Putnam's new kinetic wave sculpture combines math, art

Originally Posted Online: Feb. 15, 2014, 7:18 pm
Last Updated: Feb. 15, 2014, 10:44 pm
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

DAVENPORT — A large, hanging kinetic wave sculpture was installed last week at the Putnam Museum as part of the museum's new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Learning Center, which will have a grand opening April 11.

Created by Reuben Margolin, a 43-year-old sculptor from San Francisco, the "Hexagonal Wave" is the new main feature in the museum's Grand Lobby. It's about 18 feet in diameter and 14 feet from top to bottom, made of a blue steel frame, 109 control strings woven in a mathematical pattern and 198 tapered cardboard tubes. An electric motor will pull on the strings, causing the tubes to ripple outward from the center in concentric circles, a pattern similar to that made by a raindrop hitting water.

"The inspiration comes partly from walking outside and just watching nature," the artist said recently. "It's phenomenal the way leaves move and water ripples."

"For me, a sculpture has to have three things," Mr. Margolin said. "I'm looking for a relation to the natural world that is organic and that is beautiful. Second, to have a mathematical problem that's interesting, that is going to be fun to solve. And a sculpture that I'm anticipating will be fun to make."

"You can't copy nature; it's unfathomable," he said, noting this piece simulates an oscillating sine wave. "You can approach it. You can reach out and touch it, and I think that's what I'm trying to do."

"As the Putnam transforms to include a science center, it makes sense to bring a signature STEM piece to the space that visitors see when they first enter the Putnam," said Kim Findlay, museum president/CEO. "The kinetic waves created by Reuben Margolin are, in effect, mathematics brought to life in three dimensions.

"From all areas of the Putnam's Grand Lobby, visitors will see the undulating wave, created from recycled materials, and based upon trigonometric principles," she said. "The wave also represents an engineering feat that results in something that is beautiful, mesmerizing and based upon naturally occurring mathematics in nature."

While planning for the $2.2 million in renovations to create the new center devoted to interactive exhibits on science, technology, engineering and math, Putnam officials sought a signature piece for the two-story lobby, "where every visitor would realize, 'Man, something at the Putnam has changed in a big way,' and be intrigued by that," Ms. Findlay said.

"We were looking for just the right piece to embody what the STEM science center was all about. People would see it and get it right away," she said.

A native of Berkeley, Calif., and graduate of Harvard, Mr. Margolin has been making "wave" sculptures for 15 years, and they vary in materials, patterns of movement, size and complexity. The "Hexagonal Wave" was built in 2008 for a concert at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and it has been at Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, Calif., for five years.

"In high school, I really liked math, and I had a geometry teacher who was phenomenal," Mr. Margolin said. That teacher inspired him to make art based on strict mathematical calculations. Art and math are not as separate as you may think, he added.

"When a mathematician is working, they're looking for beauty, too, in their formula," he said. "When an artist is working, they're looking for a pattern."

"It's the movement itself that I'm after," Mr. Margolin said. "It's not that it looks different at this moment and in five minutes. It's the way it moves from A to B and B to C. That movement — it's life. It's nature. Things move. Nature is an inspiration to a lot of artists."

Mr. Margolin has studied art in Russia and Italy, and has had residencies in Spain, India and Scotland. His artwork is on display in Germany, the Netherlands, Chicago, Little Rock, Ark., and throughout California.

The largest wave he made was for a Hilton hotel in Dallas. "Nebula," which opened in 2010, includes 10 miles of aircraft cable, 1,780 pulleys and more than 4,500 amber crystals. About half of Mr. Margolin's pieces are at science centers, and others are at art museums and environmental centers.

"I do want people — and especially young people — to know that it is based on mathematics," Ms. Findlay said of Mr. Margolin's intricate work. It shows how math applies to real life, and ways students can use it, the museum chief said.

"That's the kind of thing we want to happen in the STEM science center — those things that all ages of people can go, 'I didn't think I understood this, or could understand this,'" Ms. Findlay said. "Maybe you're the kind of person who needs to do it to grasp it. That's the whole thing. Eight-five percent of people grasp things better when they actually grasp them."

Of the new home for his wave in a spacious lobby dominated by steel beams, Mr. Margolin said: "It fits in great with the space. To have the overhead balcony to look down on it and to have light come in. Physically, it fits perfectly, and it fits with the STEM initiative in the mathematical nature of it."

To see video of the artist's pieces, visit reubenmargolin.com/waves/index.html.


Local events heading

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