Squirrels in Toyland (Well, Narberth)

By Emily Guendelsberger
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 20, 2010

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Just outside Bill McHugh's window, a bright red cardinal and several sparrows slowly rotate in and out of view, riding small cups of birdseed on a Ferris wheel-like contraption 10 feet in diameter. A connected waterwheel supplies a small fountain via two reservoirs. Several more large, metal kinetic sculptures are visible in the background, carefully designed built to run on the forces of nature, in particular the energy of squirrels, birds and other backyard wildlife in search of food.

This sculpture is entertainingly titled “Hitchcock;” while there’s only a few riders this afternoon, it’s easy to see where the name came from at dawn and dusk, when the sculpture is swarmed, says its creator. McHugh, a retired mechanical contractor in his late 70s, has been building an impressive kinetic sculpture garden in his Narberth backyard near the original Barnes Foundation building for four decades. Other sculptures named “Swirl-A-Squirrel,” “Twirl-A-Squirrel,” “Whirl-A-Squirrel” and “Squir-Rel-A-Tor” are vacant at the moment; McHugh doesn’t keep the “fuel chambers” supplied with peanuts all the time anymore, as they’re so popular with clever area wildlife that they can burn up 300 peanuts per day.

The squirrel-powered sculptures have gotten more complex over the years, but all are based on the same principle: A squirrel enters the sculpture through a hole on one end of a mesh tunnel suspended in the air. The rodent’s pound or so of mass sets carefully balanced mechanisms turning, spinning or chiming as it runs to the fuel chamber to grab a peanut and back out.

Before retiring, McHugh worked on tide gates, which keep river water out of city sewers. He says that he never made anything like his sculptures at his job, but there’s a similarity in spirit: A good tide gate functions for years after installation without maintenance or an outside energy source; his sculptures also run on physics and nature, whether wind, water, sun, bird or squirrel.

The oldest, a 40-year-old double windmill that’s at least 30 feet tall, is spinning breezily even though there’s barely any wind. Sun powers the flapping of the 4-foot wings of a silver pterodactyl in the front yard—an homage to British kinetic sculptor George Cutts’ “Sea Change;” the original is two 25-foot-tall, upward-pointing, curved steel poles that rotate, giving an impression of seaweed swaying in the waves. McHugh’s “Narberth Lite” waves gracefully for 12 minutes if you drop a penny into its gumball-machine-esque slot, but its two columns are each made of 40 Coors Lite cans. McHugh jokes that his is superior, as it runs on solar power.

It’s just a joke, though. McHugh openly takes pride in how his sculptures are very efficient and well-made, needing no maintenance through snow, wind and rain, but seems to get almost embarrassed by questions going beyond the physical construction of his work. “I don’t call it art, I call it craft,” he says apropos of little at one point early in our interview, as if trying to ward off annoying lines of questioning down the road. Art, in his opinion, is something that’s “better executed,” and he doesn’t consider himself an artist any more than he’d consider selling one of his sculptures.

Given the hours that go into them (each takes about a winter to make), even his simplest sculptures would be $10,000 just at cost, he says, his tone implying that that would be ridiculous. He does, however, send some out on long-term loan.

At one point, McHugh wrote letters offering long-term loans to local nursing homes, thinking that residents might enjoy watching the birds lazily swing by on “Hitchcock.” None even replied. “The Alzheimer’s Association of America indicated to me that a demented person would be intimidated by the size, and the birds,” he says, and laughs. “Which I suppose could translate to ‘You’d have to be nuts to not appreciate it.’ ”

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