By Shelley A. Sackett
Like Alice and the rabbit-hole, viewers of director Olympia Stone’s “Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination Of David Beck” know they are entering a very different world from the get-go. The film opens with whimsical jazz and a close up of “Movie Palace”, an elaborate miniature pretend movie theater that combines the pleasures of the bygone Hollywood regal era with the intricacies of handcrafted windup toys.
“As a child, I loved to go to the movies. I still do,” David Beck says as the camera lingers over animated figures talking and eating popcorn made of painted birdshot. “It’s almost a little temple, a religious shrine to the movies.”
Beck then takes us on an enchanting tour of this fantastical creation, explaining his inspiration and process. Close ups of reliefs on the outside of the dome show various movie house golden age genres, such as film noir, Westerns and musicals. A tiny man, loaded down with popcorn and drinks, stands in the aisle, searching for his seat. Within minutes, Beck’s charm, humility and humor have hooked us.
Director Olympia Stone has a soft touch, following Beck about as he works in his studio. There is no troubling backstory or dramatic agenda; just an absorbing glimpse into the private thoughts and efforts of an enormously talented artist.
If it seems that there is a special connection between director and subject, it’s because there is: Stone’s father, Allan Stone, was Beck’s art dealer for many years, and Beck often visited the Stone home in Purchase, N.Y. Olympia has said Beck stood out as the artist she was most deeply inspired by from the time she was seven years old. Her fascination with the tiny scale of his work never waned, and she undertook “Curious Worlds” to introduce the little known artist to a wider audience.
“David is someone I have known most of my life, and I am honored to say that we have remained and continue to be close friends,” she said.
Beck’s childlike fascination with, well, everything and his playful sense of humor cannot mask this modern renaissance man’s extraordinary gifts for creating unique and powerful miniature sculptures that combine the meticulous craftsmanship and precision of a mechanical engineer with the sometimes wacky worldview of a Tim Burton. He is a unique synthesizer, absorbing that which interests him – Medieval miniatures, European cabinetry, comic books, gothic carving and the art of Joseph Cornell and Joe Marmol – and weaving subtle references into his work.
His works beckon us to come closer and to enter the secret compartments, open the windows, explore inside drawers and assume that nothing is as it seems. Little marvels open to reveal additional, even more miraculous intricacies. Alice’s rabbit hole has no bottom.
Watching Beck craft his worlds in miniature is a magical adventure in itself. His highly original, intricate and kinetic artwork combines sculpture, painting, textiles, mechanics and foraging in a way that is part obsessive, part ethereal. His pieces take the form of miniature buildings and entire worlds populated with mystical and whimsical creatures that seem to live in a world all their own. The artist spends hundreds of hours in his oriental rugged workshop, methodically tending to the minutest detail. He learns whatever technique is appropriate for whatever he is trying to build.
Stone peppers her film with critics, curators, gallerists, collectors and friends who offer insights on Beck’s career, style and importance to the art world. When she films Beck in his studio as he shares his inspirations and frustrations, their rapport and trust is palpable.
Much of Beck’s inspiration springs from nature, but rather than replicate it, Beck creates his own romantic version of it. His “Dodo Museum” is a valentine to the extinct creature, complete with Paleolithic skeleton and Cluny-type tapestries with dodos in place of unicorns. Sharing his sketchbooks from the early 1970’s, Beck recalls being completely “obsessed and fascinated by this friendly bird.”
When pressed to identify her personal favorite among Beck’s works, Stone reluctantly names the large Dodo sculpture that is on screen for a few seconds in the film. Its wings open, revealing a diorama of a tiny dodo paradise. “As a child, I used to love looking inside those wings – it just transported me into a magical world. But honestly, there are so many things I love – it’s impossible to choose just one,” she said.
Beck was born in Muncie, Indiana in 1953 and studied painting and sculpture at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1976. That year, he moved to New York City and had his first exhibit at the Allan Stone Gallery. Scenes of Beck reminiscing with friends from those early “starving artist” days are among the film’s most intimate moments.
Just when we think that Beck has to be the coolest, most talented person we’ve ever encountered, he gets even cooler with the introduction of the jazz improvisation group, “The Melancholics”, and his role as composer and baritone saxophonist. Beck first met bassist Bill Noertker in the late 1990s, and the two developed a collaborative relationship, with Noertker scoring a short film Beck made of seven of his sculptures. Because of their longstanding relationship, Stone asked him to score her film.
“I love the music in the film. Bill Noertker has a long history of composing music for David’s pieces – you can see/hear more of their collaboration on David’s website (davidbeckartworks.com). Bill “gets” David’s artwork,” Stone said. Noertker composed a few pieces specifically for the film, but many were from his band, Moxie (http://www.noertker.com/).
By the end of the film, we are not surprised to learn that Beck is the only living artist to have had three solo exhibits at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, nor that his work is sought by private collectors across the country. The only thing that does surprise us is that we have never heard of this quirky, friendly, enormously talented man who creates these wonderful and enchanting microcosms, and for that we owe Olympia Stone a huge thank you.
Visit floatingstone.com for more information.