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Artisans of Michigan: Tin Angry Men

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Cre Fuller examining his newest creation.

Cre Fuller was already at work in the garage behind his Ypsilanti house when I arrived. I had seen photos of his work online, but I was not quite ready for the display set up in the garage. It’s great eye candy. 

"I make robot-inspired sculptures. You know, I try to make them look like vintage robots from the future," Fuller said, glancing around at probably 40 of his creations in the workspace. He says he usually has a few more than that on hand.

Vintage from the future. That's an interesting phrase. I ask him to explain.

"I do want them to have that vintage aesthetic. You know it’s that version of what people in the 1950s thought the future would be like, you know, robots and tin men helping us out around the house," Fuller said. "It hasn’t really panned out. We don’t have any flying cars yet. You know, some of them look a little menacing. As I go, my trajectory is a little bit spooky, and that’s how I kind of get my artistic fun out of it.” 

Fuller says he started making the robot sculptures simply to put some art on his walls at home. People liked them. They wished they had one.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Cree Fuller's wife Kristen Cuhran Fuller turns on some of the Tin Angry Men lamps.

“I thought they were gag gifts. I didn’t think much of it. So, I just started making them. You know, they evolved and light bulbs were implemented, and they became lamps, and they became more popular. I just figured I should spend a little bit more time and energy on them. You know, taking it a little bit more seriously,” Fuller said.

He says he's always made arty things and this was sort of perfect for him. 

“I’m a tinkerer, you know, taking things apart, putting them back together in a different way. That’s all it pretty much amounts to.”

He makes the Tin Angry Men using found objects. I asked where he got all the free or almost free material.

“Recycle Ann Arbor is a huge source of various scrap, people just dropping off boxes of random things out of grandpa’s garage. Those are my favorite: rusty old boxes of treasure. Antique stores, resale shops, side of the road. Now that people know I do this stuff, people are apt to drop off their scrap on me, and I can fish through it and see what’s good. As I put it, I just kind of throw it on the pile and wait for inspiration to strike.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Some of the painted Tin Angry Men.

As Fuller shows me around his workshop, I snap some pictures of his shelves. They're filled with old coffee pots, thermoses, and a whole bunch of mid-century kitchen utensils. 

“I think the old aluminum just has the patina. I can polish it and make it look chrome-y or I can leave it rough and it has that matted look, and it looks dated,” he said.

Fuller says when companies started using stainless steel and harder metals things like coffee pots lost some soul. He says the kitchen gadgets from the 1940s and 50s just look cooler and make for better robots.

When he started making robot head sculptures as lamps, people loved them. He started selling more of them and getting more serious about making them. He was getting ready for an art exhibition and needed a name for his endeavor.

"A friend of mine...just kind of said, ‘What are you going to call your tin angry men?’ Well, why not that? And I just kind of went with it. Again, at that point, not really taking it too seriously. I didn’t understand the scope or how much people love robots and things that look like robots. I think it really speaks to a lot of people and it certainly speaks to me." 

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Cre Fuller working on his latest creation.

Fuller says he can make a smaller piece in about a day. Larger ones take longer, especially if there’s painting involved or if he just can’t find that one gadget that would complete a piece. There are a lot of boxes of “spare parts” in the garage. Sometimes it takes a while. But, he says, it's worth it. The key is making something that makes him happy in the end.

“I’m still doing what I want. I don’t take a whole lot of commissions. It’s just like — this is what I want to do; this is what I want to make. And people have been good about accepting what comes out of my brain, I guess, and from my hands.”

Listen above for my full conversation with Cre Fuller on Tin Angry Men Industries in Ypsilanti, our latest Artisan of Michigan.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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