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Working in Steel

An engineer’s iconic sculpture defines the art and soul of teaching.

Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - students on Numerous campuses have benefited from Duane Ellifritt’s artwork.On campuses across the country, there stands a singular piece of outdoor artwork that appears to be solidly abstract. It is more properly described as a work of realism, however—and one with a very practical purpose.

The original Steel Sculpture was created in the mid-1980s by Duane S. Ellifritt, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida who wished to help students visualize the details of structural steel connections. Field trips were a conventional way of achieving this, but there was not always a suitable building under construction to visit. Models would have been too heavy to lug to class and too bulky to store. This situation led Ellifritt to create the sculpture.

His pedagogical engineering objective did not mean that his work was without artistic inspiration. He had been pursuing painting as a hobby, so assembling steel beams, columns, angles, bolts, and more was not completely rash. The success of his achievement both as a work of art and as a teaching tool was appreciated by faculty members at other engineering schools, and Ellifritt sent them his plans. Today, the sculpture is promoted by the American Institute of Steel Construction, which publishes a teaching guide to use with it.

It was only last fall that I learned that Duane Ellifritt was the Steel Sculpture’s creator. On the occasion of the artwork’s 25th anniversary, Modern Steel Construction ran a news item celebrating the event and noting that steel sculptures had been installed on at least 135 college and university campuses. The magazine also ran a profile of the engineer/artist.

The feature brought back memories from about a decade ago, when I first met Duane. We were both part of a delegation visiting China’s Three Gorges Dam construction site to learn more about Chinese engineering. As I recall, Duane was a quiet and unassuming member of our group. What most distinguished him then, besides a full and wide mustache, was his penchant for sketching at the places we visited as well as during meetings. Duane’s sketches were so evocative of our activities that a selection was included in the final trip report.

Subsequently we kept in touch by exchanging Christmas cards, with Duane’s being handcrafted and hand-decorated. I came to know him as a painter who worked in pencil, pen, charcoal, pastel, and—most especially—watercolor. Modern Steel Construction taught me that he also worked in steel.

I learned from the profile that Duane had recently taken up “the nearly lost art of fore-edge painting,” in which books are decorated in such a way that the painting can only be viewed when the pages are fanned out in the appropriate way. When the book is closed, the edge looks like it has simply been gilded. The engineer Ellifritt designed a special clamp that holds the book pages in the proper position for the artist to paint upon them.

An excellent example of an engineer whose interests go far beyond the technical, Duane Ellifritt moves easily between the art of engineering and the fine arts of painting and sculpture, and each of his seemingly divergent interests informs the other. His Steel Sculpture has benefited countless engineering students and enriched numerous campuses.

When he first proposed that a steel sculpture be erected at the University of Florida, an art professor asked if it was indeed art. Ellifritt was pleased recently when an alumni association calendar featuring art on the Florida campus devoted a page to his Steel Sculpture.

Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the author of An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession.




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