It is with great sadness that we note the passing this month of Frank Nelson, one of the great makers of contemporary automata. I won't pretend that I knew him. Of course, I knew of his work and have always recognized it as some of the finest. Those who knew him have described him as a genius, who was inspirational, funny, and kind.
Like a few other luminaries in the field of automata-making, he was inspired by artist Sam Smith, who encouraged Nelson to try his hand and moving works and to enter them into exhibitions. Nelson, in turn, has inspired another generation of automata makers with his wit, fine carvings, and exquisite use of paint.
Frank Nelson's web site features a nice biography of his life as an artist. The passage below is taken from there.
Frank Nelson was born in Blackpool in 1930 and attended Blackpool Art School during the 1940s. He then spent some years in motor and aircraft design, becoming self-employed in 1960 and undertaking a range of model-making projects and design works for architects, museums film and theatre.
Frank Nelson started to carve and create automata in the early 1970's and for over 35 years he concentrated exclusively on automata with his own distinct figurative style using carved and painted wood. Over the years he has exhibited in most major galleries and art centres and acted as guest lecturer in a number of Universities, including the John Makepeace School for craftsmen in wood at Parnham House in Dorset. Many of his original automata are in public collections but of the many private commissions - he is proudest of the 'Barnum' automata commissioned by the actor Michael Crawford and based on the stage musical.
Nelson once described his piece 'The Tamer' (1975) as "the best idea I have ever had." The Tamer cracks his whip twice, but the big cat shakes its head from side to side, refusing to perform. On the third crack of the whip, the animal finally does the trick. The surprise comes in the form of a role reversal with the tiger putting his head into the Tamer's mouth.
Many of us who love automata own Frank Nelson a debt directly or indirectly. A man known for being generous with his time and knowledge, it is good to know that Frank Nelson's works will endure and his influence will live on.
Here is the official web site of Frank Nelson where you can see the paintings, drawings, portrait sculpture, and automata produced by this remarkable artist.