They say one man's junk is another man's robot.
OK, they don't exactly say that, but for Dan Baxter, degreed art educator, antique collector, IT sales engineer and crafter of artsy robots, it turns out to be true.
Baxter makes robots out of odds and ends that typically have been sitting in someone's attic or barn for a few years or a few decades, old cameras, binoculars, typewriters, tins, kitchen appliances, stuff that people have deemed too valuable to throw out, but for which they no longer have any use.
The idea had been percolating for quite awhile, as Baxter visited junk sales and art shows with his wife, who makes jewelry. Collecting was their mutual hobby, though by day he worked in IT, where he let his inner artist tackled diagrams and power points.
"For years, I have been thinking creatively…but I hadn't really said, ‘I'm going to get back to my roots,’" said Baxter in a recent interview.
Then, two years ago, he was at the Central Pennsylvania Festival for Arts at State College, where he lives. It's a huge show, and it all came together for Baxter that year. He decided to make the leap, to turn his collections of old Brownie cameras and food tins and all manner of riffraff collected over many years into "bots" that he would sell.
That meant getting to work, building creatures large and small, with oddly human personalities, which emerged as he tinkered with his vast array of useable but errant objects from eras past. Some robots are miniatures with bodies crafted from old film canisters. Others are tall enough to grace a lobby.
To say the result is "whimsical" somehow doesn't do Baxter's Bots justice. His goal is to "give them life and give them personality" while avoiding having them "look like a nutcracker."
"When I first started out I didn't think anyone would buy my stuff," he said. "I ended up selling out my whole show."
Baxter's robots, in fact, sell out every time he takes them on the road. He's been to about five or six shows and has found he can't create them fast enough. People enjoy these upcycled creations for their personality, and his booth becomes a magnet for discussion. Is that robot Wally? C3P0? Is he/she smiling at me?
"I didn't realize how exciting it would be and how interactive," he says, explaining that every show is a buzz of activity, with people asking about the process, his source materials and also commissioning their own robots. Prices for his works range from $45 to $400s for the typical robots he sells. The large art pieces, which he does not take to shows, are much more.
The younger generations aren't collecting like their parents did, says Baxter, 50. But they do like the idea of a newly assembled piece of art that commemorates grandpa's camera collection.
And that may be the real beauty of Baxter's robots, they pay homage to past hobbies and lives, turning parts that once collected dust into art that gathers conversation.
(Baxter is one of many artisans selling at MAKERSfest in Lancaster, PA, on June 8, an art fair put together by the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsman.)