Toying Around

Seattle artist Mike Leavitt is the CEO, sole employee, and manufacturing machine of Intuition Kitchen Productions: a one-man company of fine craft, sculpture, portraits, painting, performance, education, architecture, and animation.  Leavitt’s “Art Army” action figures are hand-made, one-off toys depicting “ … the surly band of marauders that’ll one day take over the earth.” Leavitt is represented by galleries in London, New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.

What sorts of play do you engage in, and do you employ a conscious connection between actively playing and designing toys?

I play with my girlfriend the most. No, it’s not just what you’re thinking. We’re both strong believers in child-at-heart, hanging out in nature, playing dominoes, Wii. No. 2 play participant: my dog. I throw a ball. She brings it back. It’s pretty rad. I pull a rope, she does too. It’s wild.

I do still collect vintage Star Wars [toys] and G.I. Joes. It’s an unhealthy obsession with nostalgia and reliving my childhood. I guess it’s better than other addictions or vices. If I do still play with these old figures in any way (mostly, just constantly reposing them on my shelf to look at over and over again with a grin and sigh), I definitely connect this all back to my current figures. I have an enormously strong impulse to make my figures as quaint, badass, and goofy as late-’70s and ’80s action figures.

The National Toy Hall of Fame inducted the Stick in 2008. It seems to me like they got it amazingly right with that. The play that emerges with simple objects like sticks seems to be the kind of magic that toy designers hope to evoke not only when people play with their toys, but when they just look at them.

This reminds me of an interview I just heard the other day on the radio with a Tahrir Square protester who said that most common technology used in the Egyptian revolution wasn’t cell phones. It was sticks and stones.

Even though most of my figures are one-offs, I still spend a lot of time thinking about how they’ll function, articulate, and move, and definitely how durable they’ll be when handled. I’m basically making prototype after prototype, except each one has to be finished and durable to stand alone as its own piece. Most toy makers just sculpt a surface. Then it’s cast, engineered for mobility, and painted later by factory technicians. I do all of that by myself in my garage.

You’ve described your dream art project as an amusement park, full of interactive art works meant to be played with. Most of your toys seem to be art objects meant to be collected and looked at, but maybe there’s an inherent interactivity that happens with toy design because of the playful subject matter?

I also spent most of my formative art-making years doing all kinds of interactive performance and installation art. Same impetus as now: to captivate people as much as possible with physical interaction. I could be making more “normal” sculpture nowadays, by making my figures completely static. I refuse to go down that tired old boring path. It’s harder to sculpt things, objects, and especially realistic figurines that are designed with moving parts. Even if they’re never played with, the potential for interaction just makes them that much more interesting. A lot of people don’t even know the toys move when they see them. I’ll show them and they’re stunned. Secrets and surprises are gold.

So I call the Art Army a conceptual-art project because the ideas behind the figures are as strong, if not stronger, than the figures themselves. This comes from both my personal portfolio and a long history of art physically interacting with its audience. Call me old-school. I just think there’s still validity to much of the performance art, Fluxus and Happenings from over 60 years of art history. Yes, too much of it nowadays is incredibly snooty, over-sized, blatantly academic, coldly sterile, and more importantly, completely unaffordable to the general public. This is where I’m mining the middle ground between conceptual art and mass-produced products.

“Even if they’re never played with, the potential for interaction just makes them that much more interesting.”

How much do you engage with toys? Do you hang out in toy stores?

Wow, you’re just sapping out all of my embarrassing secrets. Ok here it is: when I walk into Target, I don’t care what I’m there for, whether it’s a candy bar, a DVD, or new jeans; I go straight to the toy section first. I create any possible excuse to run any errand even remotely close to a Toys “R” Us. But my favorite is our longtime independent comics and collectibles shop in the basement of our local farmers’ market in Seattle, Golden Age Collectibles. Damn it, just thinking about it makes me want to go down there right now. What are you doing to me?

The retro videogame culture from the ’80s is of course full of nostalgia, but the current state of gaming is still alive, and more people play videogames than ever before. However, with toys, there’s a nostalgia that seems to now live on behind glass cases, and actually playing with toys is still mainly for kids. How does this sit with you?

Good call. Depressing but astute. I guess if people still play videogames, they’re still engaged in a constructive play, especially with all the online multiplayer games. Except that being strapped to the computer is an incredibly limited experience. Our old experience of the arcade games encapsulates all these little things that add up: getting to the arcade, riding the bike, taking the bus, facing any of the social pressures contained within, suffering peer pressure, checking out girls, scrounging for quarters, competing or teaming face-to-face with people in the same room. Will street smarts forever suffer at the whim of parents’ 21st-century fears? Did Osama bin Laden really kill trick-or-treating? I think it’s these kinds of conditions that are ripe for robots to effortlessly slide into the middle of our daily interactions. Text messaging is safer than talking to strangers; the self-scan at the grocery store isn’t as uncomfortable as making chit-chat with the checkout staff. Generally I hold the belief that more technology means less substantive communication. That’s what “play” is all about: communication, whether it’s with the people you’re playing with, or expunging your inner fantasies to the world outside your head.

I also think toy collectors take it way too seriously. I hate MIP, MIB, MOC, whatever. Let them out of the package! Let them get dusty! Let them fade in the UV! Yes, toys are an improved form of collecting sculpture and fine art. Fine art sucks because you can’t touch it. That’s B.S. Toys are toys because they’re built to survive manhandling (unless, of course, they’re strapped to fireworks or put in the microwave). This makes me think we should stage a duel between the Mona Lisa and Yoda and see who wins. Or maybe the David vs. Boba Fett.

A cattle skull by Georgia O’Keeffe squaring off with C-3PO?

This all makes me wonder: are people really cool with their Matrix pods? It seems like it’s only a matter of how, not if, to plug in. OK, just because my generation played with toys more, went outside, and got dirty instead of spending quite so much time on the computer, doesn’t mean we’re any better. There’s a sinister edge to the fact that we were allowed to get so addicted to collecting material objects at such a young age. My mom appeased me by buying new toys partly because of her guilt working incredibly long hours to support us. Was this a typical ’80s dynamic? Parents working extra-hard to cash in on the ’80s financial bloom, all the while keeping the kids spoiled with distractions? Is it any worse or better to let computers do the parenting nowadays? To walk further onto this tangential plank, being the only child of divorced and busy professional parents—another typical generational dynamic?—my action figures became my best friends amidst long hours spent entertaining myself. If computer usage has replaced materialism, it could be a good thing. It could also be priming the robots to take over.

That might suggest a real need for more toy design, maybe? More innovative sticks?

Yes! More innovative design for play, marketed toward adults. More than just “get together” boardgames for wine-sipping, condo-dwelling yuppies. More hands-on, go-outside-and-play kinds of things to unglue people from their phones and laptops. Parsing out all the conditioning since childhood gets us back to being kids again, toward delineating what is true to our nature and what has been formed by environment. Constructive “play” does this. Toys for both adults and kids can still do all of this. We’ve become self-consciously saturated with consumerism since the toy heyday of the ’50s to ’80s, so material objects have to be conscious and relevant.

Do you follow blogs or tweets of other toy designers? Are you into the toy fairs or conventions?

“We’ve become self-consciously saturated with consumerism since the toy heyday of the ’50s to ’80s, so material objects have to be conscious and relevant.”

I use Twitter and Facebook to keep abreast in general, but not to follow daily activity of the minutiae of anyone specifically. I’ve spent too much too much time over too many years innovating and figuring out what no one else is doing. I only follow other artists and designers enough to make sure I’m still doing something original. If I really like what someone else is doing; if I find someone who is in fact doing similar work, instead of emulating them I’d rather collaborate. This has produced fantastic results with people like Scott Musgrove and Charles Krafft. So I just keep an eye wide open to what everyone is doing. I have favorites, usually because they’re rabidly ambitious, which makes it nearly impossible to keep up: Sam Flores, Jeremy Fish, Joe Ledbetter.

I went to Comic-Con in San Diego once. I had fun for about three-fourths of day one. The next three days sucked. Too much. I’m a fan of the fair concept, but it might be better if it were juried a little more. Not some huge competition, just a little less redundancy.

For your upcoming NY show at Jonathan LeVine in September, you have a Jeff Koons figure in the mix. Do you think about any relationship between the balloon animals by Koons and your toys?

As much as I wish I could just hate Jeff Koons, I love and respect a lot of his work. More specifically than the balloon animals, some his other works like Michael Jackson and Bubbles are even more closely related to my work. We both have a deep interest in sampling kitsch. I get off the Koons train because his work is so fantasy-land expensive. I’d call Jeff Koons an inspiration if his work weren’t so trapped in the box of mainstream fine art. Influential, yes. Not inspiring.

If a company approached you to make 10,000 units of one of your figures, how would you react to that?

It should be telling that I can’t really comment on that right now. All I can say is: you want to be in New York City this September when my LeVine show opens. There will be another major Leavitt event happening in conjunction.


“The Art Army Royalty” opens Sept. 10, 2011 and runs until Oct. 8, 2011 at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, 9th floor, New York, NY.

Toying Around is a column about toy design with a strong emphasis on play and interactivity. Photograph courtesy Mike Leavitt