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Sick for Toys

Inspired by Sock Puppets and Creepy Kids' Shows, the Artists of Dynamo Have Created a Plush, Ugly Niche for Themselves. No Wonder Their Biggest Fans are Half a World Away.

Keith Knittel's creatures are vaguely mammalian.
Plush Life: One of Alisa Mcronald's sea-creature-inspired toys.
Dynamo Hum: Alisa McRonald and Keith Knittel at a recent opening in Los Angeles.

By Tim Hill | Posted 11/27/2002

Uncle Yucca, a grimacing green homunculus, waves his wand, and poof! Rocks are transformed into blinking creatures and flowers multiply like mad. Then Yucca zaps a blue, long-eared thing that's been following him, and his wand's magic--is it black, white, or something else?--adorns the little thing with a halo and it floats away. Is it dead? Transformed from bad to good?

It's a Web animation, a short story told in bold colors, simple lines, and silly sound effects. In other animations, similar creatures play out brief scenarios: a floating ship-creature that steals another's "crunchers"; an object one creature nearly vacuums from the floor has mystical properties when ingested.

This is just one sector of the Dynamo Manufacturing Co. galaxy, the genesis of sometime Baltimore artists Alisa McRonald and Keith Knittel, where life forms emerge partially evolved from their primordial goop. McRonald and Knittel have populated an enchanting, childlike world of animations, paintings, and stuffed toys whose characters' organic blobbiness resemble, by turns, sock puppets, jellyfish, and gerbils. But their world isn't childish--the characters, who sometimes reflect their creator's anxieties and quirks, are also ambiguously odd. They're adult toys, but not in that way. They're adult in a neurotic, weird way.

"We like that dark part to come out," McRonald says. "Because we are working with toys, we don't want people to misinterpret it as a product or something that is necessarily for children. . . . They're kind of sinister, kind of sad, a little bit sneaky. The look of them is a little spooky, too."

McRonald and Knittel, who have lived and worked in Baltimore, New York, Montreal, and most recently Los Angeles, have created a personal universe whose main inhabitants--Uncle Yucca, the spherical-headed Fabuu, the rabbit-thing Branson, and others--grew out their fascination with puppetry, homemade toys, and animation. The creatures take shapes as paintings, drawings, and digital animation, but in their most captivating, primary form, they're toys sewn from recycled fabrics.

"We're creating this world and we want to express it in different ways. Everything we do is a peek into the world," McRonald says. "I don't think we even know what the whole thing is." They create "portals leading to fantastic worlds where our characters live" primarily for themselves, Knittel says. "But we want to share them with as many people as possible."

The characters have become extensions of their personalities: McRonald's creations were inspired by deep-sea creatures, and are "thinking, worried a lot," while Knittel favors small mammals such as cats and rabbits. "More spazzy," she says.

When Knittel met McRonald in Montreal during a semester break from Maryland Institute College of Art in 1995, they discovered a mutual interest in toys and stuffed animals--mostly "awkward, lopsided, granny-made ones," Knittel says. They also had an enduring fascination with children's programming that featured very adultlike puppets and situations, such as The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock and Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

"We both grew up watching--and being a bit disturbed by--1970s and early 1980s children's TV," Knittel says. "We loved the creepy puppets, colors, stories, and characters." They also had collections of old and handmade toys and stuffed animals that they found in thrift stores over the years.

"We are also two artists who love to make lots of stuff," Knittel says. "We've lucked out and found that we can do this together, which makes things more interesting and fun."

That love of unique, old toys, as well as the rare ability of artist couples to work together on the same project, infused their creations. When they moved back to Baltimore in 1996, they had started a stable of drawn characters that became paintings. McRonald's sculptural bent led them to start cutting polyester hides--without benefit of patterns--from vintage fabrics.

After moving to New York in 1997, Dynamo found a niche. While McRonald and Knittel were selling their characters out of a temporary store they had set up, the floppy creations caught the eye of a young Japanese retail purchaser named Hanna who so loved the critters that she exported them home. Customers there latched onto the eerie, organic toys, which more resemble something out of Japanese animation than anything produced in the United States.

Hanna, who specializes in custom- and handmade artifacts, soon started her own store in Tokyo and invited Dynamo to help. McRonald and Knittel spent the months leading up to the grand opening sewing hundreds of characters for the store's inventory. As a publicity stunt, they even made jogging suits fastened with dangling, stuffed appendages like those of their weird creatures.

The creatures were a hit. One observer noted, "Apart from the cute jersey customized tops, embroidered skirts, corsages, and belts, there are little people that attract all the attention: the furry things from Dynamo-ville. These handmade puppets--or is that animals?--are to die for."

Knittel and McRonald are now in the early phases of a publishing a book in Japan that features their characters in paintings and as comics. But, as the adage goes, "big in Japan" doesn't necessarily mean success in America.

"It's slow here in the States," McRonald says. Though they have numerous fans here--and their toys sell well in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, as well as on Web sites like Kidrobot.com and WorkhorseVisuals.com (run by Logan Hicks, who occasionally contributes graphic design to CP)--"it's not the same as Japan. I think people [in Japan] are a little bit more willing [as] adults [to] buy toys and enjoy that aesthetic."

As children, we allow toys to indulge our imagination, McRonald says, but at some point--at least in Western culture--we give them up as the passageway between fantasy and the workaday world closes. "Adults either don't let themselves or can't go back and forth as easily as children," he says.

Dynamo found a corner to set up shop in Kidrobot.com. The site features "urban vinyl"--collectible figurines and action figures made in small batches by vinyl artists such as Eric So, Takumi, and Michael Lau. It's all the rage in Hong Kong and Japan, but the adult collectible toy craze hasn't quite spread here yet.

Still, Dynamo stitches on. McRonald is developing stop-motion films of their characters, and Knittel is branching out into comics. No medium is going untried as they explore every "portal" in and out of their galaxy. They're not yet sure what that world is and they're not sure where it might go.

"We're trying to stay balanced between not getting too commercial and making a living doing what we love and reaching as many people as possible," Knittel says. Toward this end, they're considering licensing their creations, to make them more accessible and less expensive (right now, one of their handmade toys costs anywhere from $50 to $150).

"This gets tricky, though, as it's hard to find manufacturers and representatives that can view our work as more than toys," he says. "We're having a much easier time with this in Japan, as there is a much larger specialty/art toy market, with lots of collectors. Ideally, we'd want that kind of situation here, too, but we may just have to settle on being a Japanese import for geeks that like our work."

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