It is Labor Day – a holiday – and time for another Quirky Berkeley field trip.
I was in Eureka for work. In a free moment I went to meet Duane Flatmo. I did not see what is depicted above as it is depicted there. These are not my photographs. But it is the end result of what I am talking about here – Duane Flatmo.
I met Flatmo at his corrugated metal workshop after a viewing of the work of the late Romano Gabriel downtown.. It was gray and not especially happy weather outside. Inside the workshop was alive. Very alive. This is what I saw:
Jerry Kunkel and Duane Flatmo are standing on the deck of El Pulpo Mecanico, the mechanical octopus, in Flatmo’s Eureka workshop. The six tanks of propane let Flatmo shoot fire out of the eight arms of the octopus and its head. If you click on the top photograph in this post, you will see video of El Pulpo shootng fire on the playa. With Burning Man happening this weekend – appropriate time for this field trip post, no?
El Pulpo was disassembled at the moment, undergoing tune-up. A cage will sit on top of the truck bed.
The head sits on top of the cage.
The eight legs attach to the head, and each one shoots fire.
These buttons are used to shoot fire – the eight legs, the mouth, and ALL!
Everything on El Pulpo is analog. If something goes wrong, Flatmo and Kunkel can fix it.
It started with a model made from scrap and junk and detritus.
And went from there to a remarkable combination of engineering and construction and demented (in the best sense of the word) artistic genius.
Flatmo spent most of his childhood in Big Bear, California. Small town, rural. He was energetic. He loved art. A high school teacher/counselor, Mr. Graham, told him to abandon art, that he would never make it. Flatmo did not take this advice.
He started college in San Diego. Big city, urban. He didn’t thrive. He wanted out.
Humboldt State seemed like a good destination and so he went there. This was 1977.
He got a wage-slave job at Sears, ultimately with the display department where his artistic tendencies had an outlet.
A tipping point came at an art class at the College of the Redwoods. The class was taught by Jere Smith. Smith encouraged Flatmo to stick with and strike out with art. Flatmo started painting signs, and then murals. This is a cautionary tale of sorts – when you look on a map and decide to move – move. When you reach a tipping point, don’t fight it. Go with!
There are many many many murals in Eureka, and Flatmo created many of the many many many. Or maybe many many of the many many many. Here are four:
The gray Victorian takes some brain-eye adjusting. Sometimes life demands adjustment. The mural is on a separate building. When aligned, it appears to be part of the Victorian. Getting it all aligned photographically would take too long so we settled for the downspout as the point of reference.
Flatmo also has dabbled in commercial art, albeit with a quirky sensibility. Here are some labels that Flatmo has created and which help pay the bills:
The term “whimsical cubism” has been used to describe Flatmo’s graphic style. What do I know? I like the labels.
And then there came the kinetic sculpture.
Flatmo saw his first kinetic sculpture race in Ferndale in 1977. It was an epiphany.
The Kinetic Grand Championship is a three-day race from Arcata to Ferndale, covering sand, water, and street. The rule: human powered. Participants are rated on art, engineering, and time.
Flatmo started competing in 1982 and has competed since. For the last 30-ish years, his partner in crime has been Jerry Kunkel, an electrical contractor and 40-year member of IBEW Local 659. Kunkel lives near Medford. He comes down to Eureka for weeks at a time and is the genius behind the wiring and fire-shooting mechanics of the Flatmo kinetic sculptures.
Past entries in the race fill the Eureka workshop. Flatmo is a Very Clever Namer and attention should be paid to the names of his sculptures.
Flatmo’s first entry was the Pencilhead Express. In 1983 he raced in the Pencilhead Exprss 2. In 1991 he raced in the 10th Anniversary Pencilhead. This is some incarnation of Pencilhead Express.
This is the Armored Carp, Flatmo’s 2007 race sculpture. It has 36 gears and is powered by four humans.
Above – Artistic License, Flatmo’s 1989 racer.
This would be the Road Kill Cafe. Nice!
Which brings us to the Tin Pan Dragon – recycled aluminum junk, pop rivets, and a little propane. A sculpture that shoots fire – a race sculpture in 2007 and 2008 and visitor to Burning Man in 2008.
This photo shows engineered safety – the dragon will only shoot fire if at a safely upward angle. No down-fire or straight-fire. Only up.
Flatmo is not alone in his kinetic sculpture work.
The Kinetic Sculpture Lab in Arcata is a gallery and workshop of kinetic sculpture. The big events of the year are the Memorial Day race and a Halloween haunted house. Flatmo is a big presence there with his kindred spirits!
I find Yiddish to be extremely expressive. Correction – I find Yiddish translated into English to be extremely expressive. Example:
Nifter-shmifter, a leben macht er? What difference does it make as long as he makes a living? This is often paraphrased as From this he makes a living?
It is funny how the not-monetized El Pulpo work turns out to be a good thing for Flatmo, with his kinetic sculpture work making him money in the strangest of places.
Infectious Mushroom is an Israeli psytrance/electronica/psychedelic duo – Erez Eisen and Amit Duvdevan – who have been playing since 1996. I don’t know much about this genre. My work-mate JV says that they are great. I take his word for it.
Infectious Mushroom saw El Pulpo at Burning Man and invited Flatmo and Kunkel to build their concert stage. Pay me my money down! A cool stage, and a paycheck.
Same thing with the Electric Daisy Carnival.
It is a big electronic dance music – EDM – festival. What does that mean?
Lots of things I guess. None of which I know anything about! But, another paying gig for El Pulpo.
And then there was the Simpsons episode where Bart goes to Burning Man and steals El Pulpo.
Flatmo and Kunkel seem like about the luckiest men in the world. They spend hours and days and weeks and months doing what they love doing. They make weird stuff and when they drive it in the desert and shoot fire, thousands cheer their effort. They have fun. Jealous!
When I showed my friend these photos back in April, he went and got his calendar. “We got nothing Memorial Day weekend. Nothing on the calendar. Let’s go see the race. What say you?” I said I’d give going up to the race serious consideration, which I did. We didn’t go – this year at least. He has met a woman at a store and he wants to take her up there next year. They seem to be pretty aligned. I have never seen him so taken. We’ll see.
What was his verdict on these photos?