Why did we pick this theme? Initially it had to do with lightning. Daniel’s been doing some fantastic three-dimensional pieces that contain live electric elements resembling lightning. He started doing them for our neighborhood Halloween trick-or-treaters, who would come by our garage and be greeted by “Igor” (Daniel hunched over in a crazy wig) and see the show of lights, switches, and gauges in wood cabinets that he made by hand. Then we took one of his pieces to Son of Monsterpalooza last October, and Daniel was invited to show it in “Conjoined III” at Copro Gallery, curated by Chet Zar. Meanwhile, I was doing drawings of historic figures for T-shirts. (I just did a custom version of my Edgar Allan Poe T-shirt for the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, and a women’s rights museum in Washington, DC, has asked me if I can make tote bags of my “Votes for Women” T-shirt design. So far, so good.) What if we combined Daniel’s lightning with my historical figures and did a show about the era of lightning, revolution, and reason? Now we are.
We are also big fans of steampunk, and the Victorian history behind steampunk made us wonder: Didn’t the lightning and the gears get going before the Victorian era? Who were the Fathers of Steampunk?
Thea Saks, “Animal Electricity,” ink on paper.
At first I wanted to do large pieces that would allow me to tell detailed stories about, for example, how real-life experiments with applying electric currents to animals and people inspired Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” So, starting out in large-piece mode, I made four large pieces (just one of them is about “Frankenstein;” the others are about Ben Franklin and the steam engine champions Boulton & Watt). Then I met with one of the curators of the gallery that will be hosting us. She pointed out that a combination of small, medium, and large pieces might be more visually interesting and also…well, let’s say I tend to go hog wild with information in a large piece. So, okay, I could do some smaller pieces. But wouldn’t that mean I’d have to do MORE individual pieces than I’d originally planned? Yikes. But I could do it, I said. Meanwhile, I’ve been carrying a sketch page everywhere in case I can steal time here and there to hammer out the details of both new and not-quite-finished pieces. I’ve been working at night too. And my annual summer vacation in New York was essentially cut in half—from a month down to two weeks—and it’s been a working vacation. Thank God I didn’t have to do this in the era before the Internet. With an iPhone, I can do my picture research anywhere I am.
One thing that’s been challenging in doing these “Enlightenment” pieces is making sure I understand the science. I made up the idea for my painting “Franklinstein” (my daughter came up with the title), in which Ben Franklin has sewn together the “Join or Die” snake from his 1754 print and, by galvanizing it with lightning from his kite, made it into a Frankenstein’s monster. So there wasn’t so much to understand in order to make that one work (although I think it helped that I reread the crucial passages of Mary Shelley’s book and have seen the Universal Studios “Frankenstein” movies many times—and, by the way, the movie I’ve seen that most accurately portrays the experimental electrical apparatus of Mary Shelley’s time is the one directed by Kenneth Branagh). But a lot of my pieces tell the stories of how real science made things work, such as the Boulton & Watt steam engine and the gadgets Antoine Lavoisier used to heat substances and reveal the presence of oxygen and other gases. These have required more learning. I’ve been reading articles and staring at old scientific illustrations over and over to make sure I have the info right. And in some of the pictures I look at, the small details of how things work are hard to see. I might have to write to some museums and get larger or clearer pictures. And what if they ask what I’m doing with their carefully archived information? I can just hear myself trying to describe pieces like “Franklinstein” to them.
Daniel Saks, Frankenstein lab cabinet, mixed media.
Lightning and Halloween go hand in hand, which is probably why the gallery wants to do the show in October. And, suitably, the cruel and the unusual are inevitably part of artwork that depicts 250-year-old science and history. Giovanni Aldini galvanized the heads of executed criminals to see how their faces changed. And, speaking of condemned men who lost their heads, Lavoisier was guillotined during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. I enjoy the dark side of art immensely, so I’m working on these pieces with passion.
It’s tough to pick a weekend that month, with all the other Halloween events that are also forthcoming. But we’ve narrowed it down to October 19, we think. We’ll continue to keep you posted about the ups, downs, and specifics.