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A Sculptor Creates the Gift of Flight for Parents

Minnesota's Cecilia Schiller crafts an automaton to celebrate a milestone


By Barbara La Valleur

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Sculptor

Credit: Barbara La Valleur

Born with an innate curiosity about life and a mechanical mind, artist Cecilia Schiller has spent much of her life as a sculptor, artist and mask maker. In 2009, Schiller made her first automaton, a mechanical interactive sculpture automated with a crank.

In early September, Schiller was one of 10 participants from around the country for an Artist Residency on Mallard Island in Rainy Lake, located in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. There she worked on a commissioned automaton of a family of four called "The Spirit of Adventure" for  a 50th wedding anniversary present from children in Palisades, Calif. to their parents.

In January 2013, Schiller was featured on Twin Cities PBS' MN Original.

Artist Cecilia Schiller at Work

Credit: Barbara La Valleur

Cecilia Schiller spent seven years learning wood carving after receiving an art degree. She traveled all over South America — Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil — where she spent four years and had two daughters, now in their 20s.

While in South America, Schiller became interested in wood. But it wasn’t until she returned to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that she started learning how to carve wood, studying for seven years with Konstantinos Papadakis, a well-known Greek carver.

Bringing the Carvings to Life

Credit: Barbara La Valleur

Once the carving on the project is complete, Schiller paints each piece in bright colors. She says: “I was in my early 50s and I thought, ‘I’m not going to retire, so if I want to do this [become a full time artist] when I’m 65, I have to start now.’ ” She found a studio in an artist warehouse on the Mississippi River in St. Paul and now makes her living as an artist.

Creating in the Studio

Credit: Barbara La Valleur

Schiller loves the way the public interacts with her automatons. “The first ones I made were my own ideas. People liked them right away. Anything kinetic grabs people,” she says. “I think it comes from a predator instinct — we have to watch something that moves, and my pieces are really colorful.”

Attention to Detail

Credit: Barbara La Valleur

Schiller carefully paints one of the figures of the two children — they will both be positioned on the wing of the biplane.

Ready for Flight

Credit: Barbara La Valleur

The children are represented by colorful wood figures wing-walking on a biplane while the parents sit in the cockpit. When the hand crank is engaged, the biplane moves in an undulating manner, simulating flying, while the couple's travel destinations rotate below, overlooking tiny images of cities they visited around the world during their 50 years of marriage.

Sculptor

Celebrating Adventure

Credit: Barbara La Valleur

The commissioned piece is ready for its own flight to California where the anniversary gift will be given.

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By Barbara La Valleur
Barbara La Valleur is an international photojournalist of more than 50 years living in Minneapolis. Her most recent exhibit highlights some of the 5,000 photos she took on a recent trip to Cuba. From June to August 2018, the Red Door Art Gallery in Wahpeton, N.D., will feature an exhibit of her life's work.

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