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Sunday, October 5, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Behind the Scenes

Artist Robert Teeple

Seattle Times art critic

Who he is: Part artist, part mad scientist.

What he does?: If you've been in the Metro bus tunnel downtown, you've probably seen Teeple's witty "Electric Lascaux" a display of galloping electronic animations and random poetry created from 10,000 LEDs. It was installed in 1990 and spans the greater part of a 60-foot wall at the University Street station. Teeple also collaborated with artist Ellen Sollod on "Renton Time Piece," a public artwork for Sound Transit in Renton, and is working with her on a commission for the light-rail station at Cisco Systems in San Jose, Calif.

How he got into electronics: "I was influenced by Frankenstein and the whole idea of being a mad scientist — 'It's ALIVE!!' " Teeple said gleefully, sitting in his mad-scientist's studio on Capitol Hill, surrounded by blinking lights and flitting images.

"I have that feeling every time I plug something in the first time — 'It's ALIVE!!' If it doesn't work, I'm quite despondent."

It began when Teeple was a kid, with a fascination for transmitting sound.

Growing up in the '50s in Detroit, Teeple spent his spare time tinkering with radios. "I got Popular Mechanics and used to build some Heathkits," he said. Heathkits? "Ask any older male and he'll know what they were — kits for building amplifiers and radios." Teeple says. "Any young man who was into hi-fi in the '50s was busy soldering those."

Later, when Teeple went to art school in Portland, he used some of his skills to concoct a rather unorthodox sculpture for the opening of an avant-garde new gallery — the Acme Gallery — he and some buddies were starting. "I made a wood sculpture wired to a washing-machine motor hooked up to a wheel. It had a sound circuit and two photo cells and some color discs that revolved and that affected the sound." And what did it sound like? "It was atrocious, unlistenable."

A huge crowd showed up for the gallery opening along with television crews, and when Teeple turned on the contraption, things went downhill. "I turned the wheel-thing on, and in about 10 minutes there was smoke coming out of the shaft," he recalls. "I learned a lot of mechanical stuff from that."

What happened next: Teeple got bored sitting around the gallery and the Acme closed five months later. He had other things on his mind. "When I was in art school one night, I was coming back from a bar and some road repair crew had piled up those sawhorse barricade things, each with a little strobe on it, close together. I noticed that each strobe had its own rate, but the combination of all created a totally random lighting sequence. I kept that in the back of my head until LEDs were commonly available and tried to apply that to it."

He designed circuitry for his light sculptures, learning as he went. He also built the wooden boxes to hold them, supporting himself as a cabinetmaker, building museum exhibit cases and doing miscellaneous fine woodworking through his company, 5 Star Box, founded in 1974.

Besides working with images, electronics and cabinetry, Teeple loves to play with words. He's addicted to rebuses — punning images that fill in for words, such as a picture of an eye symbolizing "I." Lots of his little electronic sculptures spew rebuses faster than most people can untangle the meanings. You might be able to discern succinct messages such as "Weep not for that heel." Or "To be or not to be" flitting past your eyes. "Young kids get them a lot faster than adults," Teeple says.

And in his spare time?: Teeple says he tinkers with diagramming and animating, figuring out how things work. For example? "Working on a schematic of a transistor showing it animating its function as an oscillator."

Well, whatever. He stays busy.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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