Earlier this year, I attended a wonderful event at Chicago’s Galerie F and, try as I might, could not walk away from a trio of lovable toys. The exhibition, For The Love of Toys, brought together artists from across the country. In particular, pieces by a designing duo who called themselves “The Bots” had a depth and texture I’d never seen in vinyl figures, and, as a full-grown adult, got me excited about toys all over again.
Unfamiliar with “The Bots”, I immediately I followed their Instagram account, discovering an entire world of characters, the talented couple behind them, and their toy-making secret ingredient: polymer clay. Each of their creations is hand-crafted with such intricate detail it almost seems criminal to call them “toys”.
Fresh off their first solo show in New York, the duo shared a bit about their work and history together. Read on to learn more about the Bots!
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?
We are Jenn and Tony Bot, full-time art toy customizers, who live in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. The two of us are graduates of NKU (Northern Kentucky University), where we studied Media Informatics, Popular Culture, and Cinema Studies. Married for a year, but together for 14, we have made a living out of our hobby.
How long have you been working collectively as “The Bots”?
We have been working under “The Bots” moniker since 2008. The name itself stems directly from an earlier project the two of us worked on where we literally made miniature polymer clay robots. Being that art often imitates real life, it was only a matter of time before our friends and even our family started calling us “The Bots” and the name has stuck ever since.
What inspired the original “Bot”?
Our first custom was a result of testing the limits of what we could do with polymer clay. We had made and sold miniatures on Etsy for a few years prior and were looking for a way to advance our skills on additional platforms. We really had no idea how receptive the vinyl toys would be to clay, so we moved forward with the idea that whatever happened would just be used as a learning experience. Ultimately, our first completed custom was based on a design we had previously made in miniature form and the two of us were blown away by how well our style and characters translated to vinyl.
Please describe your style:
Our style is unique in that we use no painting to achieve the look of our pieces. Everything you see is the result of hand mixed polymer clay and all textures are painstakingly added by hand. Because of the sculpted nature of our work, our pieces have a weighted quality to them that seemingly brings every character we work on to life. Our cute characters along with the bright colors we often use have been described by our friends as “Kawaii Pop.”
I see a few illustrations in your Instagram account. Is this the first step?
Actually, all of our pieces start out as a sketch. Being that we “paint with clay”, it’s imperative that everything is mapped out before we start working on a toy. Due to our unique process of customizing, there’s really no turning back once we begin a piece. If something ends up not looking right to our eyes, we often go back to the drawing board and start over. As for the illustrations and vectors that we show from time to time, we like to keep a portfolio of some of our favorite designs for archiving purposes. It is easier to be prepared when an opportunity comes knocking than to scrabble like crazy when you’re asked to create something on a deadline.
On average, how tall are these figures?
We work on a variety of sizes, but often focus on smaller 3″ figures so that we can keep our prices low. We firmly believe in getting our art into the hands of collectors and do our best to not out price the people who want to support us. Also, working on the smaller toys enables us to make more pieces each year and it then makes our releases on larger toys more of a treat for our collectors.
How long does each figure take to complete?
The amount of time it takes to complete a custom greatly varies depending on the size of the piece and how intricate the details are. On average a 3″ piece will roughly take a day or two, while larger pieces such as 8″ toys may take up to three days to finish.
A large number of your figures are commissioned. How much flexibility does that give you as an artist?
Our commission list can get quite unruly, sometimes growing to the point that customers have to wait multiple months for a piece from us. When we first started customizing, we really fought with the idea of whether we were going to allow commissions simply because it does reduce the flexibility and can hamper our creativity as artists. Ultimately, support from the collectors of customized vinyl toys swayed our opinion. It is very rare that we dislike an idea that a collector presents and more often than not, we are given free rein to create whatever we want. With that said, we have learned to space out our commissions and not take on so much so that we have the ability to work on passion projects or experiment with ideas we would like to incorporate into future customs.
Do you have a favorite figure, or possibly one with a unique story?
When we come up with the ideas for our pieces, we always like to create a potential backstory to go along with the character. Most of the time the story and the pieces themselves reflect something that we find interesting at the time. However, on occasion, the story and the piece are directly spawned from a unique experience or memory the two of us have shared together. For instance, our most recently completed piece, No Flash Photography, is in honor of Tony’s sister who we tease mercilessly about an unfortunate run in she had with an octopus on a family vacation.