February 3, 2010

Engineering Professor Makes Arts Inspired By Science

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Prof. Frank Moon, mechanical and aerospace engineering, started making wooden sculptures after he found a piece of driftwood while on a run 30 years ago at Six Mile Creek. Today, his life’s work is on display at the Tompkins County Public Library as part of a new series, “The Art Behind the Scientist.”

Throughout his career, Moon has used sculpture not just as a hobby, but also as a way to wrap his mind around complex mathematical theories, like chaos theory and catastrophe theory. One of his pieces on display, titled “Butterfly Catastrophe,” is a carving of a diagram of the catastrophe theory.

Moon has also incorporated the visual diagram of chaos theory into the hair of his female subjects, particularly in the piece “Chaotic Woman.” The waves of the hair, he says, resemble the waves in the diagram of chaos theory.

“I combined chaos, the folding, the mixing, into the human figure,” he said. “My training in mathematics and engineering has influenced the way I approach sculpture.”

Many of his sculptures depicting birds are inspired by aerodynamics, he said. During his presentation yesterday, he ran his fingers over the wings of the birds and explained to the audience how the flow of air creates lift.

But Moon does not limit himself to sculptures related to mathematical or scientific ideas. One piece on display was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.” The wood for this sculpture was taken from a tree cut down during the construction of Cornell’s Theory Center, now called Rhodes Hall. The sculpture, which features a man in a thoughtful pose, is titled “Waiting for a Theory.”

The wood that Moon uses is taken from trees around campus. He once paid a worker $100 to deliver a tree that was being removed from the plantations to his home.

“I use whatever I can find around here,” he said.

Moon said he also draws inspiration for his art from many places that he visits while traveling around the world. He has a collection of tools which he acquired in the Caribbean, Japan, Germany and elsewhere. He uses these tools to carve masks and figures inspired by trips to the Amazon and Africa.

Moon carves all his figures by hand, he said. Many of the tools he uses he can no longer buy, as most stores have started selling only mechanical tools, he said. Each piece takes a minimum of 10,000 chips with his hand tools, he estimated. He averages around one sculpture per year.

Sometimes, Moon said, he starts with a clay model of his idea. Often, he has to adjust his ideas to fit the shape of the wood and account for rotten parts inside the wood. “Sometimes, I just start with an idea and I just let it flow,” he said.

The exhibit in the public library is the first time his work has ever been publicly displayed, Moon said. Until now, his work has only been shown to visitors at his home. “My house is kind of a museum,” he said.

Sally Grubb, who coordinated the art exhibit for the library, says she hopes to bring more professors to the library to talk about their artwork. Next on the schedule are the photos of Prof. Richard Robinson, material science and engineering.

Grubb says that finding scientists from Cornell to display their work at the library has not been as challenging as she expected.

“I think there are a lot of scientists and engineers who have art ability,” Moon said.

Original Author: Juan Forrer