The name of Professor Butts, a fictional screwball inventor, shows up on the screen of an old Blackberry. As the phone vibrates, it falls off a ledge, which tips a yellow ball down a table, sending it flying onto a small blue slide. After triggering several more levers and plowing through a pile of cans, water sprinkles onto a daisy that sprouts into the world.
This is artist Robin Schwartzman's "Machine for Watering a Plant While You Are Out," a custom-made Rube Goldberg-style work inspired by the cartoonist whose name became a synonym for wacky, overcomplicated gadgets.
Rube Goldberg, the iconic Jewish American cartoonist, author, engineer and artist, is best known for his cartoons of his famed "machines" that take many steps to perform ridiculously simple tasks. The Minnesota Jewish Community Center commissioned Schwartzman's piece for a two-part exhibition devoted to the life and work of Goldberg (1883-1970) that runs through Dec. 20.
The show came about through an unusual connection.
"I got a call three years ago from this guy Geoffrey George," said 'I have a bunch of old work by my grandfather in my basement. Do you ever show people's art?'" said Robyn Awend, the JCC's cultural arts director. "The intro was not super exciting and I was like, 'OK, tell me a little bit more.' He says, 'Have you ever heard of Rube Goldberg?' and I was like, 'Duh. Is this a joke?'"
George, who lives in St. Paul, is the youngest of Goldberg's three grandchildren (their surname was changed to avoid backlash from the Jewish-American cartoonist's political views). He didn't know Rube well, but when the artist died his work was distributed to the grandkids.
Awend soon found herself in George's basement alongside exhibition producer Larry Pepper, excitedly sifting through archival gems.
The exhibit is divided between two locations. The show at the Sabes Center in St. Louis Park focuses on Goldberg's life, career, ridiculously complex "machines" and the company he kept, like Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, while the Capp Center in St. Paul focuses on his political cartoon work, which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1948.
In true Rube-style, the show in St. Louis Park is titled "Simplicity Made Complex" while the St. Paul exhibit is "Complexity Made Simple."
The team of six that Awend assembled was deep in the process of organizing the ambitious exhibition when COVID hit.
To keep things moving, George decided to make a 40-minute documentary about his grandfather, "The Two Lives of Rube Goldberg," which was screened at this year's Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival and can be viewed for free online through Oct. 31 via minnesotajcc.org.
It became a way to learn about his grandpa.
"Growing up in my teens and 20s, I just didn't understand what the big deal was," said George, who is 60.
Although his father, Thomas George, went into fine art — a small exhibit of his abstract paintings is also currently on view at the Sabes Center — and his uncle became a theater and film producer, Geoffrey didn't feel any pressure to make it in the arts. But in Rube Goldberg-like fashion, he wound up becoming a filmmaker anyway.
Goldberg's machines are regularly referenced in pop culture, as in the 1985 film "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," the board game Mouse Trap and the "Back to the Future" movies, to name just a few.
He's experiencing another revitalization among schoolkids because of the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, launched in 1988, which gives them the chance to build their own wild contraptions.
Geoffrey George hopes that kids will continue to be inspired by making their own machines — and get off their phones and into the world.
"I have gone to a couple of these Rube Goldberg contests and I was overwhelmed by the energy these kids had," he said.
That same collaborative energy drove Schwartzman as the Minneapolis artist worked on her own Rube Goldberg machine with Awend's kids. Reese, 11, Jojo, 9, and Simon, 6, helped her paint, engineered problems and just ran around the gallery like crazy.
"They were my awesome testers and re-setters for what to do when things didn't work," said Schwartzman. " I was really shocked and amazed they took to it, and how smart their suggestions were."
"Simplicity Made Complex": 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-noon Sun. (call to confirm Sunday hours) through Dec. 20, Sabes Center, 4330 S. Cedar Lake Road, St. Louis Park. 952-381-3400.
"Complexity Made Simple": 5:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5:30-6 Fri., 7-6 Sat.-Sun. through Dec. 20, Capp Center, 1375 St. Paul Av., St. Paul. 651-698-0751.