It does not diminish an artist's creative accomplishments for a critic or scholar to find influences in life or educational experiences. In the case of Calder's mobiles, the germ of the idea behind the sculptures can be seen in the pages of his engineering textbooks on mechanics -- including statics, kinetics, and kinematics. The evidence is found in the definitions, expositions, sample problems, and exercises involving levers and systems of levers, often accompanied by figures that are strikingly suggestive of what he would create years after he pored over the texts.
Calder's stabiles no doubt also benefited greatly from his engineering education. The large scale of the stabiles formed out of steel plates easily presents problems of stability, and Calder's use of stiffening elements shows that he was aware of potential problems related to instabilities like buckling. No doubt it was his engineering background that enabled Calder to work on such large-scale steel structures without the need to involve a consulting engineer. He certainly had the technical background to serve as his own consultant.
After the mobile and stabile had become staples of the art world, less inspired artists began to write to Calder asking what formula he used to create his designs. While Calder the engineer certainly knew that his works could be analyzed for equilibrium and stability, he also knew that the countless hours he had spent as a student poring over textbook exercises and problem sets had helped develop in him an intuitive sense of how balanced systems of interconnected rods and weights worked. Formulas may be necessary for quantitative analysis, but they are not essential for the qualitative synthesis that is design. It is only after the design has been captured in a sketch, model, or prototype that it can be analyzed, if necessary, using formulas.
A visitor to an art museum or a public plaza containing one of Calder's mobiles or stabiles does not have to understand engineering or even know that the artist was also an engineer to appreciate the artistic achievement on display. However, like any object of design, the more we know about it, its creator, and the governing principles of its operation, the more we can appreciate its subtleties and its connection to the rest of the world of art, design, technology, and human effort and accomplishment. Understanding the background of anything that is designed makes us realize that, as in a complex Calder mobile, everything can be connected to everything else, even when there are no obvious physical linkages.
When I lived in New Orleans, there was an incredible collection of moving sculptures in an unlikely place: the headquarters of the K&B drugstore chain.
K&B Plaza, on St. Charles Avenue, was home to over 40 "kinetic sculptures," including this one by local artist Lin Emery. Some are still there, but many of the sculptures have since been moved to a sculpture garden in City Park. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting New Orleans.
I've often thought that studying the kinematics of these sculptures would make a good project for an introductory dynamics class.
Your mention of descriptive geometry texts takes me back. My father was a draftsman and finally got an associates degree. I still have all his textbooks in descriptive geometry. It can be a useful skill. My brother and I were lucky in that our high school had a great pre-engineering/architecture program. The first two years were common. It was in the last year that you specialized. We had a great teacher and we did some very interesting projects. I went the pre-engineering route and my brother the architecture route. When he was in architecture school I used to help him with his projects. He would often ask me to help with some of the more complex perspectives. I was working full time and would go to his place and work on this. I really found it challenging and enjoyable.
Our engineering schools today challenge students with one or more group project. These have to be unique and the students have to come up with solutions to new problems. Some of these are significant. I truly believe that working with objects and solving real problems helps engineers to really understand. This obviously helped Calder.
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