By Carol South, Special to the Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — In Tom Kaufmann's fertile imagination, an underground storage tank, wrenches, steel beams and granite countertops mean one thing: time to make music.
The Traverse City artist, musician and educator has spent much of the last four months in his hometown of Hastings creating a 2.5-ton music box. The instrument crafted from recycled junk can play a two-octave chromatic scale and can handle 32-measure songs.
Kaufmann will present his creation from Sept. 19-Oct. 7 as part of ArtPrize Grand Rapids. The grass roots art competition will feature 1,517 works by artists from around the world. Kaufmann and a few other Traverse City residents are participating in the fourth annual contest.
While his goal is to win first place and a cash prize, Kaufmann is also motivated by a passion to both create and educate.
"I want to promote recycling and music education and show people that they can make musical instruments without using a lot of money," said Kaufmann, owner of Tinkertunes Music Studios and a regular performer in the region.
Kaufmann's music box will be placed outside The B.O.B., one of 161 venues in the city's downtown area that are hosting ArtPrize Grand Rapids pieces.
ArtPrize Grand Rapids burst onto the scene four years ago, its founders looking for a fresh festival to engage the city. Envisioning a catalyst for both community and creativity, they explored launching a film festival but decided that market was saturated nationwide.
Instead, they created an open, simple art competition that quickly electrified the Grand Rapids and artistic communities. Artists — which this year number about 1,700 — connect on their own with venues to place their works through a centralized three square miles of downtown.
The annual ArtPrize immerses the region in all types of art, from painting to sculpture to movement, for 19 days.
"This is an international destination for artists and people who want to engage in art and make a decision about which art wins," said Brian Burch, public relations director for ArtPrize Grand Rapids. "It shocks us, it's surprising every year, just the scale is absolutely amazing."
For 2012, organizers expect 350,000 people to vote and many more to attend. Vote tallies by Sept. 29 will select the top 10 artworks. These will then face another round of public voting to determine placement and distribution of $360,000 in prizes.
A juried component of ArtPrize will disburse $200,000 in six award categories.
"The idea that we can put together something and the community can respond the way it does is beautiful," Burch said. "It requires people to break away from their normal patterns of behavior and look at and talk about art."
Kaufmann's oversized, eye-catching creation is sure to spark numerous conversations and, he hopes, votes.
The mechanics of the music box's main mechanism are straightforward. A hand crank turns the former storage tank. When it rotates, belts trigger levers which pull strikers back to hit the bells. These bells are made from recycled oxygen tanks with the bottom cut off. Kaufmann adjusts the tones by varying the length of the bells.
Additional components include a lithophone made from pieces of granite countertop, a tool box glockenspiel composed of wrenches and an interactive percussion instrument created from brake drums and rotors.
A junkyard ballerina perched at the top will rotate with the music.
"It's an automated carillon," said Kaufmann. "I talked to the head of the carillon at the University of Michigan and he gave me some good suggestions."
Beyond that quick expert consultation, Kaufmann's "Team Junkyard" includes high school band buddy Mark Hurless, whose machine shop hosted Kaufmann's creation, and Andy Struble, who worked at the Music House Museum in Acme for 23 years.
During a visit to his friend's shop, Kaufmann was intrigued by the underground storage tank, which had been sitting in Hurless' backyard for 20 years waiting for a project.
Kaufmann's long association with the Music House Museum, which features antique automated instruments of many sizes, provided another key input. He knew what was possible.
He tapped Struble for help designing all the striker mechanisms and the midi player to run everything from keyboards. This feature allows the music box to play without having to turn the mechanism.
"I haven't seen anything to this proportion in quite a while," said Struble, who now works as an associate with the GM Buck Pipe Organ Company in Grand Rapids.