March 18, 2010

Toy story


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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Friday, December.14 ,2007. Artist Randy Regier shows off some of his work like this bus he is currently working on at his Pleasant st. Portland studio.

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Staff Writer

Sitting on a shelf in Randy Regier's workshop is a scuffed wooden box cover with faded art deco-style letters that read ''Electric Train Set.''

At least, that's what they read from a distance. If you put your nose to the cover, you'll see some microscopic fine print after the word ''Electric'' and before ''Train Set.'' The tiny words are: ''Man Waiting For A ...''

Next to the box cover is a vintage-looking toy train station and metal tracks. On the train station is a small plastic man who moves back and forth, thanks to the power of electricity. He is, as the box states, an ''Electric Man Waiting for A Train Set.''

And it is neither vintage nor someone's handed-down toy. It is a piece of toy art made by Regier with materials he found in dumps, in neighborhood trash cans and in people's basements, as well as some he made himself.

Regier, 43, makes art that could be summed up as cool stuff that looks like old toys. But besides the craftsmanship, Regier takes pride in what his pieces say about nostalgia, memory and personal perception.

And in the case of ''Electric Man Waiting for a Train Set,'' there's fodder for a discussion about hidden messages, about hiding important details in the fine print.

''Part of that piece is autobiographical, because when I wanted a train set I could never get one, and now that I'm older and able to get one, I don't have the same desire,'' Regier said in his workshop studio on Pleasant Street in Portland. ''And it's about our propensity to skip the fine print, the small details, and where that might lead.''


Regier came to Portland about two years ago from Abilene, Kan., to get a graduate degree in fine arts from the Maine College of Art. In that time, he's gained attention in the Portland art scene by creating work that is both innovative and nostalgic. People in their 50s and 60s see Regier's work, which often look like toy buses, trains or cars, and swear they had that toy when they were young.

But Regier's work also provokes discussions on contemporary politics and social issues.

Take for instance a piece called ''Impending Future Bus.'' It's a rugged pull-along bus with a shiny goldish-green body, some gleaming chrome and a clear dome on top. It looks like a cross between an Electrolux vacuum cleaner and a toy space ship -- which makes sense, because Regier fabricated the piece using some chrome from an Electrolux. He also used some old retail counter kick plates, parts of old paper towel holders and assorted spare parts.

It's cool to look at, and it really rolls. It's got a cord on it so you can pull it around.

''I try to build the piece to be used the way a 10-year-old boy would,'' Regier said. But because he wants to sell his pieces, he doesn't treat them the way an especially destructive 10-year-old boy might.

If you look closely at the bus, you'll see a couple dozen pairs of seats, and in every seat are a little plastic man and woman. All of the faces are black, until your eye reaches the very last set and stops on a lone white figure.

Regier said he showed the piece to fifth graders in Abilene when he was living there. Most of the students were white. One boy in particular noticed the paradox and tried to articulate his surprise by blurting ''They're all .....,'' then caught himself and said: ''There's only one white guy.''

Regier got the idea for the bus from a piece of fiction he read about black people leaving Earth during the civil rights strife of the mid-20th century to start their own society on another planet. At some point, the people of Earth essentially destroy the planet, and some white survivors come to live on the planet inhabited by blacks. The blacks, now in control, begin to segregate the whites, but then catch themselves and realize they must not repeat history.

''His work has social commentary, and he uses the nostalgia of another era to point out the social implications of that time. He challenges his own assumptions and the assumptions of others,'' said Katarina Weslien, director of the graduate program at Maine College of Art. ''People almost always have a false memory of nostalgia, and he conjures up nostalgia by creating things that aren't real.''

The craftsmanship of Regier's pieces is also notable, Weslien said. He is able to take old junk such as store fixtures or old cottage cheese containers and fabricate beautifully designed works.

Regier's expertise in fabricating things with metal and paint comes from his 17 or so years working in a paint and body shop. He grew up in the small rural town of Pratum, Ore., and began doing auto-body work with his father when he was 15.

As a child, he drew a lot and created fictional characters, but never thought about being an artist. He kept doing auto body work into adulthood, he said, because the money was good.

It was only when he began to suffer from the long-term health effects from exposure to paint and other chemicals that he began to consider going to college and finding other work. Regier said he continued to suffer from depression and chronic fatigue until he had been out of the auto-body business for about a year.

In his mid-30s, he moved with his wife and two young children to Kansas and enrolled in Kansas State University. He felt a connection to Kansas because his ancestors had settled there in the 1800s. He had no specific major in mind.

''My major was just to not go back to the body shop,'' Regier said.

He took a 3-D design class and realized he could use his body-shop skills to make things. Then he realized he could keep making things if he declared himself a sculpture major. So he did.

After getting his undergraduate degree, Regier got a scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, an educational organization set up by the late owner of an NFL football team in Washington, D.C. The scholarship allowed him and his family to come to Portland and study at MECA.

He's shown his work at museums and galleries in New England, New York, Kansas, Texas, and a few points in between. Right now, his work is not on view in Portland, so the easiest way to see it is online --


Because Regier makes toys that have stories or deeper meanings behind them, the packaging is important too. Think about any toy from your childhood, and chances are the box and its images and words are as clear in your mind as the toy itself.

To make the packaging look old, Regier looks for old magazines, labels or signs, and scans letters from those items into a computer. Then he uses those old fonts to write whatever he wants. He also scans in images, such as drawings in old books, for his toy packages.

For a toy called ''The New Red Man,'' he made a box using the cover of a 1950s book, ''The Transformation of the Red Man: Indian Christians in the Work.'' The book was about how Christianity has ''the power and capacity to transform the red man and help him contribute to society,'' Regier said. As the grandson of a Protestant minister, Regier said he was already familiar with the ideas in the book.

When you open the box Regier made, you find a little metal desk and little metal chair, and a gaping space where a G.I. Joe-sized doll might go. But that spot is empty.

''My understanding is that this kind of thing doesn't work, the transforming doesn't take, so that's why he's not here,'' Regier said.

Regier said he probably began making work that looks like old toys because he had a lot of old toys as a child. Even though he grew up in the 1960s and '70s, he got most of his childhood toys from a Goodwill second-hand store. And most of those toys were from the 1940s and '50s.

''I was always drawn in that store to cars, boats, any kind of vehicle. I always wanted a robot, too, but those were harder to find,'' Regier said. ''I guess my work today is a way of granting myself, as an adult, things I wanted as a child.''

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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