Meet the Huddersfield artist building his own money tree

Martin Smith pictured at his Huddersfield workshop.
 PIC: Jonathan GawthorpeMartin Smith pictured at his Huddersfield workshop.
 PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Martin Smith pictured at his Huddersfield workshop. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Who said there's no such thing as a money tree? Sarah Freeman meets a kinetic artist building one right now in his Huddersfield studio.

Theresa May may have become adept at the political U-turn, but there is one thing on which she has never wavered. There is no such thing as a money tree. Never has been. Never will be. The Prime Minister has obviously never been to Martin Smith’s Huddersfield studio because there on the third floor of an old factory building a fully working mechanical money tree is currently taking shape.

“It was too good an opportunity to miss,” says Smith, who is one of a number of Yorkshire kinetic artists whose work will be brought together for an exhibition at Skipton’s Craven Museum. “It’s not fully animated at the moment, but I like the idea of art being able to do things which politicians say are impossible.”

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It’s not the first time either that Smith has explored the idea of cold hard cash in his work. There was The Cache Machine, an elaborate take on the money box for those who liked to show off their wealth. Coins could be popped in the top and after moving through the piece they formed a large irresistible pile in the tray below.

People often think this kind of work is a bit frivolous, particularly when they look at something like the applause machine,” says Smith, bringing out the said machine which delivers a round of applause at the press of a button. “But there is often a sarcastic or dark undertone. It’s cheerfulness underpinned with cynicism.”

It’s true. Only the very needy would feel the need to have applause on tap and Smith is already working on a new version capable of everything from a slow hand clap to a riotous ovation.

Sarcasm may be a recurring theme, but there’s also a beauty to it. With fellow artist Nick Ramage he has set up the design label Laikingland and among the current range of products is a clock which tells a story rather than time.

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Back in Huddersfield, Smith, who has worked with the likes of designer Paul Smith and Opera North, admits his own studio, the walls of which are covered with potential inspiration from old Oxo Cube tin lids to fly swats in various bright colours is a bit of refuge from the outside world, one packed with the kind of animatronics you might once have found on seaside piers.

“That is what I call my cabinet of crap,” he says pointing to a bookshelf, backed with jelly moulds, metal robots and a mask of Princess Leia – Smith is a bit of a Star Wars fan and Carrie Fisher was one of his customers. “If ever I can’t find something, which is fairly often, I look in there.”

While it might sound chaotic, it isn’t. In fact everything Smith does is meticulously planned. Ideas for new work are sketched out in the neatest of handwriting in notebooks and each prototype is made with as much care as the final, finished object.

“I try to stick to a pretty strict timetable,” he says, explaining Monday is his day for making, Tuesday to Thursday is when he concentrates on a current commissions and Friday is set aside for what he calls ‘play day’. “Some projects can take a year or more to come to fruition, so it’s good to have a routine but one which allows a bit of downtime, a chance to experiment.”

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It’s something which began at college where he studied design in the days before hefty tuition fees and student loans.

“I do feel lucky. There wasn’t the same pressure which exists now. Announcing you are going to make mechanical sculptures for a living doesn’t sound like the greatest career plan, but I was able to feel my way. I was debt-free and had the luxury of time to develop my style and what I wanted to do.”

One of Smith’s most popular pieces You Make My Heart Spin started life as a Valentine present for his partner Louise. It pretty much does what it says on the tin – press the button and the metal heart spins. However, like much of his work, which cost from a couple of hundred to thousands of pounds, its simplicity belies the intricacies of manufacture.

“Something like the heart machine has dozens of different pieces and it is entirely handmade. I know some people think that we buy the components in and it’s just a matter of assembly, but honestly it’s not. Every nut, every bolt is made from scratch.”

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Other highlights of Smith’s now extensive portfolio include the Treacle Lung made out of an old Lyle treacle syrup tin which smokes cigarettes so you don’t have to and a machine which is an elaborate way of pulling party poppers

“We used to exhibit at Milan Design Week and every time we did, people would ask what we were doing there.

“They saw our work as pieces of art which belonged in an exhibition. So one year we went back with a collection called Fun-ction and the party popper machine was part of that. Unfortunately we didn’t realise was that in Europe party poppers don’t exist. We had people coming up to our stand, winding the wheel around and when the thing went off, well you knew about it, but hopefully we made our point.”

It’s one which will be made again at the Marvellous Mechanicals event where work by by five of the UK’s best inventors, makers and tinkerers who explore movement in their artworks will be brought together.

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The hands-on exhibition will encourage visitors to turn a handle, drop a coin and wave a hand to bring the work to life. The exhibits include I See You, a mechanical glass eye set in brass which follows you around the room by fellow Huddersfield artist Jim Bond and The Potting Shed by Hebden Bridge based Lisa Slater. Hand carved from wood, turning the handle brings the various animals to life.

“As an artist you tend to spend a lot of time on your own, so every so often it’s nice to do these events. While the work is very different, I guess what we all share is a love of telling stories.

“I was one of those children who was always taking things apart and putting them back together again. I wanted to know how things worked and that combined with a love of art and design has given me a living.”

And if he can just get the mechanical money tree working, it’s a pretty lucrative one too.

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Marvellous Mechanicals, Craven Museum, Skipton, August 45 to 23. There is also a programme of talks and workshops planned to run alongside the exhibition. For more information visit