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How a retired woodworker ended up building machines for Science World and UBC

An automata artist by twist of fate.

High above Kitsilano Pool, there is a piece of artwork by Doug Taylor called The Swimmer. 

This sculpture is of a woman in a bathing suit, a propellor controlled by the winds at the beach articulates her limbs and allows her to swim through the air and, incidentally, she inspired a local woodworker to start a second career as an automata artist.

"I would say the most asked question to me is, are you an engineer?" says David Dumbrell over the phone. "I get that all the time. And I'm not."

Dumbrell may not be an engineer but he is building a rolling ball sculpture for the lobby of the UBC Engineering building. Not to mention creating and refurbishing exhibits for Science World. And you may recognize his automaton work at YVR airport; he made the man on the hot air balloon bicycle.

"I saw my impending retirement and I thought I would have a studio where I could just make small pieces for myself. I thought I would continue woodworking," he recalls. But after seeing The Swimmer, "I thought, actually, I don't want to do woodworking, I want to make this kind of work."

Automata is a little different from the wind-powered premise of "The Swimmer" but it was the spark that lit the flame of Dumbrell's research. Automata means putting a figure or an object into motion, using mechanical means, he explains, "gears, cams, wires, that type of thing, are moving this object or figure."

When retirement arrived in 2012, he set up a studio in his garage and got to work, entirely self-taught.

"Woodworking over the years taught me hand-eye coordination skills and patience. It just seemed to flow naturally over to making this kind of work," he says. However, in 37 years of woodwork, Dumbrell had never carved anything. "I love learning new things," he says. "I think that's why I wanted to get away from cabinet-making or furniture-making."

How did a woodworker end up building machines for Science World and UBC?

As he practiced, his automata started evolving and he transitioned to more complicated pieces using metalwork and welding. "I could get more precision making it out of metal," he explains.

Dumbrell went to BCIT to learn basic welding skills and by 2017 he "reluctantly" began showing his pieces. The first few were studio open houses but "then I had a show on Dunbar at the Visual Space Gallery and that was a big step for me," he shares.

At the show, Dumbrell was approached by the neighbour of someone who worked at Science World. The chance encounter led to Science World commissioning a piece from Dumbrell that now sits in the Tinkering Space.

It was sponsored by WorkSafe BC and Dumbrell had to find a way to incorporate mistakes and mishaps waiting to happen, like ladders missing rungs and someone stepping on a rake, into a moving work of art.

"You have to sit down and try to work out how you're going to get that object to move in that way. And that's the huge challenge of each piece for me," says Dumbrell, "That's a huge step. The making of it is pretty straightforward. It's just how it's gonna work that's the challenge."

Refurbishing the 12-foot Tower of Bauble

When he was setting up the machine, Dumbrell mentioned offhandedly that if they ever needed help with the Tower of Bauble piece out front, he would be happy to help. Fast-forward two years and he's now the lead on the refurbishment project.

"I didn't know what to say. My ego is saying, 'Wow, this is amazing you've got to do it' and the other side is going, 'What? This is huge. I don't know what to do,'" he says.

The project is still ongoing and the public won't see the Tower of Bauble back out front until 2023.

In the meantime, Dumbrell's rolling ball sculpture for the UBC Engineering building lobby will be installed any day now. The piece features examples of projects that the engineering students complete in their labs. "The students build wooden trusses, and then they crush them to see how much force they'll take. So I incorporated that in this piece," he says.

Dumbrell is technically retired but he doesn't have plans to slow down anytime soon. In fact, he hopes to one day build an outdoor piece comparable to the size of the Tower of Bauble for people to enjoy.