The job description marked a first for PEM – and probably also a last: Seeking motivated individuals with knowledge of engineering, interest in contemporary art, passion for working with people, ability to remain calm in high-pressure situations, and a proven ability to work with hand and power tools, including an air compressor.
“It was definitely the weirdest cover letter I ever wrote,” says Ben Patey, one of six individuals hired for the new position of Interpreter/ Operator, informally known around here as the Beest Wranglers.
A unique feature of the exhibition Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen is the presence of handlers hired to help the 42-footlong beest Animaris Suspendise take an occasional stroll in the gallery, powered by wind from the aforementioned air compressor. Outfitted in aprons and bright yellow T-shirts, they also assist guests who want to walk two of the smaller beests, known as the Ordises. And they are available to field questions about these amazing kinetic sculptures and the equally amazing artist who brought them to life.
Prior to the opening, the new employees underwent multiple training sessions with PEM staff and Jansen himself. They learned how to make minor repairs with pipe cutters, the ins and outs of guest engagement, and the appropriate speed for walking the beests in a crowded gallery. “Out of an abundance of caution, a walking pace is good,” advises Francesca Williams, registrar for exhibitions. “And remember, people can be timid about handling them. They need your reassurances.”
Patey, a Salem resident, discovered Jansen on YouTube (“very little on the Internet escapes my attention”) and sent away for a kit to make a mini-Strandbeest long before he heard about the exhibition coming to PEM. His background as an artist/theater prop builder/bike mechanic is typical of the diverse skill sets that the operators bring to the job. “I am just so excited to be around them and mess around with the mechanics,” says Patey.
Sarah Graziano, a docent, sculptor and Montserrat College of Art graduate, called the position “my dream job.” Shannon Skilling brings to the role a bachelor in fine arts in painting and experience as an instructor at a “paint-and-sip” art studio in Beverly. She was drawn to the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to meet Jansen. “Being part of a moment with people I know and people I don’t know,” she says, “is a life-changing thing.”