Automation as Art: Thomas Beutel Brings Found Objects to Life

By Becky Lee

Thomas Beutel is a modern-day Wizard of Oz. For the past month, he has been the artist-in-residence at Playland on 43rd, a community space with an art gallery housed in a shipping container. 

Beutel is an artist and a self-proclaimed “tinkerer.” Trained as a software engineer, he uses simple machines and everyday materials to bring objects to life. 

BeutelThomas photo Becky SB 3-20

Sunset resident, artist and self-described “tinkerer,” Thomas Beutel displays one of his creations. Beutel was recently the artist in residence at Playland on 43rd. Photo by Becky Lee.

He has been living in the Sunset District since he was a year old, when his parents emigrated from Germany to a one-room apartment on Taraval Street. 

“I’ve been a tinkerer all my life,” he said. Beutel’s father, a carpenter and cabinetmaker, was “always building things.”  When Beutel was 3 years old, his father got him a model train set, which set off a lifetime of tinkering. 

“Tinkering is about making things,” he said. “I love taking things apart and putting them back together.”

Growing up, he loved animals and thought he wanted to be a biologist. Then, he discovered computers. He eventually got his degree in electrical engineering and has worked as a computer programmer for decades. 

“Computer programming is a form of tinkering,” he explained. 

His earliest artistic creations were automata, or “kinetic art,” as Beutel describes it. The formal dictionary definition of automata is “moving mechanical devices made in imitation of living things.” In other words: robots. Unlike the robots of today’s headlines and blockbuster films, Beutel’s robots are quite charming. A couple of his creations are a hand-drawn paper butterfly that beats its wings with the squeeze of a clothespin and a cardboard cut-out of a barnacle that opens and closes with the turn of a handle. 

In the beginning of March he closes out his current exhibit at Playland, which is also whimsical, animated, and interactive. A cornerstone of the exhibit is “Sunset in Motion,” a diorama of a Sunset street front made mostly of cardboard and found objects. Its “motion” is powered by a tiny computer with visibly exposed wires. Brightly colored buttons trigger a variety of sounds familiar to the neighborhood – like a foghorn and a car alarm. If you push the blue button, a miniature Muni train moves from one side of the diorama to the other. The backdrop is a series of handmade watercolor drawings of houses near Beutel’s own home. He calls the piece his “homage to the Sunset.”

Another piece in the exhibit, “Ask Karl the Fog,” is modeled after a fortuneteller machine. Instead of Zoltar, people can ask Karl the Fog a question, press a button, and turn a crank to get a response. As part of the piece, Beutel printed out the code behind how the responses are automated and used sticky notes to point out the logic behind different commands and which lines of code lead to which actions. 

“I don’t see electronics as any different than cardboard; all are just materials I can use,” he said.  

The majority of his pieces expose their own inner workings and components, whether made of code or cardboard. 

“It was important to me to show it’s not magic,” says Beutel. 

Unlike the Wizard of Oz, Beutel is transparent not only in exposing the mechanics behind his pieces, but in showing how they came to be. The exhibit featured many of Beutel’s early sketches, an unfinished piece, and a behind-the-scenes look at his creative process. 

One part of Beutel’s process is called a “dream practice,” or 15 minutes a day dedicated to letting ideas flow freely. He captures the ideas in a notebook that he calls his “encyclopedia of creative ideas” and uses a yellow highlighter to mark his favorites.

To keep himself from staying “adrift and floating in all these ideas,” Beutel uses Scrum, a software development process, to structure his creative practice. “Scrum for one,” as he calls it, breaks down projects into discrete tasks and organizes them across a weeklong “sprint.” He holds daily “stand-ups,” or check-ins, to reflect on what has been completed, what is still on the list, and what is getting in the way. 

Another way Beutel feeds his creativity is through the Sunset Sketchers, a group of people who get together weekly at different locations to sketch. Months ago, the group hosted a gallery show at Playland, where Beutel met the program manager who originally encouraged him to apply for the residency program. 

A few families with young children walked into the exhibit space. The kids walked right up to the displays and immediately started reaching up to touch the various automata and dioramas. A bevy of parents quickly called out, “Don’t touch! Be gentle!” and flashed embarrassed smiles in Beutel’s direction. 

Beutel replied warmly, his response directed at the kids themselves – “It’s OK! Try pressing the blue button!” 

To learn more about Thomas Beutel and his art, and to see where he will be exhibiting next, visit is sponsored in part by:

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1 reply »

  1. Love the “dream practice” and “Scrum for one” approach to fostering creativity! Thank you Thomas Beutel and Becky Lee.


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