Art exhibit highlights the ubiquity of motors

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“Motors Surround Us” will be on display through Dec. 31 in the atrium of the Physical Sciences Building.
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Physics lecturer Stephanie Bailey

The Physical Sciences Building isn’t the first place on campus most people would think of to see a contemporary art installation.

But it’s where you must go to see “Motors Surround Us,” an unusual collaboration between a UC Santa Cruz physics lecturer, her students, and community artists.

The striking 6-foot-tall exhibit features a cyclone strung with white lights shooting out of a large globe. Underneath, trains make their way around a track. Mixed in throughout are dozens of small motors created by physics students.

Physics lecturer Stephanie Bailey, a nuclear physicist by training, conceived the idea to help bridge the gap between science and art and to foster creativity among her students.

She said her colleagues were a bit skeptical at first but were open to the idea and fully supportive.

“A number of them commented they had never seen anything like this and they weren’t sure what to expect,” Bailey said.

The motors were created by students in her introductory class on electricity and magnetism for non-physics majors. Artists Amy Buntyn Steinberg, Laura McHugh, and Richard Smith volunteered their assistance in answer to a post on a Facebook artists’ page submitted by Bailey. The artists then figured out how to put the motors together in a stimulating way.

The title for the installation came from Bailey’s idea to highlight how ubiquitous motors are in everyday life—from electric toothbrushes, blenders to hair dryers and wall clocks.

Steinberg said it was interesting to see how different each of the student-created motors were. Some were very simple with just some cardboard, a battery and magnet, while others were much more elaborate and involved unusual items like a jewelry box and a flower pot. “It was super fun to see how creative the students were,” she said.

Steinberg was excited about the chance to collaborate with other artists and was impressed with Bailey’s innovative teaching style.

“My takeaway from the project is that everybody needs more teachers like Stephanie,” she said.

McHugh, a friend of Steinberg’s, said the project was a perfect fit for her because she is a working engineer as well as an artist. She serves as facilities director at Theravance Biopharma, a biopharmaceutical company.

She is a big believer that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) should be replaced with STEAM (adding the a for arts). “I am very right brained and left brained,” she said. “Sometimes the balance is really helpful.”

McHugh credits Steinberg with coming up with the big size of the installation. McHugh added motion to the piece, contributing fans to create movement around the motors.

Smith helped put the installation together. “He’s an amazing free-thinking builder,” McHugh said. “He and Amy built the whole thing. I don’t even know how they did it.”

Bailey was inspired in the project by San Francisco photographer Benjamin Von Wong, who builds art installations out of thousands of the same thing such as plastic water bottles or old computer parts. His artistry transforms them from boring items to something beautiful, she said, adding that was the same thing she wanted to do with her project.

Bailey hopes the installation shows a truth expressed by Carl Sagan:

“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes—an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.”

“Motors Surround Us” will be on display through Dec. 31 in the atrium of the Physical Sciences Building and then may travel to other Bay Area locations. More information about the piece is online.