Sculpture Barn Raising

George W. Hart

Salamanders is a thirty-inch sculpture made of thirty salamanders, that was group assembled by thirty members of the MIT community---mainly students---when I was artist-in-residence at MIT in October/November 2003. We started work around four large tables in one of the studio art rooms. Everyone received an envelope with thirty laser-cut paper salamanders.

After some instruction on how the parts go together, and by studying some models I brought, we began individually or in small groups to assemble. The two-headed salamanders can have their heads all facing to the left or all facing to the right. Each salamander is part of two different types of pentagonal cycles. Small pieces of clear tape are used to hold a long leg, a short leg, and a head at each of sixty junctions.

It is tricky to master how the parts weave through each other, what should be inside and what should be outside. The long legs which make a star pattern at the five-fold junctions are the biggest problem. The "wrist" of each long leg must be outside of the "elbow" of the leg it crosses. The paper is flexible, allowing legs to be bent into place. But the real challenge was to design an assembly strategy which would work with rigid wooden components.

After an hour and fifteen minutes of paper practice, I felt that enough people understood the structure. We then started on the real assembly of the wooden parts. A group of us had spent much of the previous weekend preparing the wooden components. They had been laser-cut from baltic birch plywood, laser-engraved with ovals for the eyes, drilled and countersunk in four places for screws, glued to two wooden junction pieces (previously mitered to the correct dihedral angles), and given a protective coating of tung oil.

The assembly method we chose was to begin working in the air with five parts around an imagined veritical five-fold axis. Then another five parts weave into those, making a cap of ten parts all together. Below is a view from below looking up into the first cap being assembled.

The first cap was loosely screwed together and put aside. A second cap was then assembled in the same manner. Our strategy was to make an equator of the remaining ten parts to connect a cap on top and a cap on the bottom.

We did the final assembly by placing one cap facing up on the table and first adding an equatorial ring of five salamanders whose bodies are aligned vertically:

Then we wove in the overlapping equatorial ring of five salamanders whose bodies are aligned more horizontally: (Each salamander is part of one ring of each type; each five-fold equator is made of both types of ring, concentrically arranged but not contacting each other.)

Finally, the other cap was lowered on to the top. This last step took some time and a number of retries to get the legs properly interwoven.

But finally it all worked out, so the remaining screws could be inserted and all 120 screws were tightened. We found it to be surprisingly rigid for its 15 pounds of weight. The total time for the assembly of the wooden parts was an hour and forty minutes.

Another photo of the final result and more about the structure is available here. Our plan for its future is that it will hang in the new Stata center. If you want to make your own paper or wood model, below is an image of how we layed out a pair of parts in the 32-by-18 inch bed of the laser cutter we used. Even without a laser-cutter, you can print this on card stock, cut with scissors, and assemble your own paper model.

I'd like to thank the many people at MIT who made this project possible. First and foremost Erik Demaine invited me to be artist-in-residence through the Office for the Arts and the EECS department. Erik Demaine, Marty Demaine, and Abhi Shelat spent many hours with me doing the preparations, especially laser-cutting the wood and paper. Rebecca Frankel helped with the oil finish. The CSAIL fabrication shop and staff provided the laser-cutter and other resources. Erik Demaine, Mark Hoffman, and Moses Liskov took many photos, including the ones above. Tom Buehler from the CSAIL Computer Graphics group took video and edited it. Michele Oshima, Nicole Ackerman, and Marc Rios at the MIT office for the Arts did advertisement and behind-the-scenes logistic arrangements. Tech Talk ran a nice article which helped draw a crowd to the event. And of course, my thanks most of all go to each of the barn raisers who came and participated in the assembly.

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Copyright 2003, George W. Hart