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"Mad Scientists" Make Creative Robotics in the Wee Hours 

State of the Arts

When he takes control of the clay extruder from a struggling novice, it’s clear John Brickels is an expert. His right thumb, the one he uses to force the rough glop through the device, is twice the size of his left. He employs the massive digit, and the clay squirts out in fine angel hair.

It’s a wonder Brickels has that much force in his hands at four in the morning. Then again, Brickels and the rest of the mad scientists, as he calls his workshop participants, have already been in the studio for an hour.

“Two a.m. is just staying up late,” he says, explaining why he chooses to hold his “Mad Scientist Workshop” at the Backspace in Burlington’s Soda Plant from 3 to 6 a.m. on occasional Saturdays. “Four a.m. is just getting up early, like a farmer,” he continues. “Three a.m. is truly awful.”

Funny thing is, everyone around his work table is smiling. Wearing lab coats that Brickels provides, the 10 participants in this session are busy building robots and other mysterious machinery out of brown clay, vacuum tubes, wire and taxidermy eyes. A few people swear they actually work better at this time of night. Book artist Jill Abilock claims the left side of her brain is still asleep, allowing the creative right to take control. Brickels’ wife, Wendy James, suggests the inconvenient time weeds out people who wouldn’t be quite right for the workshop, anyway. The kind of person who would agree to such a thing has to be, well, mad.

To Brickels, the workshop, which he’s held twice and hopes to offer monthly, is the culmination of a yearlong effort to engage with the outside world, a celebration of not going mad. For 12 years, the artist, renowned for his dilapidated houses and inventive robots created in clay, worked in the basement of his Essex Junction home. It was a nice basement, he says, and great for the clay. But the isolation began to wear on him.

“I would get really anxious stepping outside in the afternoon to get the mail,” he explains in an email following the workshop. “I felt really wiggy getting out into the fresh air, looking both ways to cross the street, blue sky over my head, grabbing the mail and ducking back into the house.”

At the recommendation of his therapist, Brickels started looking for studio space, and found it in a well-lit corner of the S.P.A.C.E. Gallery in the Soda Plant. (Backspace is the cavernous addendum behind the gallery.)

The “Mad Scientist Workshop” begins with the donning of lab coats, an introduction to a table full of coffee, donuts and candy bars, and a short presentation. Brickels, in bow tie, lab coat and black Converse All Stars, offers tips on making clay resemble machinery: Follow the rules of dynamic scientific design, embellish with bolts and washers, and do not fear the secret ingredient: alphabet macaroni.

Then he lets the scientists loose.

About an hour in, things are shaping up around the table. Cole McDermott, a junior at South Burlington High School, is putting flourishes on a battered-looking underwater machine. He has stamped the name “Matilda” on its base using the macaroni, which burns off in the kiln and leaves behind its impression.

When I suggest it looks like something out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, McDermott smiles and lifts his T-shirt. Along the side of his ribcage is a foot-tall tattoo of a Jules Verne-style diver facing down a tentacled beast.

Tom Schicker, a math teacher with a knack for dynamic scientific design, is crafting a robot inspired by Nutcracker toy soldiers. A perfect hinge holds together its creepy mouth. Artist Marie Davis, who usually works with polymer clay, is going for functional. She’s fashioned a three-piece lamp, the base of which looks like a toaster and has the word “electroflux” affixed to it. Artist Annie Caswell’s piece is a neat structure of gears, oversized screws and bolts that could be used as a pen or paintbrush holder.

When the clock strikes six, the scientists tidy up and head down the street — still in lab coats — to Handy’s Lunch. Owner Earl Handy is preparing the griddle for his robot-shaped pancakes. (The specially designed pancake stencil comes courtesy of license-plate artist Aaron Stein, whose daughter, Lucie, is one of the mad scientists this morning.) Brickels, who seems just as at home slinging coffee cups behind the horseshoe counter as he does in the studio, takes orders.

“Would you like eggs or animal with your pancakes?” he asks, grinning. “I always wanted to do this.”

Then comes the coffee. And for a sweet, caffeinated moment, this odd crew of scientists perched around the counter, with clay under their fingernails and robots on their brains, don’t seem mad at all.

Want to try?

“Mad Scientist Workshop” with John Brickels, Backspace at the Soda Plant in Burlington, 3-6 a.m. $64. For info about upcoming workshops, email

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About The Author

Megan James

Megan James

Megan James began writing for Seven Days in 2010, first as Associate Arts Editor. She later became an editor for Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT, and is currently a freelance contributor.


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