Here's a little secret about visiting Randy Regier's art studio, a high-ceilinged industrial-grade work area that includes the former NuPenny toy store (his smart and disorienting art installation on Douglas Avenue) and the cavernous spaces behind it:
You may sense that your plan, the plan so secret even you didn't know you were developing it, the plant that would help you get around the toy-store-with-the-locked-door problem with the old interview subterfuge, failed. The toys are gone! Despite temptation to do so, you do not cry out, “How could you?”
Mysteries of NuPenny will not be clarified. Plots aren't resolved, missing characters remain unexplained. Your experience of window shopping at the NuPenny installation may, unexpectedly, return to haunt you.
Behind the former NuPenny store, divided space now holds, in one room, a small pick-up that seems to be in the middle of repair, and, in another room, a library and tool collection, and, in still another room, a 20-foot long sand shifter awaiting transformation, probably into a spaceship.
Even when Regier shows you the studio, explaining amiably his plans for NuPenny's next incarnation (it has had several around the country), and even when he leads the way to the smaller, street-facing room where the NuPenny shelves of toys once glowed, you have still not stepped foot into the NuPenny, the well-lit toy store that was never open.
The store that was never open has closed. Its suspiciously sparse shelves displaying the strange toys, all in a black-and-white-television silver haze, have disappeared, and in their place, a full workshop, in living color, has claimed the room, with tools and new molds and vintage items and parts of items he keeps around for inspiration. But for a moment, memory is stronger than fact.
At least it is reassuring to know that the NuPenny store will make another appearance, and next time it will take the form of an automat that dispenses Regier's handmade toys. A New York City gallery owner has commissioned him to recreate NuPenny there, and Regier has begun to work on this version of the store.
Automats popped up in cities in the early part of the 20th century, and lasted through the 50s and sometimes into the 60s. They were, essentially, gigantic vending machines, although people worked behind them, replacing the food items as quickly as customers made their choices. After dropping a nickle in the coin slot, a customer could slide open the cover of a compartment to get a sandwich, or piece of pie, or macaroni cheese.
But of course, the NuPenny as automat will dispense toys Regier has created. Oh, yeah—and one other part of this project may be its unveiling, someplace in Western Kansas. Regier's not sure if this will happen, let alone where. But it's wonderful to picture this giant metal contraption, toys awaiting, standing in some wheat field somewhere. Or on an empty small-town main street, maybe.
“My best intentions are to display it in Kansas before it ever goes to New York. It's going to be interesting to see how it works out time-wise.”
He says he didn't grow up around automats, but has friends from the East Coast that remember them. “Seems like a neat idea. Seems like an interesting idea. But whether it works or not, not so much. And for food it's a little dicey. You do have an expiration date on that stuff.”
He describes his plan to have a person behind the compartments of the NuPenny Automat, dispensing toys when people put their coins in the slots.
“It will be like NuPenny. I try to make NuPenny like it's something you encountered in a dream.”
Regier's toys are the center of his art, and in a way, the installations have come about as a proper way to frame those works. From a distance (say, from the Douglas sidewalk looking in to a fake store), the toys may appear to be vintage items, slicked up for resale. But the vintage pieces in his studio are there only to inspire him while he makes new pieces, providing him with an ongoing study of the lines and attitudes of the past. None of his toys are replicas of actual products, or even vintage toy parts put together in new ways.
Regier himself creates the molds for them, producing something like the spaceship capsules and spaceship-like cars and model scuba divers and cowboys of post-WWII childhood. As fun as mass-marketed toys might have been during that hopeful time of advancement and heroes, they always lacked one angle: The ability of a kid to say to himself (or herself), “This might be better if the horse had a person's head attached,” and then to make that upgrade happen, and make it look like it came that way from the store. In other words, they're like shiny mass-marketed toys with that mass-market-safety-feature removed.
He also seems to have, out of artistic necessity, smashed the space-time continuum that nostalgia-lovers depend on and NASA accountants fear. Some past, some past version of the future, a little of the true future, all for the present, get into the mix. It's all included, built in and blended. It's the good parts from each period, only better—more fun, a little raunchy. . . just what you really wanted for your birthday. Pre-high-tech days, anyway.
The toys' packaging accounts for at least 50 percent of the visual punch: The boxes holding the toys are convincing in their push, in the deep colors of comic books and in their exaggerated depiction of motion—the Hey kids! fun that this product is guaranteed to bring you.
A general outline of Regier's life experiences on paper could, in their direct relation to his current work, suggest that at the age of four or five he had carefully mapped out this trajectory so that he eventually, with hard work and patience, might achieve this dream of creative freedom, building new and improved toys.
That's not the case, of course, and to hear him tell it, it sounds like a plot in which one thing sometimes led to another, with a lot of work thrown in. He grew up the son of an auto mechanic; Regier himself was an autobody painter most of his life. This helps explains not just his skills at the mold-making and detail work of his art, but also, perhaps more importantly, his sense that a person could actually make these things. A person doesn't have to wait and hope that things arrive someday from the factory.
He was born in Nebraska and grew up in Salem, Oregon. His wife, Vicky, is from Kansas, and in 1997, they moved to Abilene, KS, where Vicky's brother lived, “with no intentions of pursuing art.” While there, they decided that it would be a good time for Regier to go to college, and he enrolled at K-State and commuted to Manhattan for classes. Taking a few art classes, he realized that was the direction for him. (He also minored in Spanish.) He and his family moved in 2005 to Maine, where he finished his graduate degree and taught art.