Tom Haney - An American Artist and Master of Automata Q&A

Tom Haney, American Artist

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Best Laid Plans

King of the Known World

Queen of the Silent Night



You never know what you're going to find when you visit the High Point Market, but we can tell you from experience that stumbling upon a magical piece of art makes for a great visit. It was a mesmerizing hand-carved shadowbox with an intricate figurine. This piece almost demanded a reverance as you could see a meticulously hand-carved king above the box. Even with professional art experience and Pratt Institute alumni status, it was humbling to see such elegance and painstaking detail. A seemingly rare find in a place filled with international buyers looking to purchase polished pieces. It was our first glimpse at the work of Tom Haney. An artist from Ohio and currently based in Atlanta, GA, Mr. Haney has been intrigued by mechanical movement since a young age. Collecting random objects, he uses movement to bring his figurines to life with strong connections to the past and even stronger applications to the present. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Tom for an interview. Get to know the artist behind the mesmerizing movements in our featured Artist Q&A:

Q1 What first inspired you to use mechanical movement in your artwork?
A1: I've always been fascinated with any kind of mechanical movement - but especially in art. As a child, I loved Alexander Calder's work. When my wife and I moved south in 1992, I was inspired by Southern folk artists, especially ones who made whirligigs - artists like R.A. Miller and Howard Finster. Back then, my wife and I made whirligigs. We got a couple of our pieces in a show in Oregon. That's where I met Ben Thal; he was making them with kinetic figures. When I got home, I was inspired to make an articulated figure to hang off the back of one of our whirligigs. The piece didn't work out the way I wanted it to, so I decided to put the figure on a small stage, and I added keys out front to operate his arms and legs. This first piece set me on the path I'm on today.

Q2 Where did you stumble upon automata and what was your first attempt to combine it with your figures?
A2: I was making key-operated pieces for a few years before discovering the word automata (a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being.) I guess I always knew about clockwork-driven toys and mechanical figures, but didn't know the full history of automata. My first attempt at a motor-driven piece was called "Marathon," and it featured a couple dancing. I made it in 2001 and it was powered by a salvaged wind-up Victrola motor.

Q3 Your figures seem so realistic! Do you base them off of actual people?
A3: I rarely base my figures on actual people; I've only worked from photos a handful of times. I like to rely on my memory and impressions I have of different types of people. I never want to do faces that are dead-on realistic. I like my blend of caricature and self-taught naive style.

Q4 You use so many vintage pieces and artifacts in your artwork. Where are some of your favorite places to find such items?
A4: Most of my found objects come from flea markets, antique stores and sometimes, thrift stores. Anytime we are traveling, it's always fun to stop at these places and look for "treasures." I have a pretty good stash now, and don't look as much as I used to.

Q5 Why is connecting to the past through artwork so important?
A5: I think I've always been connected to the past. When I grew up, my parents took me to every museum and historical site they could find. Today I find myself more and more fascinated by the past. I love to learn old techniques and methods, and incorporate them into my work. This is one of the reasons why I love wood carving - it connects me to a bygone era - for me, it's a way to travel back in time.

Q6 All of your figures seem to tell a story. What stories do you think are most important to tell?
A6: A lot of my stories, or narratives, have to do with overcoming life's obstacles; life's challenges.

Q7 How long does it usually take to carve a figure on average?
A7: A figure can take anywhere from five to 20 hours depending on the complexity. Hands take a while to do depending on their configuration. And any time I have jointed arms or legs, moving heads, or any other moving part - it just adds more time.

Q8 Who would you say is your biggest inspiration?
A8: Today my biggest inspiration is also my biggest challenge - to try to find narratives that speak to people, but also include some sort of purposeful movement. I'm also inspired to take my work to the next level - either create a movement or mechanism I've never done before or create a tableau I hadn't thought of. I keep all of my ideas in a sketchbook and check them off as I make them. There are many ideas that I have not pursued because I try to select the ones that will have the most impact, ones that work on multiple levels. I'm picky like that.

Q9 For young artists who really admire your style, where did you do your art training/education?
A9: I actually went to school (University of Cincinnati) for Industrial Design, focusing on Product Design. There I learned how to operate every power tool in a typical woodshop. I also learned about many materials and processes. I have a pretty well-rounded background. Over the years, I've taught myself to carve and work with hand tools. I've also developed my own way of painting. I'm always learning and trying to push my work and my process forward.

Q10 What advice would you pass on to aspiring artists faced with a world full of trends and new technology?
A10: Many people point out that young artists need to learn the basics, and I would have to agree with that. Learn how to work with your hands. Learn to paint, to draw, learn how to make things, learn how to do things in the physical realm. They will always come in handy, and those skills can always translate to the virtual world if you want to go that route.

We hope you enjoyed our first ANH Artist Q&A! Keep checking our website to meet the latest featured artist. Learn even more about Mr. Haney on his website or contact him at

By Jordan Moses & Micheal Stiles





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