Endearing robots steal the shows

For the March 6 edition of my regular “Who & Ware” feature on artisans for the News & Observer in North Carolina, I wrote about Amy Flynn, an amazingly creative maker of artsy found-object robot sculptures. Read on and make sure you check out her online gallery

By Diane Daniel

Amy Flynn with her creations

If you’ve been to the Raleigh Flea Market on a Saturday morning in the past year, chances are you’ve encountered Amy Flynn scouring the tables and stalls for, well, she’s not really sure. “I’m never looking for anything in particular,” the Raleigh artist said. “The most fun is seeing something you’ve never thought about using.”

Later she amends this.

“There is this certain type of drawer pull, if you turn it around backwards it makes the most wonderful cat whiskers,” she said. “I do have a couple vendors on the lookout for those.”

Over the past 18 months, Flynn, 49, has gone from underemployed illustrator to successful creator of unique robot sculptures. Except for a few nuts and bolts, the 10- to 20-inch-tall creatures are fully made from her vintage findings at flea markets, yard sales and, if pressed for a particular object, on eBay. The “Fobots,” as she calls the found-object robots, are artistic, humorous and totally endearing.

Junior Birdman

“They’re not symmetrical. There’s always something off, like one eye bigger than the other, or the arms are mismatched. I really feel like that’s what makes them human,” she said.

Take, for instance, “Junior Birdman.” His body is a bird food tin, his arms are faucet handles, and his head is a tea ball topped with a toy propeller. Other components include hydraulic fittings, a button and watch gear.

The Fobots’ debut has been well received. In the past year, they have gained Flynn entry into some of the country’s most competitive art fairs, graced the pages of the Anthropologie catalog and, most recently, earned a cameo role in the ABC comedy “Ugly Betty.” In the March 10 episode, 14 Fobots lined the shelves of the tube walkway that connects the reception area to the inner sanctum.

Flynn is surprised, elated and a little embarrassed by her success at a time when many veteran artists are having a hard time.

“I want everyone to do well, not just me,” she said. “The most important thing isn’t the success or the sales. It’s that I’m just really happy doing this.”

For many years, Flynn was content as an illustrator, doing what she’d always loved.

“My mother will tell you that I’ve had a crayon in my hand since birth.”

Flynn's robots grace "Ugly Betty" show

Her first job out of San Jose State University in California was with Hallmark Cards, illustrating greeting cards. Later she did similar work at Current in Colorado, and eventually left to freelance so she would have time to illustrate greeting cards and children’s books. Her drawings for cards and books were, for the most part, soft, sweet and seasonal.

Flynn landed in North Carolina when her husband, Phil Crone, who works in the computer software industry, was transferred to Raleigh in 1993.

She continued to freelance, but over time her regular clients all but vanished with the economic downturn. She was miserable.

Flynn isn’t sure what led her to make her first robot.

Fobots having fun

“We had all this junk in the basement, and it inspired me,” she said. She had collected most of the items at flea markets to potentially use for theater props. She and Crone have been involved in community theater, working with Raleigh Little Theater, Theater in the Park, the Actors Comedy Lab and others.

“Mostly I acted, but I liked to pay my dues backstage by making stuff,” she said.

To build the robots, she applied the skills she had picked up from prop-making, doing home repairs on her and Crone’s 90-year-old house, and making stained glass during college, for which she learned to solder.

“The first robot was made out of the original doorbell of our house,” Flynn said. “He’s a rickety little guy. I’ve gotten better.”

Helix (2008)

Flynn had finished three robots around the time her illustration business all but tanked.

“My wonderful husband said, ‘Why don’t you stop worrying about this and take some time off and make some robots. You’re so much happier making your robots.’ “

Flynn turned a room into her studio and got to work.

“I was having a good time again,” she said. “My friends started joking that the robots were going to start taking over the house.”

She showed them to friends Sandy and Pat Friedman, owners of Accipiter Gallery in Cameron Village.

“I was very nervous about showing them to them,” Flynn said. “What if they don’t like them or think I’m taking advantage of our friendship?”

Instead, the Friedmans started to carry them in their store and encouraged Flynn to apply to the Buyers Market of American Craft in Philadelphia, a wholesale show that connects buyers and artisans.

Not only was Flynn accepted to the show, in February 2009, she sold all her stock, more than 100 robots.

“I had a very fast learning curve, learning how to make them really strong,” she said. “It was trial-and-error.”

Weatherhead (2008)

She credits Eric Paige of Raven Rock Artworks of Holly Springs with pushing her to enter high-end festivals, specifically the Saint Louis Art Fair, one of the top craft fairs in the country.

“Son of a gun, we got in,” Flynn said. “It’s like being an actor and saying, gee, I think I’d like to be in a play, and then you get cast in a Broadway show.”

The Saint Louis show was in September, and again the Fobots made a splash. Flynn quickly learned that selling retail at festivals was more lucrative than selling wholesale to stores. Not that it comes without mishaps, because the fairs are held outside.

“We’ve had cold weather and rain and 70 mile-an-hour winds. The next thing will be extreme heat,” she said. “And we still haven’t had an easy time setting up the display booth.”

So far, Crone has been able to go with her.

“He sits in the front of the booth and talks to people. He loves that,” she said. “I’m usually in the back handling the business stuff.” Crone also makes the “butt tags,” the numbered metal tag on the backside of each robot that lists its name, date of birth and body parts.

Flynn can’t say how long each robot takes to make, because she works on several at a time.

Sushi (2009)

“I start with the body; let’s say it’s a candy tin. I start matching different eyes, arms and legs, and a little bling. I’ve had some come together in minutes, or it could take months. I have six or seven in various stages, and I’m constantly playing mix and match.”

Flynn also does commission work, and she enjoys the challenge of personalizing them.

The Fobots’ television debut came about when a set decorator for “Ugly Betty” saw Flynn’s work in the Anthropologie catalog. Being a fan of the show, she decided to deliver the pieces to the studio in Queens, N.Y.

“They took me on a tour of the studios, which are immense,” Flynn said. “I got to walk through Betty’s house and Amanda’s bedroom.”

Flynn’s year is marked with top shows, including the Winter Park Sidewalk Arts Festival in Florida and the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver. Beyond that, she’s not sure.

“I get interesting e-mails all the time,” she said. “I never know what’s going to be next. I’m just really happy doing this now.”

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2 Responses to “Endearing robots steal the shows”

  1. alice Says:

    Great use of recyclables. I’m going to show this to my art teacher colleagues!

  2. Karen Says:

    Wonderful article & wonderful bots! Thanks!

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