22 November 2010

From spare parts to fine art: Local artists repurpose Mag Lab materials

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What happens when artists get their hands on scrap metal and electronic parts?

Come see for yourself at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory's "Spare Part Art" exhibit Friday, Dec. 3 at the lab's headquarters in Innovation Park.

For the first time in the five years the lab has been participating in the First Friday Gallery Hop, the featured artists created their pieces using leftover and worn-out lab material, such as pieces of pipe, copper, stainless steel, aluminum and electronic widgets that otherwise would have been recycled.

"It's just fantastic material," said Mark Dickson, one of about a dozen artists in the show. "I found some terrific shapes: arcs and triangles."

The materials inspired one artist to invent a robotic lawn-mowing machine, while others created wall hangings, jewelry, mixed media and sculpture. Dickson sculpted three pieces almost exclusively from Mag Lab scrap metal.

"I just cut it and polished it and welded it," he said. "It's almost a celebration of the material itself."

Viki Thompson Wylder, the education curator at Florida State University's Museum of Fine Arts and a liaison for the local Artists' League, had a similar reaction.

"One of the things that struck me was the visual quality of the materials used by the scientists; the sheer beauty of the materials they were using," she said.

Many of the lab's magnets contain round copper plates (riddled with holes that allow cooling water to pass) called Bitter plates. Several artists, including Leslie Puckett, the art-program coordinator at the Tallahassee Senior Center Foundation, found them inspirational.

She incorporated one such Bitter plate (named for scientist Francis Bitter) in her "Alpha & Omega" abstract-collage wall hanging. The piece plays with the idea of linking early technology and culture (the alpha) with the latest (the omega).

"I like things that have a bit of a story to them," she said. "I like the idea of the alpha and omega going back to the very beginning of history and technology."

It was the lab's cast-off tubing, gauges and scrap aluminum that ignited artist Mark Miller's imagination. He melted the aluminum, cast it into a working engine and created something that is "part lawn mower, part hedge trimmer and part weed whacker," he said. He christened his battery-powered machine "The Lawnmaster 6000."

The lab's atrium hosts art exhibits four times a year in part to demystify science and make the laboratory more accessible to people who might not otherwise visit it. To that end, the Artists' League, a group that usually meets at FSU, toured the lab in the fall. For some, it was new experience.

"I think most people were really astounded by the fact that this is something we were able to achieve in Tallahassee," Wylder said. "For me, it was a point of pride."

As for the lab's giant magnets – such as its record-setting 45-tesla hybrid magnet that weighs 35 tons, stands 22 feet tall and cost $14.4 million to build – "they seem like architectural entities unto themselves," Wylder said.

The Dec. 3 "Spare Part Art" show starts at 7 p.m. – but if you'd like to see more of the lab, join the tour that begins at 6:30 p.m.