Whimsical characters handmade by Kamloops artist come to life

Lilly Dalley stands in her studio among her handmade figures that move with the turn of a crank.

KAMLOOPS – Watch miniature Donald Trump as he stands at a kitchen counter - his signature hair flailing about - holding a meat cleaver and hacking away at women’s rights, education, environment, vaccines. No, this isn’t some terrible nightmare or horror flick, this is one of artist Lily Dalley’s many handcrafted figures — or as she calls them automata — that move with help from a series of gears and cams.

What began as a craft between the retired primary teacher and her first grandchild twelve years ago and has since blossomed into award-winning artwork. Dalley won the award for best emerging artist at the most recent Kamloops Art Exposed exhibition. 

Simply turn a crank and Dalley’s automata come to life. Hidden under the base of her whimsical figures is a series of laser-cut wooden gears, cams and pulleys. She starts with a large gear and adds smaller gears and cams, and builds movements from there.

Dalley's creations move with help from wooden gears.
Dalley's creations move with help from wooden gears.

She says she’s come a long way since the beginning, when she’d use rubber bands, string and anything she could find to get the job done.

While in some art circles, touching the artwork is forbidden, Dalley’s goal is quite the opposite: she wants people to play with her art. Although, she says the worst feeling is to see someone enjoying and interacting with her work, and watch their face drop when it breaks or malfunctions.

"It's so frustrating when they are having fun and something breaks and then they feel bad. It's not their fault, it broke because I haven't gotten to the point where I can make them strong enough," Dalley says. 

Dalley says since she is still learning and experimenting with different methods of creating movement with her automata, there are often speed bumps and learning curves.

"It's like solving a puzzle. I really do sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with a solution to a problem I've been working on for a while," she says. She credits a lot of her current knowledge to help from people at the Kamloops Makerspace.

She uses craft sticks and cubes covered by fabric, metal wire, air dried clay and a lot of recycled material to make her figures. 

"It's fun and keeps the cost way down. It's kind of a challenge to find something that will make due without going out and buying something expensive," Dalley says. 

Until entering her work "The Orchestra" in the Art Exposed exhibition, Dalley's craft was simply entertainment and a way to bond with her grandchildren. Now that she has an award, and a boost of confidence, she wants to keep moving forward and make her figures stronger, more sound and eventually have them on display for people to enjoy.

With a little help and creativity from Dalley, dinosaurs dance and sing along to a vinyl record, Donald Trump does what he's best at, grandchildren cook and cause a bit of chaos in the kitchen, a formal band plays orchestral music, and somehow, they all seem to take on a life of their own.

— This story was updated at 9:34 a.m. Friday, June 2, 2017 to add a video.

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