What makes an object worthy of critical praise as an artistic achievement? Can anything be considered art? Does historical, political, or social significance elevate an item that wouldn’t usually be thought of in such terms to that lofty status? To be perfectly frank, I humbly believe anything can be art; like Andy Warhol said, “I just happen to like ordinary things. When I paint them, I don’t try to make them extraordinary. I just try to paint them ordinary-ordinary.” That does not mean everything is art, just that anything can be. Nor does it mean that I stop and consider the artistic qualities of every gadget I see or interact with on any given day.
Case in point, I haven’t actively thought about kaleidoscopes since I was roughly eight years old. When I am out shopping, I see them, but never pay them a second thought. Here comes the 20-minute documentary The Kaleidoscope Guy At The Market to rectify this oversight. Following artist Michael Shaw, who sells his amazing, handmade kaleidoscopes at Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market and several other vendors across the United States. He also does custom pieces, such as when a 2003 senior class commissioned an owl as their gift to the school.
What makes his kaleidoscopes such high demand objects? For one, stained glass is used for the base that houses the tube or marble that change the patterns and colors. Because of this distinct quality, they are instantly recognizable and beautiful. He has taken classic designs like the “stick” or “bubblescope,” which are reminiscent of the standard tube look most people are familiar with, and added his own unique spin on them. He has also created several original designs like the “pocket” which incorporates a spinning tube into an almost wallet looking viewer. Then there’s the “cathedral”; one of his most highly acclaimed originals, which has a long glass handle, attached to a simple but elegant tunnel, with a top-down spinner generating the geometric color patterns. Some of his works have multiple eye holes, which offer different vantage points of the same designs, manipulating perspective and changing what the viewer sees.
“Everyone should have some sort of collection. So they’ll have their own area of enjoyment close at hand.”
Director Russell Brown follows Shaw as he goes to a glass shop to find which colors catch his eye. We also observe him as he solders and glues a kaleidoscope, and he discusses his techniques and the various hazards of working with such hot and sharp materials (small burns happen). Shaw also goes into detail about his favored color combinations and what they mean to him. He prefers strong, heavy colors that contrast with each other well; so lots of reds, blues, and greens get thrown into the mix.
Also interviewed is Shaw’s loving, supportive wife, Sharon. She is the one that pushed him to take up his artistic endeavors as a full-time job. This lead Shaw to create several stained glass windows for many buildings around his town. Then after being screened by a committee of artists, he was cleared to begin selling his glass sculptures at the Pike Place Market. That was the primary focus of his art at the start, but demand for his kaleidoscopes kept going up and up, and now that is what he is famous for.
Brown reaches out to Mary Wills, proprietor of Nellie Bly, the world’s largest kaleidoscope retailer. She talks about art, how many artists can make a living doing this (about a dozen she reckons), and what stands out about Shaw’s pieces. Collector Richard Gerdsen owns twenty-four different scopes, all made by Shaw. Gerdsen loves his pieces and drops one of the most truthful statements I have ever heard in a movie, “Everyone should have some sort of collection. So they’ll have their own area of enjoyment close at hand.”
“…heavily discusses the social and political influences of kaleidoscopes…”
The highlight of The Kaleidoscope Guy At The Market though is when Shaw, Sharon, and Brown travel to the school that houses the Owl. It gets brought out, and a group of kids gets to use it and talk about it with Shaw. He is genuinely pleased that his work is still awe-inspiring to a new generation and that the owl residing at the school means each subsequent generation gets to engage with it as well.
Within the documentary itself, Brown’s style uses a lot of refracted images of the characters driving or of their neighbor to replicate the ornamental motifs that kaleidoscopes offer anyone using them. All of this happens as the movie relays both the historical value of kaleidoscopes, including early versions as mentioned in Mr. Bradley’s New Improvements In Planting And Gardening from 1717. However, it was not until 1815 that what today is considered the kaleidoscope came into being. The documentary short heavily discusses the social and political influences of kaleidoscopes with a look at Ray Bradbury’s short story Kaleidoscope and several papers from the late seventeenth century that describes ways in which society is reflected in a kaleidoscope.
The Kaleidoscope Guy At The Market introduces the viewer to an incredible artist in Michael Shaw. Thanks to Russell Brown’s slick direction and the vast array of kaleidoscope related topics the movie covers, it is a spellbinding, brilliant watch.
The Kaleidoscope Guy At The Market Directed by Russell Brown. Starring Michael Shaw, Sharon Shaw, Richard Gerdsen, Mary Wills. The Kaleidoscope Guy At The Market made its world premiere at the 2018 Dances With Films.
10 out of 10