Chris Bathgate hasn’t been a layman for a long time. The sculptor spends his working days in his basement studio or in his home office on the computer designing his intricate sculptures, which look, at least to this laywoman, like a combination of Transformers, gears of industrial machines that make something very large like a car or printing press, and jewel-toned missiles. “My process is not fundamentally different from the way the Mars Rover is made or built,” Bathgate offers as an explanation for the way he makes these metal works for which he is internationally renowned. “It uses the exact same tools and exact same processes, just simplified on a more basic scale.”
Peering into his computer and seeing that this first explanation isn’t registering with me, Bathgate helpfully produces a visual, sharing his screen on our Zoom call to show a digital drawing he has rendered for a sculpture he plans to produce in the next week. He attempts to walk me through this illustration, explaining that these working drawings contain “a lot of stuff that makes no sense to nobody but me,” which does make me feel somewhat justified in my mystification.
At the conclusion of his first pass at explaining to me how he makes his work, I suggest we try a teaching technique I use with my college students to check if they have learned something. I tell Bathgate I will try to explain his process back to him and then he can correct me when I am wrong. Essentially, Bathgate begins with a simplified drawing from which he does a rough three-dimensional render which he considers a proof. After proofing an idea, he is able to break down the sculpture he plans to make into parts and think about the best way to machine them.
Bathgate adds, “I don’t design things that can’t be built, but I don’t build things without a design.” He considers himself an engineering sculptor: When “making a sculpture you really are bringing both ends of the process to a conclusion that’s possible,” he says. “I’ve talked to a lot of designers who aren’t engineers and I talked to a lot of engineers who hate designers because designers like to design beautiful, wonderful things that are impossible to make.” It’s important to Bathgate that his works be makeable, at least by someone with his extremely specific skill set, which he admits only a few people in the world possess.
His works are not, by and large, CNC-routed or 3D-printed, as many assume, although they may have some components of those processes; he actually uses a wide range of manual machine tools, preferring to finish everything himself by hand and then assembling a work to make sure all the pieces fit together correctly. Twenty minutes into our interview and thinking he’s finally seeing some flash of deep understanding from me, Bathgate concludes our joint explanation saying that his process is “as complicated as building a car from scratch.” Nailed it.
It’s the intricacy of his process that Bathgate likes because he fears he would grow bored of making art otherwise. He loves machining because “it’s a never-ending parade of new skills, techniques, applications, machine-building.” In the twenty years he’s been working this way, he’s never run out of new things to try. Every time he tries a new technique it has the potential to function as a catalyst for five more ideas that he has to try next. By constantly pursuing the feeling of learning something new, Bathgate has found himself experimenting on the edge of the technologies he employs. Working constantly to stay abreast of new innovations, updates, machines, and processes, he’s been able to keep art-making fresh for himself.
Bathgate has also done an excellent job of keeping his art engaging for a wide audience of clients and collectors, many of whom are not from the art world and might not immediately identify themselves as art collectors. This is because Bathgate’s sculptures have a wide crossover appeal with engineers, scientists, and even the DIY maker community. While he didn’t set out with the intention of making work that appeals to sci-fi heads, Bathgate has been able to connect with many people online and build a wide following of fervent fans, some of whom purchase a piece from every edition of sculptures he releases. As a result, these small editions and some knockoffs are being traded all over the internet. A search for “Chris Bathgate” on eBay in December yielded 58 results, the first 10 of which were for small pieces Bathgate has made mixed in with some pretty clear imitators (the remaining search results were for used CDs by a musician who also happens to be named Chris Bathgate).
Unlike other artists I’ve spoken to who have had their work stolen by large corporations, Bathgate is amused by his copycats, acknowledging that someone went through a lot of trouble and needed access and knowledge of how to use specialized equipment to even try to copy his work, probably to little personal profit. In his home office, he has a couple of these pieces that collectors have bought and sent to him to verify, and a few he’s purchased himself. He’s always interested in how people have interpreted his work. About this secondary market of imitators, Bathgate says, “If somebody wants to put my work on a T-shirt, I just tell them to let me know that they’re going to do it and send me a couple so I can have them.”
SUBJECT: Chris Bathgate, 40 WEARING: “I am fashion agnostic, and that’s OK.” PLACE: Zoom
Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading?
Chris Bathgate: The Nature and Art of Workmanship by David Pye. This book was first published in 1971. Out of print and a little out of date, but you can still find it second-hand. It is kind of dry, but it is a very nuts-and-bolts look at the anatomy of making things. Whether you are an artist, designer, or engineer, it is an applicable text.
David Pye was an industrial furniture designer and also a studio woodcarver. This book is an attempt to take some of the language we use when we talk about art, craft, and design, and make it much more precise and well defined. For example, when I talk about “craft” with other artists, I often find we are talking about completely different things. Some people say “craft” and they mean to describe what they do (their vocation), while others are actually talking about how they do it (their skills and process). Art writing is notoriously squishy because it (often intentionally) uses vague terms with multiple meanings. This book is an attempt to build a structure for how we talk about the more tangible parts of designing and creating works of art. It has parallels to how engineers and scientists have created much more rigorous definitions and methods for describing things so that discussions don’t get bogged down with syntax or semantics, something the art world very much needs.
In addition to that, it is a great treatise on the evolution of the arts into ever more automated and digital formats. Again, it is a bit antiquated, but it talks about these concepts in such universal terms that it speaks well to the contrast between digital fabrication and good old-fashioned handwork. It really dissects the dichotomy between concept and execution, reinforcing the fact that there is no bright red line that cleanly separates the two. This might at first seem of limited use, but it helped me see formalistic aspects of my craft in much more conceptual ways.
You’re someone who has very much carved his own career path so I assume “traditional” career advice didn’t hold much water for you. Is there any advice you have received or read that you have found helpful in your life as a full-time artist?
Career advice is a fickle thing. Good advice given to the wrong person, or at the wrong time, is still bad advice. If I tell someone they should gamble everything and quit their day job to make a go of it as an artist, if that person doesn’t have the right temperament, or the conditions are wrong to muster a serious attempt, I could be dooming that person to a lot of grief and misery (or worse) if they take my advice.
With that in mind, the best advice I could share is to ignore any and all advice that does not feel exactly applicable to you.
You’re born and raised in Baltimore. Why did you stay and decide to raise your son here? What makes Baltimore a great place to live and be an artist?
I have always liked the idea of building something great in the place where you are over moving to where the grass is always greenest. I must admit however that staying in Baltimore wasn’t an entirely conscious decision for me at first.
I went to MICA straight out of high school and then dropped out a year later. From there, I bummed around Baltimore for a while, living out of my car and at friends’ houses before settling into a day job that gave me a steady income to start building a life and my studio. Early on, I was just so focused on making my work that it didn’t matter where I lived so long as I had four walls and a roof to make my work under.
Over time, however, I realized a very simple truth about running a studio practice, which is the more expensive it is, the more money you have to make to keep the lights on. I had quite a few artist friends who moved to New York, and most of them were working so hard just to make rent that their art practices suffered or fell apart completely. After watching many of them struggle and or fail, Baltimore’s appeal became very apparent and I resolved to stay.
Over the years, I have heard stories from many other local artists that echo that same sentiment. I am very heartened by what the Baltimore art scene has become in the 20 years I have been practicing here and I can’t imagine going anywhere else.
How would you describe your relationship with failure? Is there any advice you give to young people about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of any career?
My relationship with failure is quite healthy; we cross paths all the time and largely get along OK.
I think the most important thing to know about failure is that the disappointment it causes, in most cases, is incredibly fleeting. There are a lot of metaphors out there about “picking yourself up,” but the truth is humans have a remarkable ability to normalize any current state, be it good news or bad. Unless it causes you irreparable financial or physical harm, the pain of failure passes even if you don’t do anything at all. You get a rejection letter or things go south in the studio and you go to bed bummed out, but you wake up the next day and you are likely already over it.
This is also true of the excitement and happiness brought on by achievement; you work hard, you achieve something and it feels great, for a very short time. However, the itch to achieve soon returns and you are off striving for your next goal.
Failure, like achievement, needs to be a part of a larger strategy of constant personal growth. If you always have your eye on a range of middle- and long-term goals, the ups and downs of the short-term become much easier to keep in perspective and manage.
In our conversation, you described a fairly unique business model where you reach out to various audiences you know who enjoy your work and offer them what is essentially a preorder on a new body of work before you make it. So now, it’s rare for you to make work before it has sold. Where do you think you got your sense of business from?
It is just hard-won experience, really. I worked for 11 years doing what most artists do, which is a day job with studio time on the side. It was 40 hours a week for a day job and 30 hours a week in the studio for 11 years before I was able to make enough of a living to be an artist full-time. Some of my success in moving to a full-time studio practice was from getting various grants and merit awards. However, staying self-employed as an artist has meant selling my work regularly.
To do that I needed an audience, and more importantly, a collector base. Figuring out how to cobble one together came from analyzing the small number of sales I was making at the time I left my day job. When I’d get a win and sell a piece, I’d sit back and say, “Well, how did that happen? What were the common factors between that sale and all of the others?” Taken individually, many of my art sales just felt like dumb luck. But taken collectively, I started to realize, “Oh, all of these collectors found my work in what could be classified as completely random and strange circumstances.” For example, one of my collectors had a creative assistant who happened to go to school with someone with my exact name. She accidentally googled me looking for her friend, and kindly shared my work. That seems absurdly random, but there’s nothing random and strange if everyone is finding your work through random and strange circumstances, and I have plenty of stories like that. I reasoned that one of my strategies should simply be to cast a very wide net to capture as much serendipity as I could. This led to a lot of experimentation with approaching new and seemingly unrelated audiences.
What really figured it out for me is that the people who are buying my work aren’t coming through the normal channels of a studio, museum, gallery, or a curator. While I have participated in the gallery scene, very few of my sales have ever come through the main avenues that artists look to as their lifeline to sell work, they’re coming through random social media interactions, they’re coming from having my work highlighted in magazines, blogs, or other media that are not necessarily fine art related (I have had my work in the Russian version of Popular Mechanics magazine). The art world is just too small to support every artist deserving of a good career, and my experience was telling me I was right to look elsewhere.
For example, I connected with one of my oldest, most repeat collectors through a MAKE magazine story that was aimed at inspiring young makers through STEM projects. It really highlighted for me that I had to identify as many tangentially related audiences as I could, and in a sincere way, push my work into them to see what conversations and connections might result.
I use the metaphor of when you go to a resort town and you pass those galleries that are near every waterfront, where it’s paintings of sailboats and ships and beaches. People don’t typically buy those paintings because their primary interest is painting, they buy those paintings because they’re into boating or the idea of “vacation” as a lifestyle, they’re connecting with those paintings for reasons other than a primary interest in art. It comes down to meeting people where they are and creating an entry point for them to relate to your work, not through your interests, but theirs. You don’t have to start painting beach scenes to sell art, you just have to make an honest assessment of your work and try to imagine where else it might resonate. Then put your work in front of people who have those interests, see if anything clicks, and most importantly, listen to what they have to say.
I was just open-minded about how other people might perceive my work. If someone said my sculpture reminded them of Steampunk, whether or not I agreed with that comparison, I would approach a bunch of Steampunk groups on Facebook and say “Hey, what do you think of this work? How do you relate to it?” And the conversation would evolve from there and maybe I’d meet a few people who wanted to learn more about me and my art. I did this quite a bit, across a broad swath of interests, and I eventually pieced together an audience that was interested in more than just looking.
What material do you use so much you should buy stock in it?
Nitrile gloves. I use so many disposable gloves, hundreds of pairs a week. I am allergic to touching most kinds of dust, which is what started my habit of regular glove-wearing. Much of my work requires either extremely clean hands, or it is dirty or mildly toxic enough that I need to practice safety. Wearing heavier reusable cloth gloves is incredibly dangerous for a machinist working in and around moving machinery, so there really is no way around it when it comes to disposables.
This is a bit of an issue now with the ongoing pandemic. With PPE in short supply, finding gloves has become a moral and logistical challenge. I have tried to reduce where I can, but given that I have a semi-legitimate need, I have turned to buying gloves on eBay’s grey market. I am paying a premium in the process but I don’t have a lot of choice, so my cost for gloves is one of the bigger line items in my budget all of a sudden.
What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for?
Haha, I’m not touching that one. Don’t you know that most people are only remembered for exactly one thing? Seeing as I want to be remembered for my work, I have resolved to be wholly unremarkable in all other aspects of my life.
What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it?
Gosh, I don’t know, I rarely leave my house. This is trivial but I accidentally presaged the fidget spinner thing a while back so that is my only real claim to having this kind of foresight. It’s an interesting story so instead I will give you the quick version.
Fidget spinners actually originated as a niche craft object within a small corner of the machinist community. Early versions were machined from metal and some were quite visually and technically interesting. For a short time, they looked like they might be an emergent craft form within the decorative art, metalworking, and machining community.
At that time (before the craze) I designed my own sort of sculptural fidget spinner thinking it might be a way to talk about sculpture among a group of makers who rarely see their work in an art context. I wanted to highlight the fact that while most industrial arts movements such as woodturning and fine art glass tend to have well-defined traditional craft forms, machining as a vocation doesn’t really seem to.
Anyhow, long story short, it all blew up in my face mid-project and the world ended up with a silly toy fad instead. Oh well.
What’s a favorite local restaurant and what is your go-to order?
I miss restaurants… I really do. Take out from Fire & Rice at the moment.
I typically ask people what they would have done for work if they couldn’t be an artist but with you, it feels fairly obvious you could have been a machinist or an engineer. Why pick art to pursue instead?
I need to be in an environment where I am constantly learning. If it wasn’t art, it would be something equally vague where I could just sort of bird walk my way into new interests. It is my understanding that being an engineer requires one to specialize in a way I would find constraining. Likewise, being a job shop machinist gives you little control over what you make, so again, not my cup of tea. There just aren’t many professions as wide open as the arts.
To be honest, I’d probably just end up being like the inventor dad from the movie Gremlins.
Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What do you do just for fun? How did you get into that?
I have had many (many) hobbies, but I am not in a position to say if any are unusual.
Lately, because free time is scarce (I’m a dad now), I just try to make sure that any new interest I might have can serve double duty in advancing my art practice, even if it is in some small way. In order to be worthy of my time, it needs to benefit me more than just recreationally.
Writing and publishing my own art book is a good example. It started out innocently enough, but has grown into an immensely satisfying (if intermittent) past time. Keeping it up to date while punching up the older bits as I improve my proficiency with the medium is as close to a hobby as it gets for me.
I used to think my book was just some extra thing I did on the side, but it has become the primary artifact representing the arc of my life’s work. Individual works of art only tell part of what I am trying to get at. It is my body of work, taken collectively, that truly represents the concepts I find most interesting. Viewed in this light, I have resolved to republish it every few years as if it were any other aspect of my practice.
I tend to absorb hobbies into my work this way. I did the same thing with a couple of 3D printers I built.
I am constantly walking between my machine shop and my office. To do this I have to pass through the living spaces of my home without tracking razor-sharp pieces of metal everywhere. So the most important piece of gear I require is shoes I can slip off (and on) easily at the threshold to my shop.
There are a few companies now selling “hands-free” sneakers. They are gimmicky, but they actually work, so this is a recent improvement to my shop attire.
If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the project you’d make or the show you would curate.
There is an endless list of tools and equipment I would love the opportunity to own and experiment with. My machine shop is incredibly humble when you consider that there are advanced machine tools out there that cost well over two million dollars.
I have tried to collaborate with a number of fabricators and machine tool manufacturers over the years in order to gain access to more advanced equipment. However, most of the time they want me to make something that can be branded and serve as a marketing tool. This leaves little room for making the kind of art I would actually want to come out of such a project, so it never goes anywhere.
Collaboration with the goal of sharing a piece of equipment is limiting. In order to properly utilize a tool of any kind, you really need to own it so you can familiarize yourself with its capabilities (even take it apart if you need to). You need to experiment freely in the privacy of your own studio, away from scrutiny. Most studio craft movements only took off once the tools and technology they embodied could be scaled for individual use. This is a huge impediment for artists who want to utilize more advanced manufacturing processes. In order to have an intimate working knowledge of a tool, it needs to be yours, so the ideas it generates can evolve organically.
Needless to say, given resources, there are countless ways I could expand my capabilities.
Craft is important to you, as is having your own hand evident in the work and being able to do each part of your process. Would you say, at this point, that you relate more to craftspeople than fine artists? What do those words mean to you (if anything) or do you find these kinds of classifications elitist and ultimately unhelpful in describing what you do?
The terms “craftspeople” and “fine artist” can be hard to pin down and make blanket statements about. I would say that I relate to people who value their work and process enough to insist on being integral to its creation. I am drawn to creators who realize there is intelligence in their muscles and hands, as well as their brains, that skill building and idea creation are the same thing. That is not to say there aren’t great works that do not adhere to those standards, but I personally reserve a healthy dose of extra scrutiny for artists with good ideas and clean hands.
That all might sound weird coming from someone who uses computer-controlled machinery to make much of their work. However, there is plenty of hand work to be found in what I do, and striking a balance between automation and elbow grease has given me an appreciation for the full spectrum of workmanship, from highly regulated, to incredibly free. I would have to disagree with any school of thought that distinguishes between craft and fine art outright. Looking at extreme examples of each can lead one to conclude the two are different, but it is impossible to draw a neat line between them. It is that blurry middle where the most interesting things happen for me.
Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?
Yes and yes.
Who are your business heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?
Business heroes? None really. I am always happy to talk about the business side of my practice but I am careful to point out that selling art should have no impact on the direction of your creative output and that the similarities between a traditional business and the business of selling art are few.
Take the truism that “the customer is always right.” This has absolutely no application in the arts, the artist is always right. Period. The business world is a world of brands and products; the art scene is composed of people and expressions. It’s apples and oranges.
It strikes me that there seems to be a lot of emphasis on personal branding these days. Most of it is harmless, and in some cases perfectly appropriate. But I sometimes feel it is a mistake for artists to give themselves over to the trappings of conventional branding models or to attempt to cultivate some sort of marketable alter ego. Most of the people I know who collect art do so because they value the real human being creating it. I assume some of this is out of a desire to project professionalism or success, but it can be confusing to someone who is taking a first impression of your work. I know I have often wondered when browsing artist pages whether I am looking at the work of an individual, a company that is outsourcing their designs overseas, or even a reseller.
I try to maintain my personhood in everything I do. I insist that I am not a brand, I am a person, and I do not make products, I make art. Even having something as simple as a logo, which is strangely popular these days, has felt like a bridge too far for me.
What would your teenage self think of you today?
My teenage self was kind of an idiot, I don’t really care what he thinks 🙂
Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?
I worked at Burger King when I was 14 years old. It was horrible.
What have you learned the hard way?
Working with industrial machine tools, many of my own design, means there are layers of calculated risk and general physical danger woven into what I do on a daily basis. If one does not have good safety habits and enough domain knowledge to account for rare but predictable mishaps, things can get ugly in an instant. But even in the best circumstances, and even with the most meticulous planning, there are always things that a machine shop environment will teach you the hard way. Through simple programing errors, I have broken hundred dollar cutters before I’ve had the chance to use them, I have crashed and damaged machinery by failing to properly account for the geometry of a tool or fixture, and I have cut and burned myself countless times by handling parts and tools in ways I should really know better. Thankfully tools can be fixed and replaced, and I have avoided any serious injury as of this writing.