In Memoriam: John Payne and his Mechanical Beasts

He said that he wanted to find a way to recycle everything, and that life was fleeting. Hence the dinosaurs. John Payne turned prehistoric and poetic terrors into lifelike (and eerily inhuman) machines he dubbed “kinetosaurs.” Then he’d let children take the controls, or leave the beasts to shock unsuspecting passerby strolling through his studio.

But life is fleeting. I was shocked and saddened to find out that on July 17, Payne died tragically at the age of 58, following a massive stroke. A deeply thoughtful, compassionate man and one of the founders of Asheville’s arts community, his work was capable of conveying incredible energy or sublime peace.

I met Payne once in passing when he was showcasing his work in his studio, located in The Wedge, the old industrial building down by the river that he bought and turned into a warren of rooms for artists of all stripes. He’d come there after stints in Chicago and the Northeast (the kinetosaurs had formed the core of museum exhibits in Chicago and Pittsburgh). I’d been drawn in by the mechanical dog that suddenly sprang up and nipped at my heels before shaking itself and settling down for a nap.

Inside was the full menagerie. I marveled as The Crow struggled to escape its perch and The Raptor leered. I felt about five years old, stepping in to some great adventure. The kids in the place were naturally ecstatic. Watching him play at the controls, I could see the same feeling.

To my friend artist Jen Bowen, Payne offered a studio after hers was devastated by burglars. He’d often drop by to share thoughts or just to see what other creative minds were up to.

“He believed that everything need to be recycled, he loved found art, he thought it should be fun, enjoyable, that every moment should be appreciated because it is fleeting: that’s where the dinosaurs came from,” she recalls. “He saw these crumbling industrial remains and past lifeforms and believed you could create something sacred and beautiful out of them.”

(Photo by Jonathan Welch)

Just beside the Wedge, there is one of the most serene spots I know: a small garden pond surrounded by a fence and gate made from scrap Payne salvaged.

Go there at sunset if you’re ever in this part of the world. Watch: nature and old, beautiful metal will come together for one perfect second. There will be no sound, save for the river.

10 Responses to “In Memoriam: John Payne and his Mechanical Beasts”

  1. Mer Says:

    What beautiful work. What a beautiful man.

  2. R. Says:

    That’s beautiful and inspirational.

  3. Nadya Says:

    I remember when you proposed writing this post, he was still with us. You were going to go down and talk to him, and take some pictures. Now, that post will never be.

    How quickly life changes around us! We have to appreciate every moment. Thank you for showing us John Payne’s incredible work. It would have been wonderful to meet him.

  4. David Forbes Says:

    Nadya: He was shy when it came to media, even moreso during the last year of life, but I’d hoped that after some time and through some mutual friends, he’d be more comfortable and willing to open up. It would have been a great interview. As you say, that post will never be — at some level I’ll always regret that. It’s a reminder: “one thing is certain — this life flies.”

    Payne’s loss is pretty deeply felt here, and a part of that is that there will never be any more of his amazing work. But the art he did make still lives. It is a reminder to appreciate every moment, but also of the importance of creating what we can while we can.

    Mer, R: Thank you. That made me smile.

  5. John Payne's Dinosaur Art in Motion » Says:

    […] amazing plesiosaur that “swims” in air. Unfortunately, the occasion for me finding these things is word from Coilhouse that the artist has passed away at 58 due to a massive stroke. Go see the movies on his site to see […]

  6. Emera Says:

    Absolutely beautiful. I was completely awestruck by the Crow – his creatures seem so strangely vital and elemental. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Vivacious G Says:

    As an artist who uses found items in my own work, I am re-energized and moved by this. How very sad to end so soon.

  8. Reflections on Change: Exhibits at Wedge Tonight « Says:

    […] reflection on the purchase of the Wedge building.  Read more here from MountainXpress.  John Payne‘s portrait, a Betsalel piece owned by the Wedge Brewery, will be shown as […]

  9. Reflections on Change: Exhibits at Wedge Tonight « | The Exhibits Site Says:

    […] reflection on the purchase of the Wedge building.  Read more here from MountainXpress.  John Payne‘s portrait, a Betsalel piece owned by the Wedge Brewery, will be shown as […]

  10. Walking the dinosaur | The Dew Abides Says:

    […] a giant Tyrannosaur puppet made of scrap metal. It’s a piece by now-deceased kinetic sculptor John Payne. The industrial music was pumping, and you could just grab the handles at the end of two pulleys […]