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Moving Works of Art

Jack Cannon Got Into a 'Crazy Clock Thing,' and Now 7 Bright, Kinetic Sculptures of Wood Keep Time in His Newport Home

April 03, 1999|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It started with a library trip to learn the workings of antique clocks.

Jack Cannon was curious, that's all. But when he saw how this lever did that and how that gear did this, Cannon began thinking.

"It struck me that I could make those darn things out of wood, rather than metal, and oversized," he said. "At first, I wanted to see if mechanically I could do it, but it grew from there.

"Then I started painting them, and they took on a carnival style."

The retired photographer ended up making seven kinetic clock sculptures, which now decorate the Newport Beach home he shares with his wife of 50 years, Yvonne.

They're bright, whimsical pieces, with wheels that turn and levers that clang.

Cannon is humble when talking about them, but his pride comes through every now and then.

"I know they're not terribly sophisticated, but I've always thought they were neat. . . . A lot of people really dig them," said Cannon, 74. "These things are really unique. It's bold of me to say, but I haven't seen anything like them."

They're based on the mechanics of verge escapement clocks, which used crown-wheels and pendulums to measure time. The design was standard for 700 years before being replaced by more efficient engineering in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Each sculpture, which Cannon sometimes refers to as "toys," took him about three or four days to make, and they range from 8 inches to 3 feet tall. His main tools were a jigsaw, drill and paintbrush.

Besides the motion pieces, Cannon creates portraits in wood and detailed with paint. His favorites are "First Round Draft Choice" (a football player), "Where You Goin' Sailor?" (a woman) and "Incoming" (a soldier). He has also painted on canvas, using Mission San Juan Capistrano and the Balboa Pavilion, among other spots, as subjects.

"I got into this crazy clock thing about six months ago and now I'm into the face thing. . . . It keeps me busy."

Cannon retired five years ago and began exploring his artistic side. He's a regular in art classes at local community colleges and does volunteer work as a docent at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, where he finds daily stimuli for his own work.

"The new modern artists [frequently exhibited at OCMA] really turn me on," Cannon said. "It's a good job; it inspires me."

Photography excited Cannon when he was younger, and his interest resulted in some unusual experiences. He worked for the U.S. Air Force's top-secret Lookout Mountain Studios based in Hollywood from 1947 to 1963 with the ongoing assignment of documenting nuclear arms testing in the Pacific and Nevada.

He was one of a group of photographers and cinematographers who recorded dozens of blasts. Those images became a symbol of the Cold War years and the growing power and danger of nuclear energy. The Lookout Mountain Studios team was the subject of a recent story in People magazine and a documentary by filmmaker Peter Curran.

"Every time you see an atomic explosion on TV, for a scare film or whatever, we filmed it," Cannon said.

They'd shoot the explosions from protected bunkers anywhere from two to 100 miles away. As you'd expect, the memories remain in high relief.

"It was terribly impressive," he recalled. "We were often thinking of the technical things [ensuring they captured the images] but the grandeur would come through. I remember the shock waves [that] came in [after a blast]. They'd hit and it would be like a gun going off in your ear."

One test, in particular, stayed with Cannon. It happened in the Pacific, with Curran and his team hunkered down about 100 miles away.

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