When Artists and Engineers Join Hands
“That was fun! It gave me a chance to play in the sandbox with others.” Gary Mauler was speaking metaphorically about his experience mentoring MICA and Hopkins students in a unique class, Collaborative Smart Textiles Research Lab.
It was a coming together of the Maryland Institute College of Art Fiber Department and the Johns Hopkins University Digital Media Center. The class was held at MICA. I was invited by Gary to attend student presentations on December 15. Curious about the collaboration between engineers and artists, I went to learn about new ideas and new ways of doing things.
This presentation was an interesting event on several levels. First, original ideas always fascinate me. Second, I’m drawn to art in its many forms. But it was most intriguing because I saw demonstrations that merged unlikely partners, suggesting new ways of collaborating in the future.
Right or left?
It was an example of how diverse thinkers, such as artists and engineers, can successfully work together. Artists process information in an intuitive and layered way. They see the whole picture, pull their creativity from the visual right brain. Later in the process, they grapple with the details. Engineers are more sequential and use the left brain which processes information more analytically and sequentially, examining the parts and then putting them together to realize the whole.
This might be the place to give a little background information about how Gary, the left-brained engineer who works at Northrup Grumman, became involved with right-brained artists. Ten years ago I met Gary shopping in a store when he asked my advice about paint color. (I've learned over the years how good Gary is about making connections wherever he goes.) This led to an invitation to the haunted trail that his Boy Scout troop was working on. One thing led to another and we remained friends.
|Gary Mauler, Photo by Bonnie Schupp|
I could see right away that Gary was 99.9% engineer. When I tried to discuss art with him, it fell flat. As a right brain person, I was amazed at what he was missing. Of course, as a left brain person, I’m sure he was amazed at my lack of understanding in his field.
I began to tease him about how he needed to connect more with the art world and told him it would open a new world to him. Apparently he was listening because he reached out to MICA students and invited them to participate in his annual Robot Fest. (He had moved from haunted trails to robots by then.)
His involvement with the MICA art community continued. This past semester, once a week for 15 weeks, Gary drove from his Anne Arundel County home in Severn to the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore City to help students problem solve as they worked on their semester projects. His role was as a volunteer for the joy of it, although he later mentioned that it was a learning experience for him as well.
Show and tell
For the Wash & Wear Electronics student presentations, twelve students showed and talked about ten projects. You can read an excellent article about it in What Weekly. Annet Couwenberg, Fiber Faculty at MICA, and James Roubelle, Chair of Interaction Design and Art, worked with Joan Freedman, Direction of JHU Digital Media Center to make this class happen.
My two favorite projects were Emily Cudworth’s LED Gallop Boots and Peter Ebeid-Atalla’s Midi Puppet.
|LED Gallop Boots, Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp|
Emily designed horse boots with LEDs that light up when the hoof strikes the ground and shuts off when it lifts. This project shows both artistic and practical elements. Light drawings of the horse’s movements can be purely serendipitous artistic joy. At the same time, this might have some practical applications in studying equestrian movement related to health problems or it might be applied to safely issues. It is most interesting that Emily studied the past and then carried knowledge toward new ideas. Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic work focused on study of motion of both humans and animals. And in the 1990’s, children delighted in light-up sneakers which became a rage.
|Midi Puppet, Photo by Bonnie Schupp|
I was also interested in Peter Ebeid-Atalla’s Midi Puppet. He demonstrated how he could control sound with a “performance-aware midi glove.” Most interesting were his comments during the question and answer session. He eloquently related how exciting it was to share an idea and have his idea validated by people who said it might be possible. He spoke about the excitement of ideas that could be brought to fruition. His eyes lit up with enthusiasm and possibilities.
Step out of your comfort zone
There are lessons to be learned here. When diverse thinkers work together, it’s a win-win situation. This doesn’t mean only right-brain/left-brain thinkers. It also has implications for collaborations that are cross-age, cross-gender, cross-generation and cross-culture. We need to stop working with only people who think like ourselves and reach out to those who think unlike us.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” ~ Neale Donald Walsch