Sonic steampunk: Artist Cliff McGaha combines electronics and art to create Gizmos

Cliff McGaha — with his Grateful Dead-theme Gizmo at Consign Design in North Little Rock — repurposes old parts to turn them into one-of-a-kind, high-end stereo systems. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
Cliff McGaha — with his Grateful Dead-theme Gizmo at Consign Design in North Little Rock — repurposes old parts to turn them into one-of-a-kind, high-end stereo systems. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Cliff McGaha's creations are filled with surprises and songs.

One looks like a moonshine still; the sculpted head of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, complete with tiny glasses, floats in another. One is Rolling Stones-themed, with red lips, lolling tongue and a high-hat cymbal; another evokes Egypt, with its clear pyramid and pharaoh hounds. There's even one that can be used to practice putting a golf ball.

Some are made from antique radios; some incorporate old drive-in car speakers; two are collaborations with artisan woodworker Ron Burcham of Benton. Twinkling LED lights adorn each of them.

And they all are booming stereos that McGaha — born and raised in North Little Rock — has built from old pieces of furniture, pipes, instruments, wires, mason jars, switches, sculpture and whatever else strikes his fancy.

He calls them Gizmos.

  photo  While Cliff McGaha uses Bluetooth technology in his Gizmos so music can be played from a smartphone, tablet or computer, some are also outfitted with turntables. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
It's a sunny morning earlier this month and McGaha, a bearishly built fella with gray hair, a goatee and a perpetual smile, is at Consign Design on Maumelle Boulevard in North Little Rock.

His Gizmos have been selling here for a little more than two years. His brother-in-law, Steve George, first mentioned them to shop owner Steve Hobbs.

"He shows up with a shelf model of one of the Gizmos," Hobbs recalls. "When he started demo'ing that thing I just fell in love. I said, 'I'm sorry but I can't consign this because I'm going to write you a check for it. This one is mine. But if you make some more, I can sell them.'"

McGaha has sold about 40 Gizmos through the store, including one recently to former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Not only is that one a stereo, Huckabee can also play his guitar through it.

Gizmo prices range from about $1,400 for a desktop model to around $4,000 for larger pieces.

Asked where his ideas come from, McGaha chuckles. "I think my creativity sprung from too much sugar and cartoons when I was a kid."

He studied in the radio, film and TV program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock before dropping out and taking an internship at radio stations KAAY and KLPQ. From radio, he moved into video, doing camera work and editing for live productions and Little Rock news stations.

"The video experience has taken me to lots of places," the 63-year-old says. "I've been on just about everything that flies, from the Concord to hot air balloons ... and I've pointed a camera at nearly every president since Ronald Reagan."

He has also done sculpture, which comes in handy when making things like the image of Garcia.

"I just kind of fell into [sculpture]," he says. "I don't have any formal training. I had some modeling clay at the house and started making cartoon characters."

  photo  A moonshine still motif is one of the more popular versions of Cliff McGaha’s Gizmos. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
A few years back, McGaha had open heart surgery to repair an aneurysm. Boredom overtook him while convalescing and he started making lamps and selling them at flea markets.

Then he came across steampunk, the aesthetic that marries retro, steam-powered technology with a futuristic science fiction twist and the lamps soon gave way to what became Gizmos with their switches, gauges, lights and sound.

There's another influence that is evident on the collaborations with Burcham.

"There's a steampunk take to it," says the woodworker and artist, "but what I do is more art deco, so I call it deco-punk."

Burcham and McGaha hit it off when they first met a few years ago at a party at Consign Design.

One of the pieces they made together is called Chakte Viga, a round coffee table named for the wood that forms the ring that envelops the speaker covers. Other wood used in the table include white oak, red oak, walnut, bird's eye maple, cedar burl, cypress, ebony and more.

Just before the pandemic, Burcham started a tall piece that was inspired by a vintage industrial clock.

"About a year ago, we got back together and I showed it to Cliff and he took it from there," Burcham says.

McGaha outfitted it with pipes, vintage speakers and a plasma globe and turned it into a Gizmo.

"Basically, I just come up with something and turn it over to him and he does the rest," says Burcham.

  photo  This Gizmo is a collaboration between Cliff McGaha and artisan woodworker Ron Burcham of Benton. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Sean Clancy)
Right around the start of the pandemic, McGaha retired from his job at AV Arkansas, which does audio-visual support for meetings and other events. Now, he devotes his time to Gizmo making with help from his wife, Brenda, at their Jacksonville home. And he has moved from building them while seated in his easy chair in their living room to an actual shop.

"I like to say that this is my version of making birdhouses [in retirement], but mine thump," he laughs.

He and Brenda scour flea markets, estate sales, eBay and other sources for material and then the creative process begins.

"Stare at a piece long and it kind of dictates what I do," he says. "I'll get an idea and get enthusiastic about it and go from there."

As more people find out about his work, they also want to contribute.

"I started getting calls and texts from people wanting to know, 'Hey can you use this?' They find things and send me texts wanting to help. Where does that come from? You sell something to someone and then they want to participate."

  photo  Steve Hobbs, owner of Consign Design in North Little Rock, watches as a golf ball rolls away from a golf-theme Gizmo made by Cliff McGaha. Gizmos are stereos that McGaha has created from repurposed parts. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Sean Clancy)
The vintage radios are ideal Gizmo vessels, he says. The drive-in speakers, RCA models from the '50s, are good for housing new components.

McGaha says he likes to keep modern elements out of sight and has clever ways to disguise each unit's subwoofer. He will sometimes use old, metal five-gallon gas cans that he has outfitted with the subwoofer. For the moonshine still, he used an old copper container. Another Gizmo's subwoofer is hidden in a teapot. Lately he's hiding subwoofers in cajons, a box-shaped percussion instrument.

Speakers on the back of the Gizmos are angled to make the sound bounce off a wall, a technique inspired by Paul W. Klipsch, who founded a high-end audio company in Hope in 1946.

Gizmos are outfitted with a Bluetooth amp that allows the user to play music from a smartphone, computer or tablet. McGaha has also made Gizmos with turntables for vinyl record enthusiasts.

Making Gizmos checks all the right boxes for McGaha.

"I'm trained as an audio and video engineer. This mixes all of that in with the sculpture. It's two different sides of the brain, electronics and art, and I get to use all of it."

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