Introducing Labyrinth - It was a long time coming!


I’m often asked how long it takes to design a sculpture. My normal answer is that it varies, it can be days, months or even years. I think Labyrinth holds the record for length of time from conception to final execution.

I started working on it in 2007. The inspiration came from an animation I found online showing an interesting optical effect created when multiple parallel straight lines are rotated in opposite directions. (Unfortunately I can no longer find the animation.) I loved the dynamic patterns created and started a set of animation studies of my own. I wanted to see if I could extend the concept to wooden wheels. The practical constraints were different of course. Wood lines have to have a certain thickness and they need to be tied together with a hub and a bearing system. I played with dozens of different designs, drawing in Adobe Illustrator and animating in After Effects.  I found that if I curved the lines and tied them together at the rim I could retain elements of the original concept but add a subtle shift in the dynamics. Of course it could be that I just prefer curves!

(working photo of prototype on test wall)

The wheel design turned out to be the easy part. Next I had to design a mechanism to move the wheels at the pace and in the directions I had developed in the animations. What is easy to do on the computer screen was a completely different challenge in the analog world!  The wheel closest to the wall was the work horse. It had to rotate in both directions and occasionally give the front wheel a little nudge. It had to do all this while moving slowly so the patterns could evolve and flow at a pace that felt right to me. 

The problem was the wheels were heavy and took a lot of energy to get moving and even more to stop and reverse direction. I thought I had a solution, two separate mechanisms that that would work together to power the sculpture. The mechanisms would work together with one side rotating the back wheel clockwise and the other side counter-clockwise. Each side would have its own drive spring so I would have ample energy to play with. I built the complete sculpture and it worked, sort of.

The patterning motion was as I had hoped but the sculpture was hard to set up and operate. It was also very inefficient. I was using two drive springs and only getting around 5 hours of run time. It was also difficult to keep it from stalling when I had the wheels moving slowly enough. I brought the sculpture down to the house and set it up on the “preview wall” in our dining room so we could live with it. It was there long enough that my daughter’s boyfriend (and now husband), Jared came up with the name. In the end I took it down and packed it away, it was too complex and unreliable. I felt a little bad because it was a great name chosen by the newest member of the family but the mechanism was a failure. (Naming sculptures is a family and friends challenge because I'm so bad at names!)

A few months ago I unpacked just the patterning wheels, spun them by hand and decided they were worth another effort. I have learned a lot about mechanism efficiency in the past 5 years and had some new ideas about how to handle the large wheels. The result, using a new mechanism design, was far different this time.

The sculpture produces exactly the motion I wanted, it’s easy to set up and operate and it runs for a bit over 12 hours on a single spring. The key is the 5 little wood balls you see marching up the string; actually not the balls but what they are covering, a short section of coil spring.

This spring absorbs the extra energy of the rotating back wheel when it comes to the end of its rotation in one direction and then feeds it back to the wheel but in the opposite direction. The rest of the 2 lever mechanism is also new but the use of this spring to aid in the change of direction was the breakthrough. Sometimes patience and frustration pays off!

The new Labyrinth operates for over 12 hours on a single spring wind. The mechanism is flexible and reliable enough that I could set exactly the pace I wanted. It’s also far easier to install and operate than the old version.


Link here to go to the website for additional ordering information on Labyrinth.