CLIFTON PARK – Alan Smith, creator of Sculpture in Motion, was struck by the idea to create kinetic art as he sat in a physics class years ago at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. According to Smith, the undulating metal mobiles he makes today were initially inspired by the type of physics wave demonstrators you’d find in any college physics class.
The type of wave demonstrator that inspired Smith in college has a “horizontal format with many metal rods, likely of steel,” which he said “are connected at their centers by a spring-steel wire of rectangular cross-section, probably silver-soldered into a slot cut at the center of each rod.” Smith said there are three sections of rods: long rods, short rods and rods that vary from long to short lengthed.
Smith explained, this was “all very well for physics class,” but not practical for his artistic purposes. “The rods move too quickly for comfort, so to speak, if one’s aim is to produce a work of art.” The typical wave demonstrator is heavy and according to Smith its horizontal format makes it a “space hog.” It’s extremely delicate, he adds. “Many a physics department has their wave machine, as they are known, sitting in a storeroom in a damaged and unusable condition, rods loose and askew, metal spine bent: a sad sight.”
Describing how he used the basic concept of the wave demonstrator and made it his own, Smith said, “I took the concept of rods coupled along the central axis and evolved that into a thing that lacks the negative aspects of the original, while possessing new attributes, such as space-saving format, slower and new types of motion, bomb-proof array of rods, microprocessor control as well as user-interactive control.”
Experimenting over the years
Smith first began experimenting with kinetic sculptures in the seventies. “I’ve always enjoyed tinkering,” the long-time Clifton Park resident said over the phone. “Way back when I was a kid I liked to take things apart.” Smith earned his HAM radio license as a teenager and dissected motors with delight in his free time.
Over the years, Smith toyed with the concept of the “wave machine” using things like soda straws, wooden skewers, strings, steel wires and spring steel ribbons. “I’ve pretty much done it every way but loose,” he said.
The first kinetic sculpture, or mobile, Smith made was “extremely delicate and very impractical but was very fun to build.” He said, “I made the motor myself with wood and wire. I basically made something like the physics demonstrator but with a slower more pleasing motion.”
After that, Smith dabbled in the art for years. He worked for a research and development company for fifteen years, but then recently decided to give up his day job to pursue Sculpture in Motion full time. “I decided to stop dabbling and get more serious,” he said.
The current “incarnation” of Smith’s kinetic sculptures
These days, Smith draws inspiration from everyday happenings. “A lot of things occur to me just from observing the natural world around me. For example, Smith said, “now that it’s fall, it’s common to see a solitary leaf on a tree rocking this way and that in a breeze: I intend to reproduce that effect in a work of kinetic art.”
Smith’s most recent mobile is composed of an array of polished metal rods connected at the center of their long axes to two nylon strings that function as the spine about which the rods rotate. The connection between rods and strings is accomplished using a 3D printed ‘hub’ designed by Smith. A computer controlled motor rests on top of the sculpture and makes the rods dance on command. The motor follows a program that basically shows off what the array of rods can do, explained Smith. The sculpture can also be played with manually, using a hand-held controller.
As light hits the rods, the whole sculpture glistens. One of the programmed movements calls to mind the motion of a swing when a child spins in circles. The swing’s chains slowly twist and twist, tighter and tighter before finally releasing wildly. From moment to moment the rods may inspire thoughts of waterfalls or a fish’s tail moving silkily through cool oceans. This latest “incarnation” is available on Etsy. Those who are interested can watch the sculptures in motion on Smith’s Sculpture in Motion website.
The sculptures are priced between $1,500 and $1,875 on Etsy. Smith says he realizes these price tags rule out many people. “It’s not chump change,” he said. “Right now it costs me hundreds of dollars in materials, more hours than I’d like to think about and tedious work.” Smith is not averse to the idea of mass-producing his sculptures so that his art can reach more people. First, he needs to find a manufacturing partner.
“I’m no art snob. I would love to get this out to more people for less money rather than fewer people for more money,” he said.
Videos of Smith’s sculptures in action are available here: http://sculptureinmotion.com/