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Endearing robots steal the shows

March 16, 2010

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.