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The Green Life: This Sculptor Carts Junk Out of the Scrapyard, Into Artistic Stardom

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January 17, 2012

This Sculptor Carts Junk Out of the Scrapyard, Into Artistic Stardom

Clayton Bailey with friendsClimbing through three-story piles of scrap metal at his local salvage yard, Custom Alloy in Oakland, California, is Clayton Bailey's idea of the perfect afternoon.

Digging through the masses of what many would consider junk, the artist finds inspiration to satisfy his boundless imagination. From discarded vacuum cleaners, coffee pots, and an array of other found objects, he's created an entire cast of shiny robotic characters.

Bailey's always been interested in chemistry and science and is strongly influenced by the magazine Mad. His interests may be geeky, but underlying all his work lurks a mischievous sense of humor.

"Spaceships have always been a fascination," he says. "I've made three rockets so far, but none of them have actually gotten off the ground." He's got one in his front yard, pointed toward the heavens, poised for blast-off. 

"I try to wake up every morning with enthusiasm for something new," Bailey says. "Whatever I am working on at that time is what I'm excited about." Over a 50-year span, Bailey's edgy contemporary art has been shown around the world. His retrospective show, "Clayton Bailey's World of Wonders" has been featured at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, since early autumn.

In his Port Costa workshop, each of his works has its own personality. Marilyn Monrobot,Marilyn Monrobot whom Bailey calls "the world's most beautiful robot," sports a prominent pair of 1957 Cadillac bumper bullets. Wrestlebots square off for a match as Tubehead and Two-Headed Baby watch from the sidelines. Bailey's famous Horndogs, made from Kirby vacuum cleaners and chrome-plated truck horns; Pitcherbot, chasing its little teacups; and a robot made from Kohler toilets round out the family.

Bailey strives to add a kinetic element to his pieces so that they come to life. He's worked with motion detectors, aquarium aerators, and washing-machine timers. He likes to invite in elements of nature, using lenses to magnify and record sunlight and, more recently, harnessing wind power. "Having an extremely windy day ignited my interest to create whirlybirds and a giant bobbing bird, complete with animated bait," he says.

Some of Bailey's pieces have taken on controversy as he constantly pushes the boundaries. "The most flack I've gotten was for my coin-operated electric chair for the condemned man. You simply pull the lever."

Bailey enjoys performance art and is quick to pull a practical joke. In 1978, he created a special tattoo gun for his friend Don Ed Hardy. Instead of a regular needle, it contained a vibrating pen with removable ink. "It was fun to play a joke and pretend to do an awful tattoo on someone," he says.

Bailey has influenced hundreds of students in his role as art professor at California State University, Hayward, where he spent 27 years and became chairman of the department in 1980. "You have to find a place that you can live," he says. "I enjoyed my career in teaching and I met a lot of good people." 

WrestlebotsThough his humor has been offensive to some, it's hard not to appreciate his ability to look around and create from what he finds. Longtime friend Tony Natsoulas, also a sculptor, says, "Bailey's a genius and one of my heroes because he doesn't take things so seriously. It allows the world as a whole to enjoy him. He's absolutely brilliant." 

Bailey will be presenting a lecture about his work and the role of humor in his art at Santa Clara's de Saisset Museum on Feb. 29 at 7 p.m. He'll also be signing copies of his new 135-page book, published by the Crocker Art Museum.

--Cyndy Patrick

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