HE'S the artistic version of Heath Robinson making wonderfully romantic contraptions out of the kind of things we might find in the back of our garden sheds.

But while every Chris Dobrowolski exhibition cannot help but make you smile, there's always a thought provoking story behind each work.

In his latest show, Remnants of Utopia, Chris has taken inspiration from the university's focus on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, bringing together a collection of mechanical sculptures in which scenes of life from the former Soviet Union are played out in front of us in his trademark playful manner.

The main focal point is a beautifully constructed wooden track where a miniature 'May Day' parade is taking place with tiny lorries carrying photographs of Soviet Russia and political slogans on the back whilst they trundle around.

There's also a number of Chris' popular dioramas scattered around the Art Exchange such as Siberia with its outdoor toilet feel as you sit inside listening to Polish folk music while watching a toy train slowly chug around a circular track.

But perhaps the most sombre and personal of all the pieces is the simple set-up at the back of the gallery with two trains stood opposite each side of the track.

Entitled Agit-Prop and Anti Agit-Prop Train, it tells the story of Chris' Polish family who were deported to Siberia at the start of the Second World War.

Chris says: "My dad was 16 at the time when the Soviets invaded East Poland and shipped them off in railway box cars.

"They were there for two and a half years before Hitler invaded Russia and my dad was allowed to leave to go and fight for the Free Polish Government.

"That meant travelling from Siberia to the Caspian Sea where he sailed to Palestine."

From there he went to fight in North Africa and then Italy, the subject of Chris' last show, All Roads Lead to Rome.


Chris with his family's old Triumph car

"At the end of the war," Chris continues, "they were given the choice of what country they wanted to live in and as Poland had been effectively handed to the Russians, my dad chose Canada but he missed the boat.

"England was his second choice so he came here and because of the number of airfields that were based in the region, he was housed in a camp just outside Braintree."

Now based in Colchester, that's where the young artist grew up before heading off to Hull to study.

As part of Hull's City of Culture year, Chris was invited back to create a special site specific piece called Car-Go, which involved filling standard family cars with the various items he had picked up from the Humber Estuary.

Hull is also where Chris first experimented with his unique sculptural mechanical style to tell his own personal stories.

Trying to escape the East Yorkshire port, he began building a number of modes of transport from scratch including a car, a boat, and most incredibly a plane.

He adds: "Landscape, Seascape, Skyscape, Escape began with a boat made from driftwood I collected on the banks of the river Humber when I was still a student in Hull which I built to escape from art college.

"Over a period of 15 years, I made the other vehicle pieces, the maiden voyage of each one inevitably leading to interesting experiences that addressed issues to do with creativity, paradox and my 'love-hate' relationship with the art world.

"Those stories grew into a performance lecture that I performed in numerous places around the country and abroad including the Edinburgh Fringe festival. Ironically I am also regularly invited to give this lecture in art colleges."

Since then Chris has exhibited and performed a number of other shows including Antarctica, in which he brought to life his commission by the British Antarctic Survey where he worked alongside scientists and support staff to create a number of pieces reflecting the Antarctic environment and its importance, and of course the gorgeous All Roads Lead to Rome.


Intrepid Chris in Antarctic

Touring all over the country, Chris travelled in his family’s 1967 Triumph Herald estate all the way to Italy, where he retraced the footsteps of his father, who fought there during the Second World War.

But there was a twist in the tale when the beloved car was stolen and subsequently burnt out while he was at the Edinburgh Festival.

That Ying/Yang of bitter sweet humour also permeates his current show.

While the delightful ‘make do and mend’ aesthetic, that would no doubt have gone down well in post-war Russia, makes your heart skip a jolly beat, thanks to a wad of tear-off strips of paper beside each piece, you realise each one has a story too.

Like the gloriously silly Siberia - on the face of it a ridiculous way to listen to music while watching a train go round a track but for Chris, and more importantly his father, it has a very different meaning.

"As part of my privileged upbringing, I had a generous collection of toys," he explains.

"Once my father even built a shed in the garden for my train set. Like most children's train sets it went around in a circle.

"Now I realise how much at odds this was with his relationship to trains he had as a child. For him they were very real, went in a straight line and never came back."

Chris Dobrowolski: Remnants of Utopia runs at the Art Exchange Gallery at Essex University, Wivenhoe Park, until Saturday, December 16.

The gallery is free and open 11am to 5pm, Tuesday to Friday, and 12pm to 4pm on Saturday.

On December 14, there is a free tour from 1pm to 1.40pm, with some festive cheer in the shape of a glass of delicious Polish vodka – served the traditional way, with apple juice.