Artist, engineer, designer and educator are Leah Buechley’s chosen professions, combinations of her love for creativity and structure. She’s created a playable piano with a pen, paper and circuit board, developed electronic clothing, all while expanding the minds of both artists and engineers along the way. Buechley brought her interdisciplinary skills and message to students as the 2014 Center for Arts and Ideas' Artist-in-Residence.
“I hope students see that disciplinary boundaries are not as fixed as they might assume; they can be blurry and porous,” says Buechley, founder and former director of the High-Low Tech Group at the MIT Media Lab. “You don’t have to follow boundaries because there are lots of fun things in between them and overlapping.”
Buechley’s residency included workshops with students and an exhibition of her work in the new University Gallery at Mahoney Hall. Students learned more about her artistic process and materials, which include the LilyPad kit, a set of electronic pieces she created for use in interactive textiles. Modules and the small, programmable LilyPad Arduino computer are sewn into garments with conductive thread. The resulting e-textile can be interactive, responding to light and temperature by blinking lights, vibrating or making noise. Makers have created bike safety shirts, interactive clothing that plays music and numerous other projects with her materials and guidance.
The workshop included “sketching” with electricity using Circuit Stickers, a kit created by one of Buechley’s students. Students designed and created electric circuits using conductive tape and sticky modules with different functions, learning about engineering while creating interactive art.
Glenn Kruger spent time in the Marines as an aviation armament/fire control technician before starting his graphic design degree. He revisited his work with “matrices, and wire harnesses with miles of wire that spider-webbed everywhere” with his developing artistic eye at Buechley’s workshop.
“Seeing how Leah merged electronic technology with art to create very innovative, simple circuits that give an artist another medium impressed me very much,” says Kruger, “I can’t wait to get the materials so I can experiment and learn how I can incorporate it into my artwork.”
Artist-in-Residence Program Connects Students With Their Future
Buechley is the third artist-in-residence. Cartoonist Lynda Barry created autobiographical sketches with students in 2011 and multimedia artist Martha Colburn taught stop motion-animation in 2013.
The program honors individual artists who excel in one or more artistic disciplines, inviting them to present their work, teach master classes and meet with students. Buechley's visit was sponsored by the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, the Center for Arts and Ideas and the Art Department.
Students in many majors benefit from small classes and workshops with the established artists, getting advice on the creative working life as well as their studies. Kruger says the visiting artist program is important since it exposes students like him to new techniques and genres.
“The more we learn, the more we develop who we are as artists,” says Kruger. “I think we learn more when we collaborate, but it’s not just that — it’s important to network with those who have the same interests, to interact with peers and create new friendships.”
The artists have said they benefit from the visit as well.
“I really enjoyed exploring Lowell and working with the students,” says Buechley. “I visited the Artbotics workshop to see the students’ work and they’re doing fun things. I had a great time on campus.”
Buechley’s exhibition, which includes artwork by her former students, is on display at the University Gallery until Dec. 5. Her public artist talk is also available online as part of the Campus Voices project.