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Bridgeville artist's robots are inanimate, yet much like humans

| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 3:57 p.m.

From Rosey the Robot of “The Jetsons” to the Roomba vacuum cleaner, modern man has had a fascination with robots, even though the technology to create a truly autonomous human-like robot has yet to arrive.

But Toby Atticus Fraley simply can't wait. Over the past 10 years, the Bridgeville-based artist has been cobbling together his own human-looking robots from anything and everything he can get his hands on — vintage thermoses, old appliances, yardsticks, you name it. They are inanimate, of course, but life-like just the same.

Dozens of Fraley's robots make up the installation “The Secret Life of Robots,” at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's SPACE gallery, Downtown.

They are arranged, rather ingeniously, in vignettes mimicking various stages in human life — from childhood to old age, even experiencing the first stage of afterlife.

Fraley says the entire exhibit is loosely based on the “life cycle” of the robot. “This show was finally my chance to create mundane, flawed, un-heroic robots that I find interesting,” he says. “I think there is a scene that everyone can relate to — a child's first steps or puppy love.”

There also are some scenes that are more melancholy or sad even, such as an old robot having a senior moment, trembling as he tries to pick up his glasses.

“ ‘The Secret Life of Robots' was my opportunity to explore ideas that didn't necessarily lend themselves to commissions,” Fraley says. “I am usually working on commissions or public art pieces that have been pre-approved or selected. This show is sort of a manifestation of some of my sketchbook drawings over the years.”

Readers may remember Fraley's “Robot Repair,” a public art installation disguised as a fictional business located directly across from Heinz Hall on Sixth Street, Downtown, most of last year.

So far, Fraley has completed 80 robots.

“I've never named my robots, they are all just known by the number in the series,” he says. “Currently, I'm on Robot 81. At their core, they are objects, and I think the numbers reinforce that idea. I've heard of owners of my pieces giving them names, which is fine by me. The donation box robot in Wood Street Gallery, for example, has been given the name Oscar.”

Fraley says visitors to this show have already begun referring to certain scenes or pieces with specific names and assigning emotions or elaborating on the idea depicted. “I don't want to put any preconceived notions into the viewers' heads beyond what I've constructed,” he says. “The rest is up to them.”

Fraley worked a total of 18 months to create the robots and vignettes they are housed in, most of which are domestic scenes common to us humans. Some, like a robot sleeping in front of a static-filled TV screen off in the back corner of the gallery harken to an earlier time, before cable TV, when television stations went “off-air” in the wee hours of the night.

“The pieces in this show are really a collection of ideas that I've had for a while,” Fraley says. “The ideas of robots in these, sort of, everyday scenes is one that I couldn't have realized without this opportunity.”

Even though he has been working on his robots for so long, Fraley says, “I really never thought I'd still be working on this series, but I feel like they're still developing. Every few pieces evolve and it is the little jumps that build on each other that keeps the series interesting for me.”

Fraley says it can take several weeks to build one of his robots, depending on how complicated the design is. “It's hard to say exactly how long each robot takes to build because often I'll have two or three projects on the workbench at the same time,” he says.

Sometimes, finding the parts to build them is more of a challenge than creating them. “It's getting harder to find some parts, I'll admit that,” he says. “I'm also a bit of a snob when it comes to the parts I use, which doesn't help when hunting for raw materials.

“Generally speaking, I'm out there looking for items that not only are the right color, form, material and condition, but they also should be at least 40 years old.”

These self-imposed restrictions lend a common thread and a cohesion to the finished pieces. In fact, you know a Fraley robot when you see it. Like the ones framed in the windows on the second floor of Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville, they all have a similar look and whimsical sensibility.

In the warmer months, Fraley and his wife will frequent yard sales and flea markets looking for things that catch his eye, like old gauges, yardsticks or thermoses. “They are generally stored away until I embark on the right project for that particular object,” he says.

Throughout the year, they also visit antiques stores. “But if I'm really stuck, I'll go to eBay to find exactly what I need,” he says.

Though you may recognize a vintage thermos as part of a leg, or part of a vacuum cleaner as a torso here and there, there is no mistaking that you are looking at a robot when confronted with his completed pieces.

“I don't want people to look at a robot I built and first recognize the vacuum cleaner used as a body, for example. I want them to see a robot and, then, realize it's made from vintage items.”

Fraley says that given all of the disparate items he incorporates into the construction of his robots, the pieces he uses almost never fit together nicely. “That's one of the big challenges for me in building found-object sculptures,” he says. “I want the parts I use to blend together as if they were meant to be one sculpture and not just slapped together in the easiest and cheapest way.”

As for his favorite vignette in the exhibit, he says, “I'd probably have to say the final scene of the show, which depicts a ‘spirit' of the deceased robot lying above its death bed. … There's something eerie about that guy — the way he's motionlessly hovering in midair, the flat white finish, and his posture that looks as if he could be floating in a pool.”

As for the venue, Fraley says SPACE couldn't be a more aptly named gallery and place. “It's a huge room and creating enough work to adequately fill the space was my main stressor in preparing for this show,” he says. “It took me 18 months to make enough work while also completing the work I make to support myself as an artist.

“About a week before the opening, I remember texting my wife, ‘I think it's going to work!' That was the best feeling, that moment when I realized my vision was going to happen pretty much how I thought it would.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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