A long-distance collaboration that began with magnetic levitation


interviews NANCY GORDON
photography GUY MARSDEN

Mushroom Zoom
Photo: Dave Bruckenstein
Kaleidoscope close up.
Photo: Dave Bruckenstein

Guy Marsden, Woolwich, ME

You have a wonderful joke line by which you approach life …

I like to kid that the reason I don’t have children is because I have so much trouble raising my inner child!

In a word, how would you define yourself?

I am a creator.

Have you always loved art?

Yes, ever since I can remember. Some early influences were a trip to Holland where I saw pop art in a museum. And also, my uncle who made light sculptures back in the 1960s, known as Lumia art. This is a form of light art that goes back to the 1920s originated in America by Thomas Wilfred (1889–1968). Once I started making my own artworks in the early 1980s it was all about light and movement for me.

What drives you?

I wake up every day looking forward to creating something. So long as I am doing something to manipulate the physical world, I’m a happy guy. It can be anything from the mundane, like home repair, to electrical engineering, making things out of wood, metal, acrylic, etc.


MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). My parents supported my dropping out of high school in my junior year so I could start art school. My grades went from barely passing despite a relatively high IQ to pretty much straight A’s. I had never been so happy or fulfilled in my life by that point.

My degree was in photography and wood crafting and I built a very-large-format view camera from walnut with hand-folded leather bellows. It could shoot negatives in every format from 11 x 14 inches down to 4 x 5 inches and I took the photography graduating class portrait with it.

What sparked (sorry!) your interest in electrical engineering?

My dad and I built a crystal radio set when I was 8 or 9 years old. Ever since then, messing around with electronics has been one of many forms of creating that I have enjoyed.

And to be self-taught … Why that route?

I am a little dyslexic and math impaired, so the formal route just didn’t work for me, and honestly, never occurred to me. I like to say that I have a master’s in engineering from the School of Hard Knocks 30-year program! Although I am just now beginning to consider myself semi-retired from that kind of work at age 66.

Name and describe two projects that stand out to you as career highlights?

I don’t think of myself as having “a career” because I’ve had so many serial and parallel so-called careers throughout my life. Although a definite peak was getting myself hired to work on visual effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture back in 1979. Douglas Trumbull was then the rising star in the visual effects world and he hired me as a green kid from Baltimore based on the presentation I sent him. I later learned that he had a stack of resumes on his desk over six inches tall that he ignored in favor of me. The nine months I spent working on that film were so much fun I was giddy almost every day because I was so fulfilled in the work that I was doing.

Going back to my childhood, the first time I remember being lit up by the holy fire of the creative act was when I designed and built an “electronic ghost” at age 8. I used it to frighten my mother and sister. I still have the plans that I drew up for that and I remember how tremendously excited I was both designing and operating it. It used a slide projector to project a skull that I had rendered on tracing paper and an old reel-to-reel tape recorder that I recorded “woo woo” sounds into and played it back at half speed so it sounded scary.

And now, a wonderful collaboration with Dave Bruckenstein to bring his clocks to life. Was it instant creative sympatico?

Oh yes, we immediately understood each other and were able to communicate complex visual ideas by phone and text and email. It’s interesting that we have never met in person though, just video chat, e-mail and phone. It’s as if we are playing 3D chess during the design process and we enjoy it immensely. As the work progressed on different clocks, the friendship has deepened as we realize how much we have in common.

What’s the challenge for you in the clock projects?

I always enjoy a technical challenge, but in this case, it is also the aesthetic considerations that keep me interested. Dave and I trade off proposing different designs and features, without any judgment. You could say that we “play nice” with each other creatively and respect each other’s skills, limitations, desires and boundaries.

You craft each clock from Dave’s 3D drawings and code them so they work?

Yes, these projects encompass all of my skills including fabrication using metal, acrylic, wood, electronics and firmware (the code that goes inside them). It’s fun puzzling out the right use of materials and construction sequence. Writing the code is the least fun part for me, sometimes I get frustrated and have to keep walking away from these projects for up to a week at a time and coming back to them. Fortunately, Dave is very patient and doesn’t bug me until I get it done.

How do the plans for each clock evolve?

We are very co-creative and keep bouncing ideas back and forth from each other. Generally, we start with a concept that Dave models as a 3D rendering and use that for the jumping off point. Sometimes the resulting clock looks similar to that original drawing and other times it goes way beyond that into a different direction entirely. We have even abandoned ideas because they were impractical for one reason or another, despite various experiments he and I conduct. The final rendering that he does before I begin constructing is often very much like the final product. It helps us both to be very clear what our expectations are of its final form and function.

Do all of the clocks incorporate LEDs?

Not every clock incorporates LEDs (light-emitting diodes); the most recent one has motors, for instance.

What makes LEDs your choice for these projects?

For me personally, LEDs are something that have been part of my palette as an artist since the early 1980s. I find the pure primary colors to be inherently attractive; they are like my jellybeans! I literally have thousands of LEDs in my inventory!

Do you have a favorite clock?

Like most artists, the most recent work is always my favorite. I don’t always get to live with these clocks very long because once they are done I ship them off to Dave in North Carolina. However, the most recent clock, titled Lukie, is a favorite because I instigated the use of these beautiful linear motors made out of stainless steel. My own working process often begins with finding an intrinsically beautiful piece of technology that I then build the artwork around and this is how this piece evolved as well.

And now your neighbor John Rogers is also involved in building clocks with you and Dave. What does John bring to the projects?

John is my neighbor, one of my best friends, and I admire him enormously for his woodworking skills. He can build almost anything! His most significant contribution was to a clock that we call Lux, which we completed earlier this year. Basically, it is a tall, legged cabinet that is an evocation of a James Krenov–style cabinet. John had previously created two cabinets in that style and Dave and I realized it would be the perfect form for this particular clock. It is also by far the largest clock we have ever created and was a challenge to ship down to North Carolina.

We trusted John completely to come up with the design and proportions of the cabinet. This was one of those projects where the original design looked nothing like this but as it developed we moved in the direction of the cabinet and that put the construction outside of my comfort zone as a woodworker, so we brought John in. John enjoys making hand-cut dovetails and has actually taught woodworking joinery.

Any other projects you’re longing to do?

At this point, I am focusing on enjoying the ongoing process of working with Dave on whatever comes up. I haven’t created new artwork of my own for over a year because this process is so fulfilling.

. . .

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Dave Bruckenstein, Chapel Hill, NC

You have an interesting background in science. In what field is your PhD?

In Minnesota, my dad was the chairman of a chemistry division at the university. Given my dad’s position, our home was the site of many social events. From the youngest age I can recall dad’s colleagues (all “chemistry men”) repeatedly saying, “So, you’re going to be a chemistry professor like your dad when you grow up.” I guess this was so drilled into my head that it never occurred to me I would do something other than go to college and study science. I started at Cornell University as an engineering student, dropped out after two years and hitchhiked across country. I found my way back to Ithaca and transferred into the biology program. I subsequently received a PhD in neuropharmacology from the University at Buffalo, where I also met my spouse-to-be.

Tell us about working with your dad in his lab.

As a high school student, I worked in Dad’s chemistry lab for two summers. It was eye-opening and even a bit disturbing to see how revered Dad was by his graduate students and other professors. Given how uncool he was, this was in stark contrast to my opinion of him.

It was during those summers that I was surrounded by the enthusiasm and inventiveness of his students. I saw the graduate students goofing around (e.g., Super Glue had just been commercialized and one student who was familiar with this new glue tricked another into fusing his fingers together) in a way that often disguised just how collaborative they were being and how hard they were actually working. This all looked fun and a good fit for me down the road. But I wasn’t looking to be too much like my dad so it was good to see that the students had a nice balance in their lives. In contrast, Dad thrived mostly on his work with little time or interest in much else. But it wasn’t until I worked in his lab that I truly appreciated just how consumed he was with his work; every now and again, while lost in his thoughts, he would drive right past our house on the way home in the evening. I’ll admit that I, too, can be that focused at times and while it may be to the detriment of others, it’s a quality that served me well in the years of research and now again, when designing clocks.

How has your career in neuroscience impacted your approach to the clocks?

It’s pretty easy to see how designing clocks has many parallels to my research. To start, I’m a competitive person in many of things I do, and through research I developed a pragmatic approach that increased the odds for winning—I’ve carved out a niche of my own so that I might become a big fish in a small pond. As well, my best science was elegant in design, detail oriented (i.e., microsurgery) and visually rich (i.e., I created beautiful color photographs with a microscope in order to demonstrate my discoveries).

I get the same thrill designing a novel clock as I did when I made a new discovery in science. And clock designing fulfills my wish to turn sophisticated concepts into something beautiful. By avoiding the use of springs and gears—and until recently even motors—I’ve again found myself being creative in a small space, just swimming around a pond no bigger than I can handle.

Finally, I was fortunate to have a graduate school mentor who gave me an opportunity to learn how collaboration with others could enrich the research experience and enhance our lives. When it became necessary to rely upon others for help with clock fabrication, I eagerly replicated my mentor’s model of collaboration.

What drives you?

Maybe the overarching driver is the satisfaction I get from knowing that each clock in my gallery can be distinguished, through some unique trait, from all other clocks in the world. Of course, I understand that everything is derivative of what came before but I like thinking about what I can do that will yield a special outcome. Within this framework I’m compelled to design clocks that 1) tell time in a unique manner, and 2) are appealing to look at.

For a person who says he doesn’t care what time it is, it’s interesting that you chose clocks to design. How did this direction begin?

I didn’t set out to design clocks and it’s true that I’m not one who checks the time very often. And if I did I wouldn’t need clocks to do that. I can trace clock designing back to an interesting video I saw of an infinity mirror being built. The concept was so cool and yet the scientist/engineer in me could not stop focusing on what seemed to be an inherent design limitation. I wanted to design a better infinity mirror system and for months I just kept stewing over it.

Finally, when I wasn’t even thinking about infinity mirrors, I had an epiphany. With materials laying around the house I built a prototype of a Universal Infinity Chamber (Photo: Dave Bruckenstein). I knew it did what I wanted it to do but I was short ideas about how best to demonstrate its performance. So I started to place random objects behind it until I finally came upon a binary infinity clock I’d owned for a few years. It turned out that this clock and chamber were made for each other. That was Clock #1!

In the process of getting to this point, I was reminded how much I enjoyed tinkering around and playing in my shop that had been ignored for some years. Why did I then go on to make more clocks? The first one was fun and I liked the idea of challenging myself to make another one, again, using only using stuff that was laying around the house. Clock 2 then led to Clock 3 and I couldn’t stop myself.

What question in your mind led to your collaboration with Guy?

That’s simple. After being so satisfied with my first three clocks, I realized I’d found a very enjoyable hobby. But I wanted/needed to break away from the self-imposed constraint of building clocks using mostly spare parts that were laying around the house. I had this idea for a fourth clock based on magnetic levitation and I knew it would require relying on others to provide a suite of necessary skills—engineering, electronics and fabrication. That’s when I asked the question that led me to Guy: Can I find one person who has all the skills needed to make this clock? At the time, Guy sold levitation kits that he had made. I had no idea I would be making a new friend, as well as establishing a collaborative relationship with a talented artist/engineer who allows me to enjoy a hobby that would have gone no where without him. Luckily, I found the right guy!

What makes you and Guy such a successful collaborative team?

Guy likes to do things he hasn’t done before, so I can come to him with any idea and know it will get his full attention. Guy’s assessment of my ideas is always honest and if he likes it, he says so and if he doesn’t, he says so. We enjoy the process of noodling around ideas.

Guy’s viewpoint impacts each design and the clocks reflect how meticulously we blend our two perspectives. We both appreciate what the other brings to the table and we can come at something from completely different angles, we end up on the same page.

Ultimately, Guy takes full responsibility for making the clock a reality. He designs and builds the electronics, writes the code that runs things, and fabricates the clock by calling upon his skills working with metal, plastic and wood. Guy’s enjoyment of collaboration mirrors mine and it begins when he first sees a new concept and doesn’t end until the clock is finished.

We have high standards and enjoy sharing the pleasure and satisfaction derived from achieving our goal—a beautiful clock with functionality and form that set it apart from all others. I think this is just what happens when, despite being miles apart, our collaboration feels like we are sitting side by side at every step along the way. Someday soon I hope we meet.

You produce 3D drawings for you and Guy to work from, which go through many iterations. Do you know how you want each clock to visually perform?

Yes, very early on in the concept phase of design we settle in on roughly 90% of a clock’s specifications, appearance and functionality. I capture as much of this as I can in 3D renderings and then we begin to revise. New renderings are made and the process repeats until we have a final design. It’s remarkable how close the final clock resembles these drawings. It’s important to appreciate that these rendering are not blueprints; they don’t show the inner workings of the clocks, and the engineering details are absent as well. It’s left up to Guy to figure out how he will turn these renderings into a clock that will look as it should and perform according to specifications.

Which was the first clock that you and Guy collaborated on?
I had this idea for a magnetic-levitation-based clock but I couldn’t build it on my own. So with a prototype in hand, I searched the internet for folks I might work with. After several months I hadn’t found a single person who was a good fit with the project. I thought about the search terms I hadn’t yet used and started new searches. This is when I found one of Guy’s webpages about the magnetic levitation kits he was selling that allowed you to magnetically levitate small items. I sent Guy an e-mail outlining my idea and asking if this was the kind of thing he did. He got back immediately and said, “I’ll be happy to look at your design and let you know if I can help you get it formalized into a product.” It turns I abandoned this clock design for a number of technical reasons that Guy outlined. But then I shared with him another concept I had and that eventually became our clock #1, Floating Hands.

Inspiration for each design idea?

At times designs are driven by my interest to apply a cool technology. I watch a lot of videos and follow a number of Instagram sites that do a great job of demonstrating cool chemistry and physics concepts. Then I ask, “How can I turn that into a clock?” For me it’s a process that is very derivative (e.g., often beautiful designer lamps can be an inspiration). And more recently, ideas can be derivative of our own work. Guy and I now have eight clocks under our belt and with that comes a subconscious tendency for me to repurpose past ideas, but in ways that still result in novel and very interesting clocks.

You remarked that the clocks are “mostly about minimalism and electronics, there’s nothing mechanical.” Any change to that?

Minimalism seems to be a common theme that informs the direction of my clocks, both from appearance and operation. I came to Guy with a rule that there were to be no moving parts in my clocks. Gears, motors and springs were eliminated and time could be displayed through image-produced light from LEDs and in one case heat generated by very small bulbs.

But then when I was struggling to design a seventh clock, I hit a creative wall; I ran out of ideas using the limited toolbox I had imposed on myself. I needed more than just light so I relaxed the rule and came up with a design that required a rotating motor-driven disc. Of course, Guy immediately suggested ways to achieve my vision. That clock was so successful I subsequently came to Guy with another design that required motor-driven features and Guy, again, had the answer. I just can’t stump that guy!

You and Guy plan each clock very carefully. What happens when a clock doesn’t turn out the way you had expected?

Prior to collaborating with Guy I built clocks without help from anyone. How was this possible? I only designed clocks that I knew I could build. Each clock began as a fully functional, albeit crude, prototype, that only required a series of refinements to achieve the final design, e.g., replace a shoe box and extra 35mm camera lens with my dad's old Speed Graflex camera.

But that all changed once I started to design complicated clocks, i.e., clocks for which I couldn't build a fully functional prototype. Now prototypes were replaced with digital 3D renderings and a list of specifications that Guy and I agreed upon. I naively went into our initial collaborations assuming that “flawless” planning meant no surprises. But I gradually learned and accepted that this is not how it works. Because Guy likes to try new things, and we’re both inclined to take some risks, it’s inevitable to discover for each clock that things pop up during fabrication that we couldn’t have anticipated. While these situations may be disappointing we don’t allow ourselves to become paralyzed. Instead we just slip right back into design mode and find an alternative that satisfies us both. I guess that’s why in the end all clocks turn out just as I expected.

And recently John Rogers, Guy’s neighbor, has joined your team. What has John brought to the mix?

John is a delightful person and a wonderful collaborator. He is a fine woodworker and has provided the case for my two most recent clocks. Guy introduced us and together we all contributed to the design of the case and John and Guy worked together closely to make certain that the clock and case came together just as they should.

Do you have a favorite clock?

So far, because each is unique in its own way, I don’t have an easy winner when it comes to favorite. Each clock is special and it’s exciting to recall how the original idea came into my head and how it evolved. I’d like to think that my favorite clock has not yet been built.

What’s next?

Another clock! For the first time in our collaboration, I think we may be working on two clocks in parallel.

. . .

To watch the clocks in action, please visit:

John Rogers, Woolwich, ME

Has woodworking been your career?

At the age of 25 I built our first house. That is when I was sure making things was what I really wanted to do. Furniture was a sideline to house building, which was the source of the most income. Luckily for me, several of the house projects included cabinets and wooden furnishings.

What do you specialize in?

The styles of furniture have gone from Shaker to Queen Ann to contemporary and now a lot of turnings from the lathe.

Favorite woods to work with?

Walnut and cherry.

Are the clocks your first business collaboration with Guy?

Yes. We have helped each other with many personal projects over the past 14 years. Guy and I are constantly checking each other’s many individual projects.

What have you found most intriguing and enjoyable about the two clock projects you’ve worked on?

Building the clock cases to complement Guy’s work and making sure the two separate parts fit.

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