In this age of artificial intelligence and job loss through automation, Red Deer metal artist Lyle Keewatin Richards could be sending an “apocalyptic warning” through his show at the Kerry Wood Nature Centre.
His welded sculptures of humanoids, animals and insects, created with nuts, bolts, cogs, gears and bearings, can be interpreted in two ways: As whimsical and imaginative — or as ominous portents of the future.
“It could be an apocalyptic warning of what could happen if we go too far down the bio-mechanical hybrid path,” said Richards, indicating the small grouping of human-like figures he created that resemble a robot army.
With technological advancements making many employees redundant, he fears the coming years for people on Earth could unfold like in the 1927 sci-fi movie Metropolis: “We could see people working for the machines, rather than the machines working for us…”
But that’s only a jaded, adult interpretation of his exhibit.
Children view Richard’s sculptures in his steam punk-inspired Metal and Whimsy show at the Marjorie Wood Gallery with wide-eyed fascination.
Kids love putting their hands on the chunky pieces he’s made out of old sewing machine, engine, or cook-stove parts, so he’s dulled some sharper bits, and placed more precarious objects out of reach.
Richards spent his childhood living “all over Central Alberta” after being adopted as an Indigenous toddler into a white family during the ‘60s scoop.
He said he always felt loved. But he was looking for something that he couldn’t find until he reconnected with his Cree birth parents from a Saskatchewan reserve at age 25.
When he was 11 in 1970, his adoptive parents split up and he moved with his mother to the West Coast. He recalled his artistic side being sparked by a flourishing of experimental “hippie art.”
As a searching teen, Richards tried both school art and shops classes and became equally dedicated: “My art teacher and my industrial-ed teacher would argue over whether I as going to be an artist or a welder,” he recalled, with a chuckle.
Richards became a journeyman welder-turned-social worker, who’s now on leave for health reasons. He started his metal art-making in 2008, when some odd nuts and bolts caught his eye.
He recalled fitting them together in various ways, bringing out his small welding torch, and creating a small man-like figure with a cowboy hat.
Richards describes going into a a zen-like state whenever he sits down with a box full of spare parts and begins to create.
He doesn’t set out deciding what to assemble — the metal creations “build themselves … you start out with some spare parts and, next thing you know, you have a motorcycle flying through the air…”
Richards is also a local advocate for aboriginal issues. He was recently awarded, along with the late Don Hepburn, an honorary doctorate of sacred letters from St. Stephen’s College on the University of Alberta campus.
It was for their work in researching and reclaiming the graveyard of Red Deer’s former Indian Residential School through the Remembering the Children Society.
Aboriginal culture doesn’t really inform the metal art he creates, he admitted. But it does influence the way he views his art.
Richards said he never likes to impose on people what they should get out of seeing his show: “I just hope people like it, and they take from it what they will.”
Metal and Whimsy continues to Feb. 22.