Artist Interviews 2023
By Johnny Otto
You began as an Engineer, not what you'd call an artist. What sort of engineering work and how did you make the transformation into becoming an artist?
My background is in engineering, and for many years, I utilized my engineering skills in various roles, mainly as a product visionary and voice of the customer for medical product development. This role allowed me to explore my creative side extensively. Over time, I became interested in creating things that fascinated me, often involving small microcontrollers. Learning how to program these microcontrollers and use them to control LEDs and motors led me to develop the aesthetic you now see in much of my work. This journey also sparked my fascination with LED lights, especially those with color-controlling capabilities. What initially began with simple LED patterns evolved into intricate patterns, shapes, and colors dancing on grids of LEDs. I'm captivated by how LEDs can be used directly, diffused, or reflected to create mesmerizing effects.
Although I delved into the world of LEDs, I never really saw myself as an artist. I created pieces for my own enjoyment without considering broader interest. However, that changed when Tracy Park of Tracy Park Gallery in Malibu discovered my work through a mutual friend. Despite the simplicity of the pieces, she was enthusiastic about them and invited me to showcase them in her gallery. This marked the start of a transformative journey where my work grew in complexity and size. Tracy's unwavering support and exposure opened doors for me, and gradually, I began to embrace the idea that my work is indeed art, and thus, I am an artist—albeit not something I initially intended.
You have over 90 US patents, is that right? Can you tell us a bit about some of them?
Yes, I hold over 90 US patents, all of which pertain to medical devices. Throughout my career, whenever I conceived innovative solutions to medical challenges or new features to enhance medical products, I collaborated with the respective companies to file for patents. Sometimes, a single core idea gave rise to multiple related patents as it evolved. Initially, my patents revolved around CPAP and BiPAP machines for conditions like obstructive sleep apnea and heart failure. More recently, my focus shifted to devices for diabetes treatment, predominantly involving insulin pumps and infusion sets. Interestingly, some of the features I patented over three decades ago are now integrated into the CPAP machine I use today.
When I first saw your work at the Coupon Gallery, it felt like a scientist had made something beautiful, and a bit otherworldly. Like an ancient but futuristic artifact, How would you describe your work for someone who hasn't seen it?
Describing my work to someone who hasn't seen it can be a challenge. At its core, it involves captivating shapes illuminated by vibrant LED lights. However, this description only scratches the surface. While LEDs are central, the structures housing them contribute to the art's appeal. The designs I craft evoke a sense of artifact, a quality that likely stems from my intrinsic design inclinations rather than formal education. Many pieces are cut from thin plywood using a laser cutter, and I intentionally embrace the burnt edges to infuse each piece with personality.
I love getting to know the processes and techniques that artists use, the materials etc. Can you tell us about some of your processes, secret techniques and why you use the materials that you do?
My work is the fusion of electronic intricacies and the physical containers that showcase them. Microcontrollers act as tiny computers, dynamically controlling LEDs. It's all a matter of math and programming, resembling early graphic design software. I've specialized in animating LED shapes using intricate programming rooted in mathematics, including trigonometry. My go-to tool is a laser cutter, particularly when paired with 1/8th inch Baltic birch plywood. This enables precise cuts that would be laborious by hand.
Many artists try to tell a story with their work or express a mythology. Is that the case with you and your work?
While my art possesses an abstract quality, it's not strictly narrative-driven. Rather than constructing stories, my pieces convey gestures. I create animations portraying actions like tentacles extending, alien forms interacting, fireworks erupting, sea anemones swaying, and peculiar insects dancing. Some animations might hint at broader themes, yet none involve intricate plots.
You are also a musician, correct? Can you tell us about your musical background? And do you listen to music when you are creating your art?
Indeed, I've played drums for a significant portion of my life. I received classical training and was part of orchestras in the past. While I've been involved in several rock bands, I now indulge in solo playing. Modern electronics enable me to compose and perform without disturbing neighbors or lugging my drum set around. My musical taste spans genres, but I'm drawn to progressive rock, with Gazpacho currently capturing my attention.
What are Quad Spiral Baskets and how and why did you get into making them?
Quad Spiral Baskets emerged from my fascination with spirals. This design, rooted in my graphics program's spiral tool, involves pairing and intertwining reversed spirals to form a dual spiral shape. Over time, this evolved into a basket design where four spirals collaboratively shape the basket's "bowl." This design offers both aesthetics and strength, and you can find these baskets in a few Malibu shops. Additionally, I share the design with fellow laser enthusiasts on platforms like Etsy.
What does the future hold for you? What do you hope to accomplish? Any new projects in the works?
With my recent retirement from the medical device sector, I'm focusing more on my art. The move to Sedona, AZ, is in progress, and my artwork will continue to be exhibited in LA galleries such as Compound Contemporary and Tracy Park Gallery. I'm also exploring opportunities to showcase my work in Sedona. Currently, my creative emphasis is on my larger matrix pieces, some of which are displayed at the Robert Berman gallery. I'm constantly experimenting with new concepts and techniques. Furthermore, I'm in the early stages of designing kinetic sculptures driven by stepper motors and conceptualizing a musical instrument—a MIDI controller—that combines LEDs, time-of-flight sensors, and basic music theory for a cutting-edge theremin-like experience. The challenge lies in having an abundance of ideas but limited time to execute them all.