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 REFRACTIONS

BY HENRY PETROSKI
HENRY PETROSKI

DRAWING ON EXPERIENCE

Engineering training has helped many artists — even poets.


Engineers are not generally known for their involvement in the fine arts, but there have been some notable exceptions.

Alexander Calder (1898-1976), who is best known now for his mobiles and stabiles, received a mechanical engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology and worked as an engineer before studying art. His early works exploited his talent for creating wire sculptures, some of which he animated in a performance piece known as Calder’s Circus. His engineering background greatly influenced the design of his later larger works, many of which could form the basis for homework exercises in engineering science courses like statics, dynamics and strength of materials.

A show of Calder’s early work, Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933, opened in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art in October and will run there through February 15, 2009. It will then travel to Paris, where it will be on display at the Centre Pompidou from March 18 through July 20, 2009.

Randy Ploog, an art historian at Penn State, recently brought to my attention another engineer/artist. Manierre Dawson (1887-1969) received a civil engineering degree from Chicago’s Armour Institute, which in 1940 merged with the Lewis Institute to form the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

According to Ploog, why Dawson began to produce abstract paintings in 1910, before European artists like Vasily Kandinsky did so “has been one of the great mysteries of modern art.” According to Dawson himself, his art was influenced by his engineering and mathematics courses, and his early paintings “were based on coordinates and curves suggested by parabolas, hyperbolas and circles” so familiar to engineering students.

Ploog is an expert on Dawson, and he has prepared an exhibition illustrating how the artist’s civil engineering background contributed to his abstract works. The exhibit is scheduled to open at Penn State in January, and then will be mounted at other campuses, including Virginia Tech and IIT. (Other schools interested in hosting the exhibit might wish to contact Ploog at randyp@psu.edu.)

I also learned from Ploog that Gelett Burgess (1866-1951), famous for the nonsense verse about a purple cow (“I never saw a purple cow / I never hope to see one / But I can tell you, anyhow / I’d rather see than be one.”) was also educated as a civil engineer. Evidently Burgess “wrote the first American account of modern European painters, such as Picasso, Matisse” and others, and it was Burgess’s engineering background that caused him to explain Cubism “by comparing it to the multiple views of a mechanical drawing.”

Da Vinci, Calder, Calatrava: each an inspired artist and engineer

There have been and are other notable artist/engineers, of course, including the genius “artist, engineer and scientist” Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Perhaps the most well-known “architect, artist, engineer” practicing today is Santiago Calatrava (1951- ). His train stations, skyscrapers and bridges — works of art in their own right — became well known throughout Europe as works of art, architecture and engineering.

It is only in recent years that Calatrava has received commissions in the U.S. Among his completed works are the addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, with its moveable wing-like sunscreen known as a brise soleil, and the glass-floored, cable-stayed, gnomon-masted Sundial Bridge in Redding, California. Unfortunately, Calatrava’s dramatic design for a transportation center at the site of the New York World Trade Center has recently been scaled back for budgetary reasons.

Of course, there are countless engineers of all specialties who paint, sculpt, and follow other creative pursuits. Like so many other misconceptions about engineers, the one that they use only the left side of their brain has plenty of examples to disprove it.

 

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His essay on Alexander Calder in the exhibition catalogue accompanying the Whitney show explores how the artist’s engineering background influenced his work.

 

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