In the fall of 2004, Dan Bentley’s daughter, Lauren, an aspiring full-time photographer, called from New York City to say she had an idea to shoot an alien landscape, but every artist she’d contacted about providing her with robots was either too expensive or didn’t understand her vision.
“Let me take a stab at it,” Bentley told her.
The former product designer from Rochester’s west side made the body with a device used for radio-controlled aircraft (it was his father’s from the early ’60s), the neck with a flashlight, the head with an electronic box he found at a flea market, the eyes with projector bulbs, the arms with electrical parts, and the legs with a mixture of kitchen canister tops, BMX bike pegs, drawer pulls and candlesticks.
Shortly after receiving the robot, Lauren called again, after a frustrating photography session at Coney Island.
“She told me this thing was a real pain,” Bentley recalls. “Every time she set it down and went to her camera, it drew a crowd of people and she couldn’t take the shot. Everybody wanted to know about it. She said, ‘I think you’re on to something.’”
Bentley had amassed enough extra parts with the first robot that he was able to build a second and a third. He wound up selling one to the wife of his son’s boss and was accepted into the Memorial Art Gallery’s M&T Bank Clothesline Festival, where he gave a radio interview and won one of the merit awards given to just 10 of the fine arts and crafts festival’s 400 vendors.
“People stopped in their tracks because they’d never seen anything like this,” he says.
“I knew what I was doing made me happy, but I hadn’t really defined it at that point. It took a few years for me to realize I was taking iconic pieces and featuring them in a way that we can continue to enjoy them. People will say, ‘Look, a robot. Oh wait, that’s a teapot. My mom had one of those!’ These are characters that have a new life of their own once I put all the pieces together.”
Now owner of the studio Retrobots, assemblage artist Bentley, who also makes commissioned sculptures, searches for rare and vintage parts at flea markets and on eBay, sometimes waiting years to find a piece that completes a pair of arms or legs.
“I like when a piece is whimsical or hopeful,” he explains, referring to a piece on his Web site. Positioned on an airport runway with a plane in the background and made from an old, aerodynamic movie projector, reels and feathers, the robot resembles “a young bird that’s looking up with this look of hope, of wanting, though it seems obvious that it can’t really fly.”
Bentley found the movie projector at the East Avon Flea Market, one of his favorite places to find parts, along with the community garage sales at the Rochester Public Market. When he rolled the projector on its side, “the two arms that hold the reels just reached out and it immediately became that piece,” he remembers.
Now a massage therapist, the self-proclaimed “sci-fi nerd” juggles his schedule to spend a full day once a week in his shop, an environment he has felt at home in since he was a boy. At his father’s workbench, he once took apart a transistor radio to make it fit inside the trunk of a plastic ’57 Chevrolet Corvette convertible, and gave it to his brother as a birthday present. “I was always modifying something,” says Bentley, admitting that he got bored with his Erector Set and Tinkertoys at a young age, opting instead to scrounge for parts to build go-carts and rockets. He got some formal training in his high school shop class, then in mechanical engineering and fine-arts courses at Rochester Institute of Technology.
When not needed for special events, Bentley’s inventory can be seen at the Create Art 4 Studios in the Hungerford Building on East Main Street and at Experience Tattooing, Body Piercing and Fine Art Gallery in Greece. This fall will mark his fourth year at the Clothesline Festival.
Through “a passion I have for making things fit and perform” and lots of patience, Bentley pays homage to product designers by highlighting the aesthetics of manufactured pieces in unique works of art.
“Giving these design pieces a second life and another way for people to enjoy them,” he says, “is my mission.”