Knowing Your Neighbors: Woodcarving Artist

Brule, Wis. — When you think of art, you probably don’t think of automata.

But these detail pieces are interactive mechanical sculptures that originate from clock makers hundreds of years ago.

One Wisconsin sculptor has perfected making automata almost entirely out of wood, with the help of very few metal parts.

Cecilia Schiller had been creating automata for nearly 15 years, she uses her creations to tell stories with hand sculpted carvings and gears.

“It’s a work of love you could say. It brings a lot of joy and a little bit of magic to peoples life’s when they see these pieces come to life right before their eyes,” said Schiller. “You only need an audience of one, just somebody to turn the crank.”

Automata requires lots of knowledge of hands on skills, from woodcarving, engineering, sewing, painting and much more.

Schiller got her start behind the scenes of theatre after getting her training as an artist and learning her many different skills.

“For many years, I worked in costuming, I worked in props, I worked as a sculptor,” said Schiller.

After her run in theatre, Schiller wanted to find her own personal art form.

“After some searching I found automata and it kind of brought together all these different skills that I have, there are kind of like theatrical performances without actors,” said Schiller.

Schillers artistic magic takes place in a renovated barn now turned workshop.

One of Schillers top pieces is called the puppet master, which she worked on for over a year.

Her masterpiece recently won the people’s choice award in the Twin Cities at the Northern Woods Exhibition.

But now the artist is working on a new piece centered on magicians getting a surprise.

“He has a magic table, so he is going to do his magic wand and then lift up the cover,” said Schiller. “As he turns it, it starts out as flowers and then he turns and there’s a rabbit and the last time he turns it, it’s a tiger,” said Schiller.

The starting process of creating automata begins with lots of planning.

“I’ll take my idea and I work it out in cardboard,” said Schiller.

From there Schiller begins carefully carving her main parts.

No detail is overlooked as the magicians even have moving eyelids.

“The hardest part in this figure was the head because his eyes need to open and close,” said Schiller.

Not only does Schiller work on commissioned pieces where people bring her ideas for a new creation, she also sells automata kits, for people looking to create their own interactive device.

“They’re laser cut, the pieces snap together, and I wrote out some really good instructions and you can put them all together and experience the fun yourself,” said Schiller.

Schiller also teaches classes on automata, focusing on the first steps of fabricating a creation.

The sculptor says one of the most difficult aspects of engineering a design is that wood expands and shrinks from changes in temperature and humidity.

“The more you work with it you understand what you can do and what you can’t do,” said Schiller.

After all these years, what keeps bringing Schiller back to creating? “For me its home, it’s what I do, I’ve been making forever,” said Schiller.

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