You can play with John Payne’s dinosaurs again.
Two years after the River District pioneer and sculptural innovator’s death, his metal marionettes have found a home at a new museum in Biltmore Park.
DINO-Kinetics is the new menagerie for the late artist’s outsized creatures from the ancient wilds. The industrial-looking space, full of dinosaurs and Payne’s other massive mechanical beasts, holds not so much an exhibition, but an event.
“There is really nothing like it anywhere in Asheville,” said Chris Payne, John's former wife and the exhibit's curator. DINO-Kinetics is a place where kids (and kids-at-heart) get to actually make the life-size dinosaurs move through an ingenious combination of art, science and engineering — and a PS2 remote.
Artist John Payne, Asheville's own Jim Henson, passed away in 2008, leaving a hole in the heart of the local arts community. His idea was to merge sculpting and figurative metal with his love of nature and history. His own natural curiosity, coupled with a passion for dinosaurs, led him to create work that was as much educational as expressive.
“I like to inspire,” John said in a past interview. “An exhibit like this is an alternative form of education. My mind needs to be satisfied by learning and by discovering. That's what keeps me going in art. I like art because it is total exploration in my mind.”
His interest in the mechanics of things began at an early age, according to Chris. “As a kid he was very interested in how his toys worked, not what they did,” she said. “He wanted to take the toys apart.”
Eventually, John taught himself CAD design engineering. He came to Asheville in 1996, and soon after founded the Wedge Studios, where he started building his dinosaurs. His creative process began with details; he studied fossils extensively before ever picking up a hammer or torch.
“Dinosaur books were all over our house, in every room,” said Chris. “When we first moved to Asheville, Trevor, our son, who was 10 at the time, came to me and said, 'I don't know what's going on … you're not going to work and dad's building dinosaurs!' And that totally sums it up.'”
John's dinosaurs caught the attention of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which shared his vision and became a patron. “You have keep faith that you are doing the right thing,” said Chris.
DINO-Kinetics hosts 16 of John Payne's “giant mechanical marionettes,” as he called them, including a huge whooping crane, an oversized crow, a 40-foot long Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Triceratops, a Dinonycus and a Plesiosaur. The location was chosen for its convenience and easy parking (including for school buses), Chris said. It’s the first time that all the sculptures have been in one place.
Each sculpture was hand-hammered, forged, fabricated and linked so the dinosaurs can move through a pulley and cable system. Payne used sheet metal, recycled pieces of sundry materials and even old utility poles to make his giant metal marionettes. He innovated ways to mimic the joints of the creatures by adding ball and sockets to knees and elbows, manifesting his belief that “movement is life.”
John worked closely with Brett Pierce of Interactive Electronic Design to program and install electronic components so the sculptures could be operated by a simple video game remote control.
The concept for the DINO-Kinetics exhibit came from Chris and John’s children, Trevor and Lydia. The three were left with John's work when he died. “I knew we couldn't do anything with them (the dinosaurs) [if we left them] in the wooden crates,” says Chris.
But the exhibit could not have come together without the work of Tina Councell of Iron Maiden Studios, and Chas Llewellyn, of video production company Zenotopia. Councell was John's assistant/apprentice for five years and now works out of his old studio space. Both Councell and Llewellyn were the “ringmasters of the operation,” said Chris. They were tasked with the massive job of getting the machines out of storage and into the exhibit space. Then they had to get them put together and functioning.
“Neither Chas nor I had seen or set up several of the creatures,” said Councell. Even though Councell helped to build the whooping crane, many of the largest creatures were done in the early years, before Llewellyn’s time. John didn’t leave directions on how to assemble them. “It was quite a feat to figure out how to put some of the bigger dinosaurs together,” said Councell. “It was kind of like a giant puzzle.”
“We had to take the doors off the front of the building and roll T-Rex in,” said Chris. And the entire operation had to be done without forklifts of any kind.
Councell and Llewellyn measured the room dimensions and the sculptures, and then created computer-generated models and schematics to plot the layout for DINO-Kinetics. “Tyrannosaurus took 27 hours to put up,” said Llewellyn. “It was quite a big endeavor. People say we missed an opportunity to do a reality TV show, because this would have been fantastic material.”
Llewellyn first found John after attending one of his dinosaur experiences in the Wedge building during the River District Studio Stroll. You paid a few bucks and walked into a room filled with smoke, with metal dinosaurs clanging around inside the studio space. “It was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life pretty much,” he said.
John Payne's dinosaurs were designed for transportability, and while many of them traveled to various museums around the country for several years, ultimately the Payne family would like to find them a permanent home. DINO-Kinetics won’t necessarily be that place, but Chris would prefer that the Payne menagerie remain in Asheville.
“It's about inspiration, mostly. This is one man's work. He spent 15 years putting this together and doing everything he could to make it happen and he never worked with more than one or two assistants at a time,” said Llewellyn.
If you visit the DINO-Kinetics exhibit at Biltmore Park, expect to be impressed by the beauty and the visibly raw nature of the sculptures. The artist isn't done impressing, educating and enlightening, even if he is himself no longer with us.
“John wanted kids to know that if you can dream it – you can do it,” Chris recalled. “He started with an idea and then a sketch and then it developed into a 44 foot T-Rex!”
[ilana Mignon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]