INSIDE IOWA STATE
March 9, 2001
Textbook examines the science behind sculpture techniques
When Rohit Trivedi gazes at a metal sculpture, he appreciates more than the
piece's aesthetic qualities.
His eye discerns thousands of years worth of processing techniques handed
down from generation to generation. Today's artists and artisans use
these techniques to express their visions through metals and ceramics,
although many of them aren't aware of the history or science behind the
Trivedi, a senior scientist at Ames Laboratory and a distinguished
professor of materials science and engineering, is trying to bridge that
gap. His book, Materials in Art and Technology, describes the
evolution of materials-processing techniques dating back to the discovery of
"Many of the techniques we use today were developed very early in
civilization, except for those that require electricity or
electronics," Trivedi said. "Casting, joining, forging -- all
of these techniques were nicely developed by the early artisans. We have
only perfected these techniques."
Artists aren't the only ones who use the techniques. Scientists and
manufacturers use them to produce metal and ceramic objects. For example, a
casting method used centuries ago to make small objects, sculptures and
jewelry is the same process by which turbine blades are made for jet
engines, he said.
Trivedi notes that through the ages it has been craftsmen -- not
scientists -- who first began to take advantage of the properties of
metals and ceramics. He marvels at the ingenuity of past generations in
learning to manipulate materials without technologies available
"In some cases, they did things that we could not reproduce. We
don't know how they did it," he said. "It's amazing
that, even without knowing science, they learned a lot of the scientific
principles just through trial and error."
Trivedi's book, published in 1998, is based on a course he taught for
20 years at Iowa State. The inspiration for the course came from an ISU art
teacher who mentioned that he couldn't produce satisfactory metal
castings on cloudy days. Trivedi explained that the problem wasn't the
clouds -- it was the humidity. The moisture in the air was absorbing
hydrogen, causing bubbles in the castings.
The art teacher asked Trivedi to teach a basic materials science course to
his students. That first class was such a hit that students from throughout
campus wanted to enroll.
"The challenge was to put together this course without using
mathematics or complex science because many of the students hadn't
taken advanced science or math courses," Trivedi said. "I tried to
separate scientific concepts from mathematical equations so that they could
learn science through the ideas rather than formulas, and that's what
appealed to them.
"It was science without really studying science."
Because he couldn't find a suitable textbook, Trivedi drew on his
scientific background, as well as his love of art, to develop course
materials. During frequent trips to museums and galleries, he looked for
artwork to illustrate various processing and coloring techniques.
For instance, Trivedi points out that a towering metal sculpture designed
by Pablo Picasso wouldn't be possible without arc welding.
"The history of technology has a strong connection with the type of
objects that artists could make in order to express their ideas," he
said. "Arc welding allowed Picasso to make a sculpture that
couldn't have been easily made with other techniques."
After two decades of teaching the course, Trivedi wanted to devote more
time to other courses and his research. He wrote the book to serve as a
manual for anyone -- students, artists and hobbyists -- interested
in the background of the processing techniques. He also assembled a
companion book of laboratory experiments to illustrate the processing
Reprinted with permission from Insider, newsletter of Ames
Rohit Trivedi with his art technology book. Photo courtesy of Ames
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
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