Robots grow from Baker Medlock’s mind
By JAMES A. FUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
As a maroon minivan drove down a side street that links Lenexa and Shawnee, a young boy leaned out a window and pointed excitedly at something shiny in Baker Medlock’s front yard.
“Ro-bot!” the boy screamed at the top of his lungs.
Medlock — a modern beatnik of a man with goatee, large glasses and light brown dreadlocks snaking out from under a knit beanie — smiled and gave the boy an appreciative fist pump.
Rewind to 2005. Medlock didn’t know what to do after graduating from Shawnee Mission Northwest High School. After some odd jobs, he took a welding class at Johnson County Community College and made a few bucks making wrought iron stair railings. By 2008, that had grown old. That’s when inspiration hit.
“I’m going to build a robot,” he said.
That fall he went to the Plaza Art Fair and saw metal sculptures — for sale.
“They were making money at it,” he said. “It was inspiring.”
So it was that. With no formal training, Baker Medlock decided to become an artist.
A robot artist.
His first robot barely reached the middle of his thigh. Made from old lawnmower parts and scrap iron, it had a muffler for a head and an air-filter cover for an arm shield. Then he got serious.
His robots grew in size and complexity. In 2009, he began to put them in his front yard. He positioned a 7-foot robot near the curb. He made it lean forward and reach out with an arm and an attitude as if it were enforcing — and reinforcing — a 25-mph speed limit sign. From the road, the 800-pounder he called “Big Man” looked like something plucked from a movie set.
Closer inspection reveals a more pedestrian pedigree. The metal man is made with a gas tank from a Kawasaki 650 motorcycle, heavy metal gears donated by a local businessman, scaffolding metal, mounds of rebar, an electric motor from a garage door, tattoo guns and bike shocks.
There was a certain “humanness” to the robot that drew people to him.
Cars stopped. People asked questions and snapped pictures.
Medlock made more sculptures. He did artistic turns on a metallic dragonfly, a lady bug, a praying mantis and a wasp. Friends were stunned. How did he know how to do this?
He didn’t know, he told them. He just saw the figures in his head, then found ways to create them out of junk.
“Half the fun is finding the parts,” Medlock, 23, said.
He finds parts all over the city. In the street, in trash bins, by the river, on the curb.
“It’s really fun,” he said. “And it’s cool to be able to make something out of it.”
At first Oliver Medlock didn’t know what to think about all the junk his son was bringing home.
“It all starts to look a bit like the yard from ‘Sanford and Son,’ ” he said.
But he’s completely supportive.
“Once I accepted the fact that he was not going to go to college — which is what I wanted him to do — it was fine,” Oliver Medlock said. “I said, ‘Tell me what your goals are, and I’ll help you in that direction.’ And I have to hand it to him, he’s pretty creative.”
Jim Brothers, a well-known Lawrence sculptor, also praised Medlock’s talent.
“I think he’s a very creative individual,” he said after seeing several of Medlock’s creations. “Very well done. Very well thought out. I haven’t seen all of his work, but what I’ve seen, I liked.”
Others must agree. A large crowd surrounded one of Medlock’s metal robots at a recent First Friday event. The same happened at Final Fridays in Lawrence. He sold a dragonfly sculpture for $1,800. Then a Lawrence man signed him to his artist and marketing agency, Whirled Art.
“Where others see a pile of scrap metal, Baker sees life,” said agency owner Eric Kirkendall. “He can take that vision and translate it into an amazing one-of-a-kind piece of art.”
Ryan Hammond, the owner of a Shawnee tile installation company, is a fan as well. He was shocked when he met Medlock.
“I thought he was going to be some old redneck ex-mechanic,” Hammond said. “Then I saw him, and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I couldn’t believe he was the one making these things. I’m like, ‘You’re too young to know how to do that, that well.’ ”
The two became friends. One day, Medlock told Hammond he needed a truck in which to haul his creations.
Hammond had one.
“I’ll trade you the truck for the robot,” he said, joking.
“I’d do that,” Medlock said.
“Oh, no way,” Hammond responded. “I’d be ripping you off. It’s worth far more than that.’ ”
But Medlock insisted, and the trade — a robot for a customized 1989 23-foot former U-Haul truck, complete with workshop and working sink — was made. Now both men are happy.
Hammond plans to display his prized robot in a picture window and run a gas line through it so it can shoot flames.
“When I have a cookout I’ll move him to the deck and we’ll roast marshmallows on him,” he said. “It’s going to be so cool!”
In all, Medlock has made five large robots.
“I have plans to go a lot bigger than this,” he said. “I’d love to donate some to parks and boulevards. Put out robots all over. I’m just lacking the space and the equipment. I’d like to get Kansas City known for bad robots, man.”
So bad they’re good. That’s the dream, anyway.
He’d settle for being able to make a living with his art.
That’s a whole other dream.