The Machine that Puts the Sound of the Ocean in Seashells stands roughly 3 feet tall, with a dark maroon, foghorn-like attachment on one side. At the other end, separated by a confounding heap of brass and electronics, a movable, mechanical arm hovers over a platform sized just perfectly for your typical beach-find.
The longer you stare at this contraption inside Bungled Jungle, Pat Landreth and Suzanne Montano's Salida gallery, the more it looks the part. Of course that machine puts the sound of the ocean in seashells. Same with the Lightning Bug Recharger and the "nonsense machine" that supposedly captures moonbeams and boxes them.
"One I'm working on right now," says Landreth, "will measure the density of ectoplasm. Don't ask me what that is. I just like cool-looking machines, and if I have to, I'll invent a purpose for them."
But Bungled Jungle is more than the glorified garage of a one-time nuclear physicist. (Landreth holds a master's in physics from the University of Washington, and has no formal art training.) It's warmed by monsters and creatures that also bear the stamp of Suzanne Montano, a former geologist and Landreth's longtime girlfriend, artistic partner and gallery co-owner.
If you wander toward Bungled Jungle during this weekend's Salida Art Walk, you'll likely be greeted outdoors by a four-armed alien mother in a polyester toga and cowboy boots staring goofily into the wide eyes of her buck-toothed green baby in a stroller. Inside the main window, you'll see a purple-faced potted plant with a blond wig and gold bra, rigged to frantically pedal a stationary bike.
With two minds collaborating on single pieces of such aberrant art, it's truly a non-marriage for the ages.
"When I first met Pat and called a friend, I said, 'he looks like an unmade bed with eyes,'" says Montano, 53, who started dating Landreth 25 years ago. "He wears clean clothes, mostly right-side-out, but that's kind of it. The other day I came in and he'd spilled coffee on his pants. So he took a paint sponge and spattered paint all over his clothes — so, that took care of the coffee stain."
The 67-year-old Landreth, whose Einstein-ish hair completes the mad-scientist look, actually spent plenty of time in the conventional business world. Even after tiring of the sciences 30 years ago, he created a manufacturing and design operation in which he constructed a lightweight concrete substitute for builders. Only during downtime would he fiddle with creatures.
"It was reverting back to something I did as a child," says Landreth, who grew up building toy rockets in Spokane, Wash. "I hadn't realized it at the time that you could actually stay totally independent of working for anybody else and make something from scratch and sell it."
And yet, creating things has always come so easily to him — according to Montano, "it's like knitting.
"When he's making little creatures, you'd swear he's not even looking at them. There's no thought, they just come out."
By contrast, she says she "thinks to death" every artistic move. But about 20 years ago, she began collaborating with Landreth. This methodology was not planned or even discussed. Landreth says the first time Montano altered one of his works, he was shocked.
"I was abhorred by it," he remembers. "She went in and took one [of the creatures] and she got it totally wrong, upside down and backwards. Then all of a sudden I realized it looked far better the way she did it. I was humbled by that. So that opened the door to make me realize that it's nice to have another pair of eyes look at something and see something better."
Life off axels
They began a Gypsy-style existence of living inside converted buses and eventually at a roadside tourist trap, the recently shut-down Swetsville Zoo in Timnath (just south of Fort Collins) for nearly 15 years. Dairy farmer Bill Swets "saw sculptures in the tractors that he worked on," says Montano, and built enormous, quirky installations like giant dinosaurs from scrap. His playful efforts matched the fanciful spirit of Montano and Landreth's works, and he sought them out and invited them to live on his farm.
"It was kind of like having a patron," Montano says of Swets, who incorporated the couple's workspace into his free museum and enabled them to sell their toothy wares at festivals and art shows around the country.
In 2004, the couple rented their current gallery space in Salida for one month and sent out 1,000 invitations to past Colorado-area collectors.
"What shocked us," says Landreth, "was that so many people walking by during that month came in and bought that we never closed. It was an accidental opening. We didn't intend to open a gallery."
Nor did they intend to settle down.
"We even put training wheels on our [current] house so we could get used to something that wasn't on axels," says Montano. (A friend gifted them "huge, carved wooden wheels like from a Flintstone mobile.")
Montano says a series of trailers outside that rented home in Howard (between Cañon City and Salida) function as workshops and provide just enough space for co-creation. To stumble upon the makeshift studios at night, she says, would be startling: "You'll find body parts — eyeballs on the ground, wire to make hands and feet ... heads laying around ... there's a clutter of tools, racks of creatures in progress, shelves with paints and eye molds.
"You can tell nobody here is great at organization. We're both chaotic people. We would drive any other two normal people nuts, which is another reason we get along so well."
Today, 90 percent of Bungled Jungle's creatures are collaboratively built. (Landreth builds the robots and machines solo.) They range in cost from $15 to $2,500 and contain, on average, 13 separate materials like rubber, plastic, plaster, wood, metal, clay and glass. Depending on a piece's size, it takes between a couple of weeks to more than a month to take final form.
Landreth also creates "habitats," standalone, odd, angular sculptures: "After making so many creatures, I found myself saying, 'I wonder where these kinds of creatures all live."
Though he admits a predictable love for Jules Verne movies and flicks involving monsters and other fictitious creatures, Landreth says he doesn't mine them for ideas. Bigger creatures, some of which are near people-sized, are usually sketched from imagination, while palm-sized ones often come from playing with the materials and being inspired by something as simple as a cloud in the sky.
"When I see some new, strange creature, it hits a chord of wonder and I just like to perpetuate that feeling," Landreth says. "I like to see when the kids come in — that sense of wonder — 'What if there was something like that?' That helps keep me going."