all these sci-fi interpretations of scientific drawings of bugs.

What’s a challenge in the robot creation process?The problems with robots like this are ultimately me. I am so particular about the way things are built that a simple job like “How do you connect a 12-volt battery to an aluminum box that is 4 feet away?” Well, that can take me days. It has to be just right. If I have to dig through a mountain of trash to find the one goddamn thing that finishes the picture, I’m gonna do it.

How does one get into the biz of creating fiery robots? When I was 18, I went into a full-time apprenticeship with a master metal sculptor who was a fine art professor at Bauhaus. He took me on as an apprentice for about five years. Three of those years were dedicated to solely working for him full-time. From there, I developed my kit welding skills, my MIG welding skills, and my fabrication. During that time, I also had my own, personal metal shop and was developing my own art. I met a group of people who were doing fire sculpture in the area. We all came together through the Crucible art school in Oakland. In 1999, we formed a group called Therm. Therm specializes in forced-air, combustion fire sculpture … It’s a form of sculpture that can be very intense and overwhelming, but it can also be quite intimate, like sitting next to a fireplace … I ended up combining my obsessions. I basically built a machine that drove around and had a forced-air, combustion fire sculpture built-in to it. That was my first fire sculpture robot. I still have that robot. His name is Darwin.

What’s a work project you’d love to do?My fantasy is to have a beautiful piece of property with a dozen or so of these creatures living there permanently and a giant shop to create more. There would be a few people who tend to the robots. They would be part of a recycling program where they crush and destroy unwanted items that need to be recycled.

This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer


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