August 30, 2019

A week-long summer workshop July 22-26 brought together Olin faculty and New England-based artists—including a multimedia artist, a poet, collage artist, painter, performer, installation artist, dancer and director—interested in exploring similar topics.

As part of the Sketch Model at Olin College series of programs to promote arts + STEM collaborations, the event intended to build stronger relationships among Olin’s science and technical community and cultural producers in the region.

A birds-eye view of two people working on a white table, filled with sticky notes and a shark-like cut-out.

A scene from the Sketch Model at Olin College week-long summer workshop in 2019.

"Engineering school is all about equipping students with a certain kind of toolkit and frame of mind for looking at the big challenges of the world,” says Sara Hendren, principal investigator for the Sketch Model initiative and Olin associate professor of Fine Arts, Humanities and Design. “Our conviction at Olin is that these challenges require more than a technological or a scientific approach. They require all kinds of entry points, including the languages of the arts, which are as old as time and enduring languages for cultures to talk to each other about the biggest questions.”

An image of a whiteboard with yellow, green and orange sticky notes pasted on it, along with much writing.

An image of a whiteboard with sticky notes and writings from the Sketch Model at Olin College summer workshop to promote arts + STEM collaborations.

Both as a group and in teams, workshop participants took the time to deeply consider questions about the politics, ethical quandaries and symbolic work of technologies in culture. The spirit of the week was intentionally free-form. The working sessions set things in motion without being overly focused on outcomes, in order to give everyone time to invest in asking genuine questions and to form real relationships that would enable possible future work. For example, teams were free to explore wide-ranging questions from engineering and artistic points of view, such as: What does meditation have to do with physics? What are the mechanics of dance and movement? And, can public art inspire action for air health in a polluted community?

Artist Susan Israel and Scott Hersey, director of SCOPE and assistant professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, used the time to further an ongoing collaboration. Israel is the founder of Climate Creatives and incorporates data translation into her art to make climate issues accessible to the public. Hersey’s research interests unite community-driven design with scientific research to build local capacity for improving air quality. Together, they are envisioning ways to bring the two areas together, and to integrate projects into Hersey’s Olin classes.

At a high level, their goal is to raise awareness about air quality problems in East Boston related to airport and on-road emissions. Beyond awareness about the problem, their work is also about the opportunity for agency to improve the air that residents are breathing. “Art is a particularly effective tool in making invisible problems like air pollution visible,” says Hersey.

“The first thing we did at Sketch Model was to take a step back and think hard about what we wanted to achieve, and alternative pathways to meet our goals in the short term,” says Israel. “It’s almost impossible to get this amount of head space where you can think deeply about your objectives, and that was pretty crucial for us.”

Over the week, their orientation shifted from making a piece of sculpture incorporating data translation— a physical object that would give people data about pollution—to a multi-year vision that addresses several audiences, including and extending beyond residents of East Boston. In addition to creating an art installation along the East Boston greenway, they’re considering artistic spectacles for the purpose of raising awareness and advocacy.

Hendren sees the outcome of the workshop taking a number of forms, and across a number of timelines: joint projects, exchanges in Olin classrooms or perhaps larger endeavors, like shared research. And on a wider scale, the workshop succeeded in setting the foundation for keeping a sense of community going. “We’re interested in what happens when we invest in possible relationships—to connect, learn and imagine possible futures for partnerships between the arts and STEM in and around Olin in coming years,” says Hendren.

Read more about the Mellon Foundation-funded Sketch Model program, which is designed to bring three years of programming and partnerships with practitioners in the arts and humanities to Olin students and faculty.