Today we’d like to introduce you to Leif Maginnis.
Leif, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I had the art school experience at the San Francisco Art Institute. I was lucky to have really good teachers who were passionate about their jobs. I had total freedom there; I got into painting, printmaking, and sculpture. I graduated having not just this knowledge but also experience with welding, metalworking and carpentry too. These were great fallback skills to have after I was out of college. The day after I graduated, I flew to New York City. It was an invigorating experience living there. There was just so much going on. I worked on lots of different television shows doing production and art department work on set and working directly with Martha Stewart, Michael Moore, Dave Chappelle, Bruce Weber and others.
I wanted to find a way to merge my technical and creative knowledge so I got my master’s in industrial design from Pratt. After I graduated, I began working on building sets and special props for Broadway shows. I enjoyed working in the theater environment. I was fascinated by how changing the intensity and color of the lighting could change how a particular scene is perceived.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t know anyone. The first month I was here, I was incredibly lucky to get on the Discovery Channel home improvement television show Monster House and won $15K worth of tools. I ended up getting the gig because I kept calling them about it, that was a very instructive lesson. I then spent several years working at shops in the valley making props and sets for theme parks, films, and special events. The Winter Wonderland gingerbread house at The Grove was fun. It was designed to look like a huge graham cracker house you could eat. I made all the animatronic components like the waving teddy bear, snowman and the Santa Claus clock. Later I worked on the Finding Nemo submarine ride at Disneyland. I spent months sculpting styrene bead foam for this. I still think of that job whenever I smell that stuff. A lot of that pretty scenery work that you see can be toxic to work with.
I was actually in the process of making a proof of concept for a utility patent when I realized that ultraviolet LEDs and fluorescent dots could be a really interesting interactive art piece. I took a job at Otis College where I then had access to a big shop and laser cutters to work on this idea. I started by making small pieces with spinning disks and patterns on them. I worked up to a five foot wide spinning piece that I showed at the Tech Interactive Museum in San Jose. I later exhibited similar work at The Mechanical Art & Design Museum in the UK, and Two Bit Circus here. I have also presented the pieces and their inner workings to schools, colleges and even a presentation to the engineering staff at Scaled Composites in Mojave. Later, I started using high performance phosphorescent materials, ultraviolet lasers and motion tracking hardware to create projected physical outlines of the users that glow like a mirror in the dark. My goal is to create a slightly hypnotic immersive environment that takes the viewer to another place. I like to think it’s hard to observe the work passively.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I remember making this fancy bent plywood chair and then selling it, I was so proud of it but then I added up my time and all the other costs and realized I didn’t make much money. I wish I had taken a business class when I was younger so I could have been more realistic about outcomes like this. Also, I’ve missed out on some opportunities because I wasn’t paying attention to offers of assistance or information that could help me with my career and self-development. Asking for help goes a long way, most people naturally want to share their knowledge. For most people making art, the art almost never pays the bills. I’m so glad that I picked up so many hands-on skills along the way to make this work possible.
We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
I’m a machinist, metalworker and carpenter. I work a lot with plastics, mold making and product development. I prefer projects with a CAD-based design methodology. Much of my work is determining how to bring together physical parts, computer-based motion control, and sensors. The research and development is the fun part. I have years of experience from working on television and film projects.
I spent ten years working at Otis College and Southern California Institute of Architecture. I had a lot of time there to hone my skills and work on unusual student assignments. I help people make prototypes, proof of concepts and custom parts for various projects. I also work with students of all ages to make advanced class projects or just to test out an idea. I have a fully equipped shop in Culver City, where I take on special projects.
Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
I would have to say the forth of July! Every time the 4th came around, I would drive to the Indian reservation outside Seattle and buy the good fireworks.