From the minute that I set foot inside Utah artist Dave Borba’s booth at this year’s Arts Festival, I was transported into a vaudevillian carnival populated by terriers wearing cowboy hats, devils dressed like 1950’s hoodlums, and a flock of hearts that have sprouted wings. The subjects of Borba’s unique, three-dimensional portraits are not content with staying put within their antiquated frames, and many of them feature actual movement. My personal favorite was a portrait of a leering, half-decomposed zombie reaching outward from its frame. When a small boy asked if it could move, Borba leaned forward and replied, “Only when the lights go out!” and flicked the portrait’s light switch, causing the ghoul’s jaw to gape open and one of its eyes to pop out of its skull. Both the young Arts Fest attendee and myself were very impressed.
Borba looks very comfortable in the presence of this rustic art. Sporting a straw hat and a Whitman-esque beard, it’s no surprise that he’s the one behind so many original pieces of artwork. A Utah native, Borba enjoys the Beehive state’s many opportunities to interact with nature. “Some of my best ideas come when I’m mountain biking or running a river. I know it sounds a little lame, but it’s always worked for me,” says Borba.
Upon closer inspection of the artwork on display, it’s evident that Borba has spent a lot of time making it look like the pieces have been sitting in someone’s attic for fifty years. The wooden frames are slightly warped, the background paintings are weathered and the paint appears to be slowly fading away. “I’ve always been a fan of my grandpa’s era, the ’30s and ’40s. Back then, it was possible to make a living as a craftsman. That’s why I like to ‘antique’ my pieces and create a sense of nostalgia in the work,” says Borba. The Mexican Day of the Dead also plays an influential role in Borba’s work. Three-dimensional portraits of skeletal guitarists are set alongside devil boys and girls—it’s like being inside an Oingo Boingo album cover.
In the midst of these three-dimensional portraits, one of Borba’s most intricate works of art is tucked safely in the corner. It’s called “Flight of the Wounded Bird,” and it is hard to keep one’s mouth closed when taking it in. The sculpture depicts a small bird with bandaged wings piloting a DaVincian ornithopter. At the base, there is a tiny crank that can be turned to make the mechanized wings flap. Hanging on the wall behind the sculpture are Borba’s initial design sketches, which once again evoke the work of DaVinci. The amount of time and effort that must have been required to create this sculpture is quite staggering to think about. “There are some pieces that have a general concept and then you let the process steer you along the way,” says Borba. “As the pieces become more intricate, I’ve had to plan ahead. ‘Flight of the Wounded Bird,’ for example, has numerous gears and moving parts, so it required more planning and foresight.” I proceed to explain that this type of mechanical engineering is something that my brain was not blessed with. Borba says, “If you were to ask me about the mathematics behind making it move, I wouldn’t be able to explain it. I design my pieces very organically. I’ll do paper cutouts and find out where pivot points are and make adjustments. It’s not math at all for me.”