Before there was STEAM, there was Jen Lewin. Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math have driven Lewin’s education and work since she was a child, melding in her mind as one to form the basis of her interactive public artwork.
Raised on the island of Maui by her father, a physician, and her mother, a dancer, Lewin’s exposure to science and the arts together came naturally, against the backdrop of the Hawaiian landscape. “My exposure to art and science in this really beautiful place always inspired me to bring these disciplines together,” Lewin recalls. “When I received a computer in high school, I immediately thought of it as an art-making tool. For me, technology was just another element that supposed to be connected with art, science, and nature.”
While the combination of these seemingly disparate disciplines is gaining ground today with educational philosophies like STEAM, Lewin found it to be a different story when she was in school. “I moved to Perth, Australia, when I was nineteen, and I caused quite a kerfuffle at Murdoch University when I wanted to take classes in humanities and computer science. They had to make an exception to allow me to do this—it certainly wasn’t the norm.”
She furthered her art and science career at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she earned a BA in architecture and computer-aided design. “Architecture was a strategic choice,” reports Lewin. “I had no calling to become an architect, but it was the only degree that was a true study of liberal arts, encompassing both art and science.”
She earned a National Science Foundation grant for her groundbreaking work developing CAD models for anthropologists, then moved to Palo Alto to become part of the Silicon Valley tech start-up boom, but soon found that she felt disconnected from her work. “Everything I did ended up on a screen,” she notes. In her spare time Lewin was dancing (like her mother, she’s also a classically trained ballerina), painting, drawing, and writing. She even made a stringed harp, an instrument that would inform her later public art. “I had these parallel lives going on with science and technology and art, and I had this moment in Palo Alto where I realized they didn’t need to be parallel.”
She moved to New York and earned an MPS degree in Interactive Design from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, a program that allowed Lewin the freedom to apply her technical knowledge with the arts. Her varied work afterwards was an effort to continue to bring the two together: teaching at NYU, architecture and design projects, serving as a creative director for a tech company. But it wasn’t until Burning Man came calling that Lewin realized she could make a living from New Media public art.
It was while Jen Lewin was studying in Australia that she came up with the idea for The Pool, which would become the seminal interactive public artwork to launch her career. “I was in northwest Australia, out in the middle of nowhere, in an area where the tide goes in and out over this huge area,” Lewin recalls. “It was night and I was walking in this area when the tide had gone out, and it had left behind all of these tide pools. The moon’s reflection in the tide pools was incredible and I had an immediate desire to encapsulate this beauty—and to share it. This was in the 1990s, but I had to wait until Burning Man gave me a grant—and I had the technology of LEDs—to build it.”
Comprised of giant concentric circles created from interactive pads, The Pool is an environment of light and color, each circle independently programmed to change color and “ripple” as the users move and jump from one to the next. A true union of technology, art, and collaboration, the piece represented a major learning curve for Lewin at the time. “I knew the participants at Burning Man would be expecting something interactive,” says Lewin. “The desert is an aggressive setting for any work of art, so I knew that it had to be durable, but also easy to transport, weather resistant, and that it had to have a power source.”
The successful project, which invites participants young and old to play, move, and explore, is also an enduring one: Since 2008, The Pool has traveled to more than forty installations worldwide, delighting hundreds of thousands of users. “It’s almost a full-time job just moving this piece from site to site,” Lewin laughs. Fortunately, she has a dedicated team of five at her studio to help her make this—and other projects—happen. “My work has grown organically out of my varied interests,” says Lewin. “Our studio feels like a start-up: each person is an integral part of every project.” Her studio, which she is transitioning to New York, is part electronics lab, part wood and metal shop, and not surprisingly given the nature of her work, includes a large space for not only staging and testing pieces, but also for gathering with other artists.
Lewin continues to construct her pieces from a variety of materials, both traditional and modern. Sidewalk Harp, a permanent installation in Minneapolis, and one only 2 interactive “light harps” Lewin has created, is composed of an undulating 40′ stainless steel form lined with colorful LED lights that produce musical notes when one passes a hand over the light “strings.” Lewin’s Edison Cloud installation combines hand-welded metal rings with vintage Edison bulbs, LEDs, and sixty custom controllers to cast low-resolution shadows of the viewer as he or she moves around and beneath it. The Water Tree, a collaboration with sculptor Lawrence Argent installed at Solaris Plaza in Vail, Colorado, pairs fifty-two fiberglass forms with LED lights that slowly change color, transforming the dynamic of the plaza where it’s installed with every new hue.
“The best projects are collaborative,” Lewin says, and she relies on everyone from her studio team, clients, design professionals, city planners, and fabricators to make the work happen, though she remains very hands-on with the technology “because it’s the only way you can play with and iterate it.”
Changing Permanent Public Art
Not only does New Media give Lewin the opportunity to combine art, science, nature, and technology, it also allows her to play with ideas around temporariness and permanence. “Temporary art is never something I predicted I’d be doing, but there’s something there that lends itself to interactivity and technology, which are always changing,” she says. “Also, we can take these pieces into places that may not have a big budget for a permanent piece, but they still want the benefit of public art to engage their audience.”
And while she has a great love and respect for all forms of art, Lewin also finds herself called to New Media because it’s participatory. “I think it’s true that, more and more, society is actively connecting to information and to one another, and they expect that connection to be part of our built environments,” she says.
Though she’s not really sure what’s next in New Media, there are some interesting ideas floating around that Lewin hopes to explore, including work with drones, networked elements connected together as a larger piece, and hackable art. “Hackable art is still fascinating to me and would be easy to incorporate in my work. I’m still ‘old school’ in that I want there to be that physical experience with the sculpture, but why not open up the technology behind it to others and allow them to play with it? I want people to play.”