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Arts & Culture

Old Typewriters A Treasure For This Artist

Before computers, offices were filled with noise made by this machine that was a huge commercial success: The IBM Selectric typewriter.

The old Selectrics are mostly gone, save for the occasional machine someone has kept around as a conversation piece.

In this story, WFAE’s Amy Rogers tells us how one man turns these office relics into pieces of art.

There are no working typewriters in Brian Rumping’s workshop in Rock Hill, SC. Just giant mounds of typewriter parts.

“This is maybe six typewriters worth of pieces,” he says. “I don’t know how many pieces are here, how many I’ve used and how many are left.”

Rumping says the old IBM Selectrics have roughly 2,800 screws, nuts, rods and other parts. It takes about four hours to take one machine apart, and another couple hours to clean all those parts by soaking them in gasoline.

“The typewriters are pretty nasty machines,” he says, “lots of hair, food, grease.”

And from these piles of metal, Rumping makes metal sculptures in many sizes: A dragonfly that fits in your palm, a car you can perch on a shelf, or a giant fish with movable fins.

The shelves of his garage workshop are filled with boxes and bins that nearly reach the ceiling. The miscellaneous file of parts is essential to his work.

“There’s some pieces in here I use all the time. There’s a lot of pieces in here that I’ve never used. And I just kind of search through seeing if something catches my eye that looks like something, appears to be like something.”

He often comes across a mystery part that somehow is just what he needs.

Credit Amy Rogers / WFAE
A robot built by Brian Rumping.

That’s how a rolling caster from a broken chair leg becomes a robot’s head. How metal springs give shape to a skeleton’s ribcage. And how the fan-shaped section of typewriter keys forms the feathery-looking tail of a phoenix.

This passion started with insects.

"I started with living stuff. I used to make a lot of spiders with doorknobs, and cabinet knobs, casters, things like that,” he says.

Rumping finds old machines at yard sales, junk stores, friends’ basements. He tries not to pay more than $30 for each one.

He turns them into pieces that sell from $5 to $500 at regional craft festivals and art shows.

Rumping isn’t an artist by trade, although he studied figure drawing in college.

His self-taught metal-work comes from a lifelong interest in putting things together – and taking them apart. He used to work as a landscaper, but he’s always tinkered with other stuff on the side.

“I’ve always been kind of crafty,” Rumping says. “I used to make flowers with telephone wire. I had an employer who gave me 10’ lengths of telephone wire that had 300 pairs of wires in it. And I made flowers with wire and just gave them out for birthday gifts, presents and whatnot.”

In 2009, he started seeking out machines – mostly typewriters – that would provide the raw materials to create bigger, more detailed and more imaginative works.

It’s all pretty low-tech, using not much more than screwdrivers, wrenches, and drill bits.

“Everything is cut and chopped and filed and sanded right here,” he says, showing off his “handy-dandy” vise as he saws through metal with a hacksaw.

“No fancy shop tools, just a hacksaw and a vise.”

Still, the modern artistic influences are evident.

“I always loved Picasso. That could be in there with the Cubism, and the squared angles of the machines. I’ve always liked outsider art, things that not everybody likes. That’s kind of where I go with it.”

One of his latest works is a desktop metal skeleton of a runner. And yes, it moves. 

Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance

He estimates he’s made thousands of magnetic little spiders, but as his works are growing larger so is his imagination. Not long ago he built a fire-pit from a bulldozer rotor for his back yard, and that got him thinking about a new direction for his work. Now Rumping wonders: What if he were to take apart an entire engine block? What sort of creatures might he see within the metal bits and hunks and chunks inside it, just waiting to be created?

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation.