Femme Visuale: Sarah Thee Campagna of CyberCraft Robots

Sparks are in the air

As I poked around Sarah Thee Campagna’s garage-turned-studio, I couldn’t help but think, “Damn, these robots have more sass than I will ever have.” Whether it’s a cocked hip or an emphatic hand thrust into the air holding an umbrella, it’s shocking how simplified facial expressions and body language can be a gestalt for incredible amounts of unique character and personification of these bits of upcycled metal.

The CyberCraft Robots epic fantasy narrative extends beyond just fine art sculpture — it’s even more invested in the backstories behind these characters. To get you up to speed, CyberCraft Robots is based out of its Orbiting Laboratory that travels the galaxy to look for artifacts from the future. These artifacts (a.k.a. found objects) are actually fragments of disassembled robots, ray guns, and spaceships that were destroyed in for various reasons (not always wars, we don’t always know why they were disassembled/destroyed) that are reassembled into the glorious, shiny robots that you see today.

But you won’t find any welding here: it’s all in the art of fabrication.

“I cut metal, I bend it and hammer it, I just don’t use welding to put the pieces together. I’m still teaching myself the skills and getting the tools. This metal lathe is one of the next two tools I’m going to be learning how to use so I can start making my own shapes. I want to learn more things so I can have a bigger palette,” Campagna explains.

With a BS in Computer Information Systems and an interest in sci-fi, her shift into metal working after working as a computer systems analyst would appear to be seamless.

“I didn’t know how to do it, but it was this wonderful mysterious thing. The transition was really easy because when I found the right thing, everything fell together and it wasn’t like going upstream anymore,” she says. “This one here is gender non-specific, it’s name is Nor. It has just as many parts on the inside that you can’t see as it does on the outside. As a computer programmer, you learn that there is often more than one way to get something done, so that has helped me learn how to find the logical order in building these robots.”

Most of the time, she starts with a found object she finds interesting and goes from there. Occasionally, the idea will come first, like in “Signin’ & Dancin’ & Aliens in the Rain” or “Original… Choice” (once again, I ask, how can a robot be that sassy and curvaceous?).

“I got a little spoiled because the first place I went to for found objects was an estate sale of a guy who worked on Fords like the Model T and did it until the day he died, so they just wanted to get rid of everything in his garage. I came home with so much beautiful stuff, but it hasn’t been as easy since then,” Campagna says.

Along the wall of her studio, her objects are neatly and specifically curated into boxes divided by shape and size, like “Doo Dads Medium,” “Flat Round Things,” and “Heavy Cups.”

“You see this tall eye, and the thing in the middle? That’s part of a toilet paper holder. Part of collecting things comes from experience. I have things that I know would make a good start. I would say 20% of my time is spent collecting stuff, but I don’t go looking for specific parts, because that would take too long. Over time, I have learned what I use and what I can’t. There’s a lot of trial and error. Sometimes people call them ‘Junk Bots,’ but that is not my goal. That’s a broad term to describe anything made from tin cans to what I do, but I want to pursue fine art,” she says.

It’s not just the fine craftswomanship of these robots that makes them so unique, it’s the way the sculptures truly transcend their material components to become an anxiety-ridden “Teddy Munch” or a fierce “Valerie (Val) Kyrie.”

“For the most part, they tell me their stories as I make them. Like with Nor, I didn’t know much about hir but when the whole head positioning and leg thing happened, I just knew ze had to be a lounge singer,” she says.

In general, sci-fi does a great job of taking something out of its original environment, putting it against a different background, so it stands out. Not only is Campagna telling a science fiction story, she’s trying to tell a human story with emotion and personality.

“On their faces, I try to use as little as I can to get the idea across, and I have almost no robots that have mouths. It’s because I’m trying to get that idea across, and if you can get the eyes, the tilt of the head, and the body posture just right, you don’t need much else. If it’s emoting somehow, that’s when it becomes a work of art,” she says.

"Since I'm mostly a self-taught metal worker, Frank Strunk III mentored me with fasteners at the beginning,” she says.

As far as constructing things, that’s sort of the person she is anyways. For example, Campagna and her Dad built the house her parents live in.

“My parents never introduced to me the idea that there were things I could not do because I was a girl. In fact, they never implied that there were things I could not do — at all. 
That may be because I had no brothers, but I think it is because they were both raised in families where everyone worked hard. I saw them figure out a way to do everything. It's a really wonderful legacy that was given to my folks and that they passed on to us. So when I started college and was the only female in the Computer Science program, I didn't even notice. Twenty-five years after I graduated, I saw a video of an educator still trying to address the problem of so few women studying STEM (especially the TEM bits). That's when I looked back, called a classmate, and asked if I was the only female in the group,” she says. “He laughed when he told me I was.”

Though she’s not the only woman out there making robots, you can tell how gendered this field is as well.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked who does the art. If my husband and I are at my booth for an art show, people come straight up to him,” Campagna explains. “He’s gotten really good at saying, ‘She’s the artist.’”

This is one of the reasons why she uses “CyberCraft Robots” as her professional nom de guerre.

“The subculture of us who make robots typically use an industrial name for our businesses because it’s part of the kind of fantasy, science-fiction world we create. By using this name, I wanted to take gender out of it. There are robot artists who are women that make work that is fluffy and cute, and I didn’t want anyone to assume that when they heard the name of my business. There’s nothing wrong with that, but people might have a preconceived notion about what I would create and not investigate further,” she explains.

Needless to say, her lovable robots draw collectors in from all over the world, and she has been featured in three traveling museum exhibitions: Art of the RobotWhat Color is Your Dream , and Second Time Around  as well as Exquisite Corpse International which is slated for travel in the future. Since she doesn’t show a lot of her work at one time, she’s gearing up for big things in the coming years.

“I’m working on a solo show, but I don’t have a venue yet,” she says. “It’s going to take an enormous amount of pieces of work to make it happen, but I don’t intend to make any work — especially diorama pieces — that isn’t saying something big.”

To see more of Sarah Thee Campagna’s work, visit her website.

You can also buy her work at the Museum Store at the MFA St. Pete.

UPDATE:  The Orbiting Laboratory and its denizens will likely relocate to the airless space above Denver, CO in Fall of 2017.

Urban Dictionary defines Femme Fatale as “a woman with both intelligence and sex appeal that uses these skills to manipulate poor helpless men into doing what she wants. May cause death.” Keeping in line with this concept, Caitlin Albritton's "Femme Visuale" series aims to highlight local women artists and show off some lesser-known talent that's been hiding in the shadows. Art as a grand spectacle leaves little room for modest, sincere, or quiet voices, especially women's voices. And I promise, we won’t bite.

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