Robots Take Over Tonka


Resident crafts expressive, upcycled automatons



Matt Swenson of Minnetonka recently became the most unlikely mastermind of a sci-fi invasion, as his quirky, cobbled-together robots recently took over the Atlanta airport as part of a new art installation at the Delta Sky Lounge.

The colorful, friendly mechanical figures take shape from vintage odds and ends in Swenson’s garage workshop in Minnetonka. He dubbed them “Djonk” (pronounced “yonk,” the Swedish word for junk) as a nod to his Scandinavian heritage. His unique style of art transforms cast-away scraps of metal, mechanic parts and trinkets into what he calls “upcycled Americana,” playful characters with clever names and lively personalities.

“I must have an old soul — I’ve always loved old junk.” Swenson said. “It’s a funny hobby.”

All cliches about trash and treasure aside, Swenson has been making the robots for about a year. Prior to this project, Swenson dabbled in a variety of creative pursuits, including drafting and architectural design. This particular project is unique, he said, because he works strategically but intuitively, without second-guessing his aesthetic instincts.

“It appeals to me because it doesn’t have to be perfect,” said Swenson, a self-described perfectionist. “I can use broken or dirty or strange things.” Swenson said that while he sometimes sketches a design before he gets to work, he more often lays out the materials and just jumps right into fitting them together. “I build each one the way it speaks to me,” he said. “They’re absolutely all unique. The goal is to make something nobody else would have.” He said he uses nuts and bolts instead of glue wherever possible, to improve both the appearance and the durability of the ‘bots. Swenson said he searches just about anywhere for the materials, even in the most unlikely places.
“I’ll go through garbage cans or pick things off the street if they look interesting,” he said.

His favorite items are ones given to him specifically to be made into robots, objects that have a special meaning to the owner. An old silver spoon or antique china cup can just sit on a shelf gathering dust, he said — by incorporating it into anthropomorphic android, with a distinct look and personality, breathes a new spark into a family heirloom.

“It’s a way to keep old things alive and give things a story to go with them,” Swenson said. Some of the stranger objects Swenson has put to use include clocks, an old rotary phone, a film projector, a camera and an infinite assortment of miscellaneous gears as well as kitchen knickknacks such as whisks, cups and tins — even a coffee grinder.
Many of these items were included in his pieces for the Atlanta airport, with the theme of old technology, particularly items that have been replaced with a smart phone.


The Delta exhibition has been his biggest commission to date. “When they first contacted me via email, I thought it was a scam,” Swenson said. He deleted the first email. And the second. After the third email, the curator finally gave him a call. “She said, ‘Don’t you check your email?’” Swenson said. “I asked why she kept after it because I’m glad she did. She really liked my stuff because it made her smile, and she said it speaks to people.” It took Swenson about three weeks to finish that series of robots, he said. “I had a blank slate and everything just flowed,” Swenson said about putting the pieces together. Although it varies from piece to piece, he added that it takes about 6-10 hours to finish a ‘bot, including the time spent finding just the right raw materials. “I’ve very deliberate,” he said. “I really think about it a lot before I even start the work.” Most of the time Swenson spends in the shop is early-morning or late-night hours, before work or after two daughters have gone to bed.


In total, he estimated he spends an average of 24 hours a week dedicated to the ‘bots. Swenson’s next goal, he said, is to try building life-sized robots using old mailboxes, which he hopes could become destination pieces that viewers will seek out and enjoy. Swenson’s individual pieces sell for about $199-$499 each online. Swenson’s day job is helping with individual and professional development as a Strengthsfinder coach. He said he isn’t interested in making money off of his robots, as long as he can cover material costs and have a little left over for his family to take a vacation. “I feel lucky that people are interested,” Swenson said. “I sure have a lot of fun with these.”



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