James Borden has been tinkering with time most of his life. He was always interested in mechanical types of toys and trying to understand the machinery of clocks and trains. In fact his favorite toy as a kid growing up in Rockford, IL, was his Tinker Toys set.
Fast forward to the present day and Borden is a master of his craft, creating kinetic sculptures called Timeshapes.
“There was no greater toy to me than a Tinker Toys set,” Borden said. “With all the gears, pulleys and levers, starting from scratch with sticks and knobs to construct things. My older brother was into science and figured out a clock pendulum, which I thought was the coolest thing and really fueled my imagination.”
Borden continued to cultivate his imagination as a humanities major at Dana College in Blair, NE. While there he built his first clock with a friend, which really kicked things into gear.
Now, a humanities major may sound at odds with something like building clocks, but to Borden it makes complete sense.
“Part of being a humanities major is the integration of different areas of thought,” Borden said. “There is a melding of science and art. Understanding modes of thought in different eras and how all things are integrated. Architecture can reflect the religion of the time, which in turn is connected to engineering.”
Borden really began his own engineering work during college as he started tinkering and visiting antique shops looking for old clocks.
He also began getting ideas for making his own gears and closely studied early American clocks, which were made mostly with wooden gears.
“My family’s business was in furniture and I always loved working with wood. It just felt more natural than metalwork and building wooden clocks really fueled my imagination again,” Borden said.
He set up shop in his parents’ basement and began working on innovations for the gear making process. He became a member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. Then he really got into the business of buying, selling and fixing clocks spending a lot of time at an old clock shop in Dubuque while attending Wartburg Seminary. It was at the seminary that Borden met his future wife, Barbara Kopperud. The couple now resides in Sibley where Barbara is the pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church and Borden concentrates on his Timeshapes work.
Borden is restoring an old business in downtown Sibley as his studio and workshop.
When the various finished sculptures aren’t being displayed at a gallery or art show somewhere around the country, the studio space is filled with the wooden clicks and soothing sounds of time ticking along.
“The delicate wooden clicking sounds can really be quite pleasing, and just one alone in a room can be even more effective,” Borden said.
If the sound is soothing, then the sight is certainly striking. Smaller clocks measure just a couple feet and hang from the wall. Medium-sized ones are about eight feet tall. The largest one Borden made resides in the atrium of a medical center in Minneapolis and measures in at 27 feet tall with one of it’s gears alone being eight feet tall. It was a year-long project for Borden and was completed back in 1992.
“I really like working with the medium-sized ones and the process for those is actually the easiest to complete,” Borden said. “The littler ones can get frustrating because everything has to fit so tight together. I’d like to make a big one again, but just not all the time.”
Over the decades the designs for Borden’s Timeshapes have expanded and grown to become more and more sculptural.
“I was never really a painter or into drawing or art classes. I always liked science more so than art,” Borden said. “It was later that I discovered I had an eye for shape and design.”
So the approach to creating the clocks gradually come more from an idea of design or form rather than from mechanics. Borden enjoys making the connection between science, physics and mechanics along with art, sculpture and design.
“Now I can fit the mechanics more to whatever design or form I’d like,” Borden said. “It’s form and function integrated into each piece, which becomes whole when nothing looks out of place.”
Form meets function is an apt description and everything looks exactly where it was meant to be. Large, sweeping pendulums, gears, and escapements are usually made with cherry or walnut hardwood. Lignum vitae, a denser trade wood, is used in pivots and escapement pullets. British master clockmaker John Harrison used lignum vitae in the 18th century and his grasshopper escapement was a big innovation in the world of clockmaking and was named for the kicking action that moved the gears forward.
“The grasshopper escapement was a big inspiration that launched all sorts of applications,” Borden said. “Mine look more like a bird slowly walking along though.”
Harrison’s clockmaking certainly inspired many future tinkerers and Borden was no exception, though he says inspirations comes from a lot of different directions. Perhaps the simplest comes from getting a request from a prospective customer.
“People ask me if I can fit something into a specific space they have in mind and that definitely presents a challenge and stimulates the imagination. I can do variations on one design to different scales or sometimes I have to come up with a completely new design.”
Figuring out a new design is something Borden alternately describes as fun, interesting, frustrating and intense. It means a lot of tinkering. And, for Borden, that once meant breaking out his favorite toy again.
“Once I started making clocks I would experiment with the Tinkers Toys using them as models for new ideas,” Bordem said. “I’d rather make a model than a sketch as I work on an idea and I just work better in three dimensions.”
When it all comes together Borden has a design and form that looks like it could be in motion even when it’s sitting still.
“Making the framework less complex and the moving parts bigger and bigger with long levers has a visual stimulation and they say something about time through movement and form. They express the essence of what time is just in their being.”
Traditionally clocks have been a mold of science, technology, art and craftsmanship always made with an eye for form. As Borden says, he’s just continuing that tradition in his own unique way.