Lex Talkington on his transition from designer and software engineer to found-object sculptor.
“I decided I’m going to go in the garage and start making art until I figure it out, and I haven’t stopped.”
That’s what Lex Talkington said in a phone interview with Cuppa Wow from his home studio in San Diego, where he builds static and kinetic sculptures with found objects, such as camera parts, vintage electromechanical objects, and other swap meet finds. He was talking about what happened when he was laid off from his job at a technology company in 2017.
From director of user interface software engineering to suddenly unemployed, Lex was at a crossroads. Should he continue in the tech world for which he’d lost some of his passion, or should he follow his heart into uncharted waters? He recalled, “It was a point for me to ask, ‘What do I really want to do?’” That’s when Lex went into his garage, scavenged his impressive skills from a wide variety of experiences, and started building his future as a found-object sculptor. He added, “I knew one day I would crave returning to art. I just didn’t know I’d get a helping shove to do so from going through a layoff at that point in my career.”
Lex grew up in a ranching and farming community in southeastern Colorado. The environment was the ultimate classroom in which Lex could develop the mechanical skills that contribute to his unique artistic work. “I grew up around a lot of do-it-yourselfers,” he said. “I learned a lot growing up in that kind of community about making things and, more importantly, creative problem-solving. I still ask my dad and his resources weekly about tools and techniques in the shop now that I’m not spending all my time on a keyboard.”
When he was 15, Lex started painting and selling dried gourds (as seen on his Instagram) that his family grew in their garden. He even found a gallery in Taos, New Mexico, that showcased his beautifully detailed designs. With his parents’ encouragement, Lex continued to pursue his artistic vision, earning a BFA in graphic design. After college, Lex continued as an accomplished graphic and interface designer, gathering a number of awards, and then got into Flash programming. “I got knee-deep into writing code and designing user interfaces,” he said. But he’d started to lose interest in the work. “I was getting bored working within the confines of a rectangular monitor or touchscreen,” he said. “I just didn’t find a lot of happiness in all the creative client work I was doing. So much user interface work is based on lists of requirements and detailed descriptions explaining what the interface will not be capable of, because of deadline, budget, target demographic, technology, etc. After so many years, I’d grown frustrated with so much daily imagination having to be whittled down to fit in a small predefined ‘box.’”
When Lex later faced the issue of being laid off from his job in a tech company, he asked himself, “What do I really want to do?” It’s a moment of truth many people understand. “I think everybody gets to that point in their careers,” he said, “when you’re forced to make a decision about what you want to do beyond just following the next job that seems like a good fit. It makes you think quick on your feet.” After overthinking that question for a few months, Lex concluded, “I want to spend the majority of my time, every day, creating and inventing things from my imagination and learning new ways to do this.” Lex fully realized this was easier said than done, but he knew this was a unique opportunity to attempt to make that dream a reality.
For Lex, that dream led him to his garage. On top of what he’d learned about crude engineering growing up, he mined his design and tech skills to build a new life as an independent artist. To bring to life the interactive art he had in mind, he leveraged his programming skills. His interactive works are “usually driven by Arduino and peripheral sensors, servos, motors and all kinds of fun stuff,” he said.
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The unique interconnection of these skills allowed Lex to create one-of-a-kind pieces like the digital googly-eye [above] or the diesel-punk-inspired Septocular [below], the latter of which he described as “a sculptural lamp that responds to viewer proximity. Septocular is most at ease the closer you get.”
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This fascinating kinetic sculpture has an architectural shape, and it’s made of walnut and maple. “It kind of has this vintage look to it,” Lex said, “but it’s jam-packed with new technology. Viewers might think it’s doing something a vintage-looking piece shouldn’t be able to do. I like that initial tension.”
Another intriguing interactive piece you need to see—or, better yet, touch: the Typewreader. The keys of an old Smith Corona light up in the background and respond to a user’s turning of knobs, which change the message and speed at which it’s displayed. It’s one of many examples of the artist taking familiar parts everyone has seen and putting an unexpected spin on them. Of the Typewreader, Lex said, “It’s almost like a puzzle. It’s like, ‘What are those lights telling me? What am I reading on this keyboard?’” It’s a striking, unique piece that invites curious minds and hands to explore.
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Recently, Lex began releasing individual sculptures from his Mechanical-Fossils series that look like the skeletons of sea creatures. Each creature is built with found objects, such as vintage electronics and camera parts. The stunning series was inspired, he said, by many family scuba-diving trips to Roatán, Honduras, and Cozumel, Mexico, in the early 2000s.
But Lex’s mental narrative for these otherworldly sea creatures plunges much deeper, and his explanation is a porthole into his endless imagination: “In my head, the fossils are remnants of a future where artificial intelligence (AI) has taken over and is creating its own experimental biomechanical life form. If AI were creating their own creatures, they might emulate life from the world where machines and AI were created here on Earth. And why would these creatures have human-recognizable parts—some with printing or typography on them? Well, maybe whatever machines built these creatures were emulating or mining junk from the past, refuse considered to be structurally sound to reuse or at least copy.”
A careful exploration of his work reveals that Lex attends to all the details, even those that are hidden. In fact, the hidden details are as important to him as what’s visible on the surface. When asked where that passion comes from, Lex credited a memory from his childhood. “My late great-uncle was a very talented part-time artist. He did some assemblage work, and he did this locomotive, this train out of junk. I remember as a kid going to the home of my grandparents, who owned that artwork. No matter how many times I went back to it, I’d find something new in all the parts it was assembled from. That locomotive now hangs on my wall, and I explore it the same today.” He concluded, “This idea of becoming mesmerized by something because there’s tons of things to discover, too many to notice in one viewing—I think there’s a lot of value in being able to see something once and then see it again and discover new things.”
Spend some time on Lex’s Instagram, and you’ll see he loves a challenge, but even he admits to hitting walls often when exploring new ideas. In fact, he seems to enjoy overcoming these challenges. His advice when a problem seems insurmountable? “I’ve found that just stepping away from something or changing mediums is the best thing you can do. That has taken me years to accept, as my nature is sometimes to just hammer away at it until it is right. Come back to it in a few days with a new set of eyes, and approach the problem from a different direction.”
That’s what Lex continues to do, and the results in his found-object sculptures continue to astound. Keep up with him on Instagram and his website to see his next visions come to life, and get your hands on his extraordinary creations at his shop!