On August 4, 2014, I received an email from a client named Mark Jungers, who was interested in commissioning me to create a large clockwork installation. I had been making mechanical clocks for about a decade, but nothing of the size and complexity that he was requesting. Jungers is a wine aficionado, and this mechanical sculpture was to be the centerpiece for a wine cellar that he was constructing in his Milwaukee home. I’d always wanted to work on a more architectural scale, so when he found me online, and emailed me with his proposal, I jumped at the opportunity. After thorough planning, concept sketches, and a down payment, I began building “The Jungers Commission.”
I graduated from Center for Creative Studies in 1999, where I was trained in design, painting, and sculpture. I made the rather drastic switch to clockmaking because of an idea that I couldn’t turn away from. Clockmakers are hard to come by in the Detroit area, so I had to learn the craft on my own. My father was an automotive-engineer, and his knowledge was invaluable when it came time to find the necessary tooling and setup to fabricate clock parts. With a couple of old machines discarded from the auto industry, and a few used horology books, I set out to make my first clock. After cutting my first gear from scratch, I was hooked, and haven’t stopped since.
Even in my first mechanical clock, I was exploring which rules could be broken, and which ones I had to adhere to. It was necessary to bend the rules of the clock-making world in order to achieve the aesthetic I was aiming for in my artistic practice. While machines and nature are often thought of as opposites, rather than force a contrast between the two in my work, I show how they are very much the same. Of course, this organic approach plays into our concept of time itself. The impression of growth and also of wear and tear all contribute to a sense of time passing. Ticking, moving gears also have a sense of weight and deliberation, which connect the viewer to the flow of time much more than digital screens, flipping instantaneously. The cycles of death and rebirth are echoed in the metaphor of clockwork gears.
With “The Jungers Commission,” I was excited to bring this organic direction to a bigger stage, and also dive into some new mechanical challenges. Since the client and I were planning for a piece that you could walk around, and view from every angle, some visual doors were opened. We arrived at a four-sided design, in which two of the sides would have all of the dials, freeing up the other two sides for an open view of the mechanism. In order to fulfill one of the client's requests, I also learned how to make a moonphase dial and a dial indicating the day of the week. Everything on this piece is completely handmade and fabricated without the aid of CNC equipment. A total of 5,080 separately machined parts were needed to create this free-standing, seven-and-a-half-foot-tall skeleton-clock.
Making the one-foot gears for this piece was a bit labor intensive, but I’ve always really loved this part of the process. The teeth were cut one by one on a lathe, the strangely shaped organic spokes were fretted out with a handheld piercing saw, and then they were slowly sculpted to their final three-dimensional form with a rotary grinding tool (kind of a larger version of what dentists use). They’re visually asymmetrical, but they still need to be perfectly balanced for the clock to function, so at the finish line, I put the gear on bearings, and shave away weight until it spins without bias. Another feature is the hand-made chain that holds the 100-pound power source for the clock. It’s eight feet long, spinal in appearance, and each of the one-inch links is completely different. The feature that gives the clock a real story, beyond the visual and technical, is the dials. While Mark lives in Milwaukee, his wife lives in Los Angeles, and we wanted to do something that tied the two time zones together. His piece features linked pairs of dials, each showing the time from both time zones.
Mr. Jungers’s piece is the end product of a year-and-a-half of all-encompassing obsessive effort - 2,421 hours, to be exact. Large-scale work is quite a journey for both the artist and the buyer. I couldn’t have asked for a better client for my first big piece. Throughout the collaboration and construction, we became very good friends, which made the whole experience that much better for both of us. Custom work of that size is going to be very personal for both parties involved, and it’s a long road, so it’s great when it can be more than just a business transaction.
Now that “The Jungers Commission” is successfully installed in its new home, my humble clockmaking workshop is open for business again. I’ve been spending a lot of time drawing and planning for the work to come, and I feel fortunate that I’ve been kept busy with new commissions. There are a lot of ideas and designs, and all I really want is for them to exist. With the style of my work, there is no getting around making things by hand, so I’m limited to finishing three to five wall-hung pieces per year. Each mechanical work is one of a kind, personal, and not just clockwork, but artwork.
Freitas’ work has hung in many galleries across the globe, including the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Germany; the Museum of the History of Science in the heart of Oxford, England; and the AFA gallery in SoHo, New York. Follow the progress of his latest at ericfreitas.com