After nearly 30 years working with lasers, cameras and computers as an optical engineer, Mike turned his attention to more artistic creations. His works cover a wide range – from painting murals and benches to sand sculptures and wood art. Though he was interested in puzzles since he was a child, Mike started collecting puzzles in earnest around 1992. Soon he was connected with a worldwide group of puzzle people and attended his first International Puzzle Party. One part of this annual event is the Puzzle Collector’s Puzzle Exchange which requires exchanging puzzles that a collector would not have. He designs and builds puzzles for this event, roughly 140 puzzles each time. Mike’s puzzles are on collector’s shelves on at least five continents. Mike has puzzles in two museum collections: one at Indiana University’s Lilly Library; and the other in the International Intellectual Museum in Mongolia. His personal collection has roughly 1800 different puzzles.
To meet Mike and learn more about his work in person, be sure to stop by the upcoming Minneapolis/St. Paul Mini Maker Faire at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds Grandstand on June 3rd, 2017.
As a designer, builder, and collector of puzzles, talk about the beginnings of your passion for puzzles.
I don’t remember the beginning. As a kid I had a few mechanical puzzles. By the time I was a teen, people would give me disassembled puzzles and have me put them back together. I was 40 before I became conscious that I was really into puzzles. (I had around 50 puzzles at the time.) Within two years I was completely connected with a worldwide community of puzzle people and started designing and building my own puzzles. (Not counting duplicates, my collection is currently around 1800 puzzles.)
Have you always been creative? What choices or steps have led up to your current creative projects?
Like collecting puzzles, I suspect I have always been creative, but did not recognize it until my thirties. Every once in a while I would just need to create something, like a cartoon or new lyrics for sea shanties. Puzzles have given me motivation to get into woodworking. The opportunity to trade puzzles with people around the world prompts me to create and build new designs. Some of my artistic creations come from requests, like a call for artists to paint murals in the skyways. Others just sound fun so I have to try them.
In terms of living and making in Minnesota, do you feel connected to this place?
I belong to two local clubs that have given me great support: NorthStar Scrollers (who will be at the Maker Faire) and Rochester Woodcarvers. They provide me with techniques and motivation that help bring my work to the world. When I go to International Puzzle Parties, I am one of two people representing the North Star State.
Do you like teaching people to make puzzles? Why are puzzles good for the mind?
I like anything that gets people to enjoy puzzles. In the past I have not spent much time teaching about making puzzles and I still need to figure out how to do this with a general audience. I have mainly worked at making people aware of the large variety of puzzles that are out there.
Puzzles are a great way to get people to think about things in different ways. “If this does not work, what will?” “I never thought about it like that.”
Also see Question 8.
I think a lot of people yearn to make things, utilize their hands for tasks beyond their laptop/smart phone, and dream of becoming more self sufficient. What advice would you give to people who have a desire to make, but don’t really know how to satiate that desire?
I would suggest that folks start by looking through books and other resources about puzzles (or any other topic). From there they can discover the wide range of puzzles styles and can select some categories and media that are interesting. There are many areas to get into, from simple paper & string puzzles, woodworking or 3-D printing of simple or complex parts through the mathematical approach analyzing combinations or geometric possibilities.
(I don’t think puzzles will make you self sufficient unless you count making a living from puzzles and then using the money to support yourself.)
What does it take to build a really complex puzzle? What is your favorite part of this process?
Complexity is not a required part of a well designed puzzle. Some of the best puzzles in the world are simple to solve, once your figure out what you need to do. The most important part of designing a puzzle is knowing who your audience is; what will give them the most enjoyment? Some designers target difficulty and complexity of the solution (e.g., it takes 133 moves before the first piece can be removed then 72 more for the next piece). Other people go for complex mechanics (e.g., a Rubik’s style cube that has that has 17x17x17 layers or only 1x1x3 layers). Most of my puzzles aim for the fun of playing. I also like to create some that are as much art work as puzzle. (I have designed a puzzle that has 41,989,570,560 possible assemblies and 1 solution.)
A number of your puzzles are on collector’s shelves on five continents and you also have puzzles displayed in two museum collections, including one in Mongolia. What do these accomplishments mean to you?
The most important thing is that I have met and talked with almost all of these collectors. Many of them are now friends that I keep in contact with.
And I must admit it is cool to be able to say that my puzzles are part of a museum collection in Mongolia.
Do you feel like designing and building puzzles allows you to contribute to something larger than yourself?
The most significant thing is seeing people have fun playing with and solving puzzles. Instead of giving people the solution when they ask, I will tell them they can figure it out and encourage them to keep trying. Later they admit that it was more fun to discover it themselves. I like to reinforce the enjoyment of achievement through perseverance.
Have you participated in MSP Mini Maker Faire before? What will you be sharing there on June 3rd?
I was a Maker at the second Faire on 2016. This year I will have a number of puzzles showing some of the variety of the puzzle world. There will be puzzles to play with and some sets of instructions on making your own puzzles. Also available will be some original puzzles for sale.
There is one other thing I often tell people about:
At the International Puzzle Parties, I participate in the collectors puzzle exchange. The rule is that the puzzle you hand out must NOT be something that a collector would already have on their shelf. At the last exchange, I handed out 93 puzzles and 93 people gave me one of theirs. While you can have someone else design and/or build your puzzles, I have gone the low cost route – I design and build them myself. Obviously this is strong motivation for making new things.