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Art, Willy Wonka Style

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 Art isn’t just for the people, it’s for the people to have fun. That’s the philosophy of two Tucson artists who invite you to climb on it, touch it, light it up, dive right in.

An exclusive preview of one of Tucson’s Modern Streetcar stations.
Photo of model courtesy of JB Public Art/Creative Machines Inc.

What’s the point of art if you just walk up to it and walk away? That’s the question that makes Joe O’Connell and Blessing Hancock come to work every day and produce the public art pieces they do, in all their size, allure and interactivity.

Blessing Hancock and Joe O’Connell
Photo by Gillian Drummond

They make objects that people can touch, light up, climb onto, lounge inside. “We’re really interested in bringing new experiences where people bump into it in their daily life,” says Blessing. And the idea is that they take away something from it.

A case in point is the commission they’re working on for the new Tucson streetcar: two steel and acrylic exhibits that will stand on either side of the street at Granada and Cushing. When you touch a triangle, it will light up and set off a chain light reaction among the other triangles built into it.

Another is ‘Fish Bellies’, to be installed on the campus of Texas State University in January: a school of sculptured fish that, says Joe, will be the largest stacked acrylic structure ever made.

The idea is that students will be able to climb into them and read or relax. Individually they will form personal cubbies, together a ‘school’ or family. “It seems like a metaphor for the college age experience,” says Joe.

His workplace is a 14,000 sq ft space spanning an office and two warehouses in south Tucson that’s an art studio, engineering firm, body shop and Willy Wonka factory all in one. Creative Machines Inc employs 14 designers, fabricators and engineers, and also has a waiting list of interns. They dream up, design, play with and test (with the many museum exhibits they design, they invite the public in to watch how people interact with them).

‘Fish Bellies’ Photo courtesy of JB Public Art/Creative Machines Inc.

Current ‘toys’ include a squirt-gun that spouts wax (for Austin Children’s Museum). “The best museum exhibits allow a person to do something that hasn’t been done before,” says Joe. Oftentimes, American museum curators ask too many questions about how an exhibit will educate, says Joe, which – in his opinion – is not the job of informal education. Exhibits such as the wax gun allow people to create something themselves, and education naturally comes from that, he says.  Some U.S.museums “get it”, the Europeans “get it”, says Joe.

It’s something his parents certainly ‘got’, too. Joe grew up in northern New Jersey, the son of a math teacher and an artist/homemaker who composted and recycled and “thought things through for themselves”, teaching their children to do the same.

Joe and his two sisters each had their own work bench. “My dad was a tinkerer. I grew up in a family of makers. I didn’t have LEGO, I had to make anything I had.” In Second Grade that would be linking cardboard tubes together. Later it would be a skateboard powered with a chainsaw.

The interactive Streetcar exhibit takes shape. Photo courtesy of JB Public Art/Creative Machines Inc.

Creative Machines Inc: not so much an art studio as a fun factory. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Blessing grew up the daughter of hippies, first in Seattle, then Tucson. “They were pretty alternative, hence my name,” she laughs.

“I was always making things as a kid, with beads, origami – I loved setting things together.” She didn’t turn her attention fully to art until attending the University of Arizona, where she gained an undergraduate degree in sculpture, then went into landscape architecture. “I found it wasn’t as creative a I had hoped.”

She went knocking on a few artists’ doors and when she visited Joe he knew within minutes that they would make a good working partnership, he says.

The two partner in JB Public Art, while Joe also runs Creative Machines. He is also owner of a company he bought from artist and sculptor George Rhoads, who creates ‘kinetic’ sculptures’. Huge interlocking gadgets and giant hamster-wheel-type affairs, they send balls gliding down tubes, set off percussion devices or spin metal birds in the air. They’re usually to be found in the lobbies of businesses, airports hospitals and art museums. They sell for up to $200,000 each, providing a reliable source of income for O’Connell amid the far less reliable commissions of art and museum work.

“Desert O’
Photo courtesy of JB Public Art/Creative Machines Inc.

In Tucson, JB Public Art is probably best known for the Desert O, a light-up sculpture outside the Tucson Museum of Art. O’Connell and Blessing are currently updating it, replacing the LED bulbs with better ones so that, by the Holidays, it will shine even brighter.

The streetcar project – to be painted bright orange – will hopefully be installed along with the car in March or April.

‘Cocoon’, which will be installed on the east side of Tucson. Photo courtesy of JB Public Art/Creative Machines Inc.

The duo is also working on ‘Cocoon’, a steel and LED sculpture commissioned by Tucson Pima Ats Council for the east side of Tucson. The idea is rebirth and transformation; people will be able to walk through it and, through a shadow theater effect with the lighting, see themselves projected onto the surface of the sculpture.

As the home page of their website says, “Play is our full time job”. But still, it’s a business, and one Joe and Blessing take seriously.

Photo courtesy of JB Public Art/Creative Machines Inc.

If they don’t have the machinery to manufacture what they want, they build it. The thought processes behind some of the sculptures run deeper than might be obvious to the naked eyed. A steel sculpture at Marana’s public library, designed by Joe, features mixed-up phrases from the most checked-out library books in Pima County, among them the Harry Potter series and Danielle Steel.

Says Joe: “Every year the librarian tells us of people who look at the words and find Satanic messages in them.” He stresses that the mash-up of words is computer-generated. Like all things here, it may look fun and even random, but the design, engineering and philosophy run deep.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Find out more about Creative Machines at and JB Public Art at


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