Berlin Blog 1

May 17, 2011

Michael Rodemer is spending much of the Summer of 2011 doing a collaborative art project in Berlin with Berlin artist (and former A&D Witt Resident) Franz John as part of Über-Lebenskunst, a symposium devoted to exploring sustainability, sponsored by the House of World Cultures and the Federal Cultural Foundation.

Barely 24 hours after getting off the plane at Tegel Airport in Berlin, I wanted a tattoo; the desire for tutti-frutti hair wasn’t long in following. 


Now, the urge to get a tattoo was just an atmospheric thing, and had nothing to do with the myriad posters in Kreuzberg, the hippiest-dippiest quarter of the city.


But now it’s been more than a week, and my epidermis is as yet unadorned, and the sparse protein strands on my top story are still bleakly grey, dreaming in vain of their chromatic transmogrification.

I’ve been busy (uh, has the semester ended yet?) teaching a workshop in a Berlin Gymnasium and preparing an artwork for the “Long Night of the Sciences,” on May 28, during which I’ll show a piece developed by Berlin artist Franz John and me, along with the projects my pupils from the Andreas-Gymnasium made. (Report with photos forthcoming).


Below, with interlineal comments, are some photos that may help to convey something of the character of this immense city. (West Berlin was 4 times the size of Paris within the Périphérique expressway around that luscious city, and East Berlin was equally as large.)


Dr. Rock is self-explanatory; Below, “Stichpiraten” are the stabbing pirates, i.e. tattoo artists.


This is a nice example of the diversity of Berlin: Radical Jewish Culture, Classical Music, and Emmy Lou Harris on the same Littfaßsäule (what they call these cylinders here).


I don’t even want to think about how this graffiti got made (it’s 5 stories up!)


Uh, get the message?


Get it yet?

(David Sedaris, in his new book, "Engulfed in Flames," quips that this font is large enough to be read from space.)

At the Gymnasium where I taught, there’s a storage room in the basement used for art stuff too bulky for anyplace else. Here, too, are Marx’ and Engels’ obsolete ”bronzed” plaster noggins, next to some defunct fire extinguishers. Wonder if one is keeping all these things just in case they’re needed again? (What a disaster that would be – more about that over the next weeks.)

Your Berlin correspondent,




Furniture Making

Andre Grewe makes websites for the School of Art & Design.

It's not easy to take an object as familiar and functional as a table or chair and turn it into something new and exciting - but this semester, students in John Baird's Furniture Making class did just that, creating usable and beautiful works of art & design.  


Baird's class had two major assignments.  For the midterm project, students were asked to create a piece of furniture using a 48x48" square of Medium Density Fiberboard and mechanical fasteners. 



L - R: Dylan Box works on his MDF chair;  Charles Samuels - MDF Table


For their more open-ended final projects, students designed and developed chairs, tables, cabinets, and other objects.  They were allowed to follow their interests in fabrication methods and materials, so the finished projects incorporated everything from cement to carbon fiber to fiberglass.



Penn Greene sketches and displays models.  Scale drawing and model making were emphasized in the class.


John Baird meticulously documented the process and the final furniture pieces – modular stools, guitar stands, a fabric filled hanging nest chair and much, much more.  Take a look: click the thumbnails below to view larger images.



Tail End

Jessica Joy is an MFA candidate and experimenter extraordinaire at the School of Art and Design.

I made it to Florida after a very long week of finishing up my commission for Envision Diagnostic center!

In the last post I left you with images of the sculpture in its round stage. The drawing below illustrates the form that I had at the time, and how I planned to expand it.

I would have continued to build it without a set plan, but when you are doing a commission you have to show them what it will look like when you are finished. Since my studio practice is very process oriented, I do not like to have the final outcome set in stone, but I can produce an estimated shape, so I loosely drew up a sketch of what the outcome would look like.

Then I put the shape into illustrator and made it all clean and professional looking for the client and to have a piece of plastic cut via a cnc router to build on and support the final piece.

While I was waiting for the material, I built the piece on a drawing of the shape. I stuck a red solo cup in one of the openings to help keep its shape until the material hardened, otherwise gravity would have made it collapse onto itself.

I found some older pieces/cells/building blocks(the clear cells with the green nuclei) that I had made and decided to see how they might integrate into this piece. In my opinion, they were the key to bringing this piece to life! Now I know that not only do I need to vary the color and opacity of each cell (I just can't help but call them cells), I also need to diversify the types of cells I use to keep the piece from looking too homogenous.


having the same relation, relative position, or structure, in particular
• Biology (of organs) similar in position, structure, and evolutionary origin but not necessarily in function

At this point I needed to get this piece up on the wall to finish building it. I knew that gravity would change the way the forms settled once I installed the piece, and I wanted to make sure I would be aware of any and all problems. When I say problems I also mean formal problems, such as the composition. One set of problems I saw when I hung it up was that the edges were too smooth. I had to come up with a way to make them look more irregular. Another problem was the transition from the main body of the piece to the tail, and the straight line on the top of the tail was not working.

This is after I solved a lot of the formal problems I had with this piece. Looking from the image above to this one is like playing a game of 'find the difference'. FUN!

I added this photo to give you an idea of scale. The person to the left is 6'!" to give you an idea of how but the piece is, and the length of the piece is approximately 5'.


The two details above illustrate the changes I made to make the tail more irregular.

While looking for something in my studio I found a small sheet of yellow cells I had made on a whim awhile ago. Unlike the other cells they don't have any nuclei and they are only made with one type of material. This is the only piece I built separately and attached to the larger piece. I wasn't even sure I would add it, but I found a good place for it.

The three details above illustrate the growth of the tail.

Here is the piece installed at its final desitnation, Envision Diagnostic Center.

Upon installation, there was a tiny accident. The three of us scratched the custom wallpaper, and to remedy the situation the piece is going to have to grow a little bit larger to cover the area. The scratch starts at the lowest point where the clear cells with the green nuclei are.

This is the official image I sent to the woman who commissioned me, to get the addition approved.

In case you can't read what is written:

Each colored dot is going to be like the green dangling cells that already exist, and I will
put clear cells in between the circular configurations of colored cells.

Then I will experiment with making clearish flower-like pieces to grow.


The lines point to where the clearish flower-like forms will grow. I am partly excited to get to work on the piece more, but I know I need to move on and start making new work. Last but not least, I will cover the white spaces in the piece. In the studdio against a white wall it looked great with the white spaces, but in this environment they are too stark a contrast.

Coming soon: More updates on the addition to this piece and the work I will be starting any minute now!




Lighting up your wardrobe


Kath Weider-Roos is the Creative Arts Producer at A&D. She snaps photos and asks questions.

One of my favorite videos on PLAY gallery has always been Heidi Kumao's sound-activated dress from her series called Wearables:


This year Heidi decided to give A&D students a crack at this same art form, offering an entry level course into the relatively complicated art of creating technologically enhanced clothing but this time using a rather simple DIY tool called the Lilypad Arduino, a microcontroller specifically designed for textiles.

Turns out none of this was simple. In early February, Heidi had a sledding accident and broke her back! Luckily Michael Rodemer, another arduino-keen artist/faculty member kindly took over the class. 

Michael sent me some of the results of the students efforts and, though it sounds like it was a challenging class, clearly the worlds of computer programming and fashion are destined to meet.

My favorite was Elaine Czech's piece, that transformed an archaic fashion accessory – the veil –  into a modern, motorized flirtation device or alternatively, a privacy shield, depending on your mood.


And, student Riccardo Volpato (from Milan!) created these gloves so that you can now nervously drum your fingers on the tabletop and make music at the same time.  Richard used the Lilypad microcontroller to read force-sensing resistor signals, then play musical notes.


Melodie Hoke imagined an outwardly plain dress shirt with a secret inner life: when you dance, hidden LEDs in the shirtfront light up! From office worker to disco queen in one quick movement!


In the meantime, while her students were busy learning programming and how to sew with electronic wire, Heidi Kumao turned Frida Kahlo on us and figured out a way to make art despite her pain. Using her back brace as a writable surface and still slightly hazy from the vicodin, Heidi started working on a photo series as a response to her new unwelcomed condition as an invalid.

Here are some of my favorites from what is destined to become a bestselling calendar called "Embracing the Brace." Who knew that a sledding accident would produce a whole new line of wearables? Get well soon Heidi!



Building Blocks

Jessica Joy is an MFA candidate and experimenter extraordinaire at the School of Art and Design.

The following images were taken from my end of year review presentation. Each image was taken in an effort to document the process and progress of the construction of this series of sculptures.

The first image is one piece viewed from two different angles. I experimented with two different glow in the dark powders (blue and green) to create this glowing effect. The outcome reminds me of the way biomedical researchers use dyes as markers to track different parts of the cell to get a better understanding of their development.

The next stage of development in this series was a collaboration with gravity. I really enjoyed the way gravity changed the morphology of the sculpture, but it was a tough battle and gravity won out. I spent days repairing the weaknesses in the sculpture that gravity revealed. In order to repair an area that was pulling apart ( I wish I had a picture to illustrate this) I would apply more of the raw material (meaning the wet material) to the area. The repairs that occured as a result of the weak points made the piece more irregular. Instead of returning the damaged areas to their original configurations, I took advantage of the openings that were created by forming them into tubules. I would repair one spot and then gravity would find the next weakest point and start to peel it apart. I was able to keep up with the repairs for several days. I went home after witnessing several hours of stability, and when I came back the next morning I found this piece on the ground. I wasn't too disheartened, because it made me realize that I needed to reinforce my sculptures from the beginning.

This is an image of the piece after it fell and I repaired it. I had to decide what side to flatten so that it would sit on a flat surface. One morning the light was coming in from the skylights in the studio which created this beautiful glass-like luminescent effect.

This is the same piece without direct lighting.

Here is a sneak peek into how each building block is made and warmed up before it is attached to the larger sculpture.

My next piece was constructed on a plastic dome that I repurposed from my piece in the All Student Show. My thoughts were that building on a dome would increase the volume of the sculpture and give me a solid support for the piece to ensure its longevity. This time I used building blocks with more size variation. The smaller building blocks (formerly known as cells (I will expain the name change soon)) do not have nuclei.

The next few images illustrate the progression of growth from left to right.


The next two details illustrate my discovery of what happens when I sandwiched two different colored building blocks. When I started using this method to create varying degrees of color I realized that I was approaching the construction of this sculpture like I would a painting. When I paint I almost never use the pigment from one tube of paint. Art students are usually told to make their own black rather than using it straight out of the tube, the same principles seem to make my sculptures appear more 'natural' in appearance. Variation is the key... to the survival of a species and the believability of a sculpture.


After making this series and presenting it to a faculty of three people I gained a lot of clarity about my studio practice, what it is that I am actually making, and why I am making 'it'. I am not mimicking biological systems, or even illustrating them. I am using the many fragments I have seen and learned about biology to inspire the creation of my own world. My end of year review allowed me to say with confidence that "I make fantastical sculptures/spaces inspired by biology". Armed with this clarity I will use this summer to imagine and design my fantastical world. I was encouraged to explore new materials, but don't worry I will not abandon my current sculptures. I plan to add to them and build an environment for them to exist in. Also, to address the name change from cells to building blocks... I do not want to box myself in by only thinking of the small components as cells, so I have decided to call them building blocks instead.

I am still working on the last piece featured in this post, and when I am finished it is going to be installed in a new diagnostic center outside of Ann Arbor. I am projecting that I will be finished by next week Monday, so I will post updates soon after that.

More posts to come over the summer as I begin experimenting with new materials!






Zack Jacobson-Weaver is the Materials Fabrication Studio Coordinator at A&D.

Here is all I've hoped you've gotten from me.  This is one of my favorite college professors.





One Specimen, Five Ways of Seeing

Making Science Visible

Kath Weider-Roos is the Creative Arts Producer at A&D. She snaps photos and asks questions.

This photograph hanging in the hallway gallery caught my eye the other day. I had to look closer to gauge its reality: it appeared to be some strange sculptural creation--  a disturbing hybrid of a childhood teddy bear and a....moist labradoodle fetus?

As it turns out, this is not a sculpture involving some student’s unresolved early childhood issues. It’s a photo of an actual specimen that can be found in the Mammals Collection at the Museum of Zoology, a sub section of the Exhibit Museum of Natural History on central campus.

The subject in the photo is a sloth, which was student Carolyn Nowak’s chosen specimen for the class Making Science Visible, taught by cross-over artist/scientist Brad Smith.  (Brad Smith has a dual appointment in the department of Radiology and School of Art & Design and has made a career out of bridging the worlds of science and art through his work using MRI technology to visualize embryos.)

Brad’s class began with a behind-the-scenes tour of all the collections at the Museum. Pouring through the rows and rows of pickled frogs, drawers full of stuffed peacocks, and shelves loaded with mammal bones the students were asked to pick one specimen, and one specimen only, to observe, draw, photograph, x-ray and interpret throughout the semester.

Carolyn Nowak (see sloth image above) knew she wanted to work with an intact animal, so when looking for her specimen she concentrated on the mammal fluids room. She writes, “Most of the specimens were rodents, their buggy eyes bleached white from the alcohol. The sloth caught my eye because it looked almost alive. Its eyes were closed so they didn't look all scary and white, and its mouth was almost in a smile. He looked like he was peacefully sleeping, floating there in the brownish liquid.”

Below, Amphibian/Reptilian Collection Manager Greg Schneider tries to interest the students in the Goliath Frog, one of the largest frogs in the world and found in the tropical rainforests of Cameroon.  The museum’s amphibian/reptile collection has 425,000 individual specimens and is the second largest collection in the world.

From tiny hummingbirds to giant ostriches, Janet Hinshaw introduces the students to the bird collection. In the foreground-- rows and rows of Scarlet Tanagers.

Here, Janet holds up the Sword-billed Hummingbird for the students to see.

Student Christina Ley chose the South American bird, the Quetzal, from the bird collection. Below are her responses to the drawing and photo assignments

Choosing just one out of the thousands of juicy specimens to be found in the museum's collections was a challenge, but Brad wanted to reduce the variables in the assignments so students could clearly see the impact of various approaches to scientific material. ‘Sometimes direct observation and drawing is called for, but often the artist is required to interpret. For example, you can’t look at a cadaver and convey the idea of muscle tissue. In actuality it’s too messy for a viewer to make sense of. The artist needs to ‘interpret’ what s/he sees, using a cross between direct observation drawing and interpretive drawing in order to communicate how muscle tissue appears in the body.”

After committing to one specimen, each student spent an entire month in the museum learning about and observing his/her chosen subject.

There, the students worked on the first assignment-- direct observation drawing.

Carolyn says, “The hardest part about working with the sloth was depicting its hair. Sloths have hollow hairs so they're extra thick. I actually had to try quite hard to capture the texture.”

Next the students arranged for a photo shoot with their specimens, arriving with lights, tripods, macro lenses, sets, and backgrounds to create a photographic representation of their chosen creature. This explains how this snowshoe hare came to look like a gigantic pussy willow pinned to an abstract landscape of budding green. (Photo by Erica Lazar.)


Casey Wasko's photograph of the bat...


Next up, students used x-ray photography to explore the specimens. It was another kind of photo shoot really, but one involving the radiologists-turned-photographers Karen Carter and Jim Good in the Department of Radiology at the U of M hospital.



Radiology required that all the specimens arrive in zip lock bags — a particularly difficult rule for the penguin. But Brad was able to purchase shrinkable sweater bags so the penguin could comply. Students sat in the waiting room with their specimen in their laps along with patients waiting for their own diagnostic x-rays.

Again, students were in charge of the shoot, making compositional decisions for their pieces. This is how a beanie baby bunny turned up next to the katydids.

(Erica McTurk actually went into the lab twice, the second time armed with the bunny so she could better accentuate the qualities of the katydids, which were tiny and difficult to x-ray..)


The next assignment asked students to communicate a concept/idea about their specimen such as life cycles, migration patterns, etc.


Erika Lazar depicts the molting patterns of the snowshoe hare...

The last assignment was an emotional or expressive response to the subject. 

Amanda Mayer created a rain stick in response to the cicada she had been studying....

Casey Wasko created a bat that literally gets in your hair...

For her final assignment Carolyn chose to make a sloth doll using twine to showcase the unique qualities of the sloth’s hair.

Though about half the students were interested in a career in scientific illustration, the other half confessed to simply having an interest in science. 

“Making Science Visible” is of course a large topic and Brad could have chosen any number of scientific areas to explore - physics, neuroscience, molecular biology– but he wanted the students to start out addressing real physical specimens rather than the more complicated problem of visualizing abstract concepts. 

I recently read this article calling for the fusion of the currently distinct cultures of art and science, asking for us to move beyond the current paradigm where artists are called in to communicate scientific ideas and concepts.  The article by Jonah Lerher asks: is it possible for these two fields to learn from each other?

"But what of the collaboration between science and the arts? Are we really prepared to live with a permanent cultural schism? If we are serious about unifying human knowledge, then we’ll need to create a new movement... [The goal of this movement] will be to cultivate a positive feedback loop, in which works of art lead to new scientific experiments, which lead to new works of art and so on. Instead of ignoring each other, or competing, or co-opting each other in naïve or superficial ways, science and the arts will truly impact each other. The old intellectual boundaries will disappear. Neuroscience will gain new tools with which to confront the mystery of consciousness and modern physics will improve its metaphors. Art will become a crucial source of scientific ideas."

It seems the university is a good place for Lehrer's new culture to be born. Perhaps it starts with a quick bus stop from North Campus down to main.


Ashley Boudrie and the Amia Calva from the Fish Collection



Ji-Woo Won and the horned beetle from the Insects Collection.




Stone Carving: Part Five

Working Outside

Limestone blocks recycled from the Michigan Union have inspired a unique Art and Design class for the Winter 2011 semester. Under the guidance of Professor Michael Rodemer, the six students in this course are learning the stone carving process, from making clay models and forging their own tools to the techniques of carving and finishing limestone sculpture. The class, a unique opportunity for both philanthropy and learning, is intended to teach students more than just the techniques of stone carving: proceeds from the sale of the sculptures created will be used to give financial support to A&D students.

This post is by Michael Rodemer.

A warm day - let us work outside!


Eric peels off the stone, looking for the Möbius  form. Chip by chip, Courtney makes progress.


Having split the stone, Max takes a quick path to smoothing it.   Lindsay releasing a wolverine from the block.


Lindsay's claw chisel efficiently chops away the stone.


Sean's fish is coming to the surface.


Vimeo for the iPhone

videos on the really small screen

Andre Grewe makes websites for the School of Art & Design.

New news? Old news? Who cares, it's good news: Earlier this week, Vimeo (PLAY's preferred video hosting site) finally released an iPhone app, and it's actually pretty awesome.  

Sure, it lets you browse Vimeo's videos, "like" them, leave comments and all that stuff that you'd expect from Vimeo - in other words, a lot like the YouTube iPhone app, but better looking....


Here's where things really get interesting: the Vimeo app also gives you a way to edit video that you shoot with your iPhone's pretty decent camera!   The controls and capabilities are pretty basic, but let me repeat that: you're shooting and editing movies on an iPhone!  This functionality is also available in Apple's iMovie app, but the big difference is that Vimeo gives it to you for free (not that Apple's $4.99 price tag is that bad, but compared to free...).

So proceed without haste to check out Vimeo's exhaustive blog post (and video) announcing the app's great features, grab your own copy from the App Store, and start making videos.

Then, upload your awesome videos to Vimeo and send us the links (just email, and we'll check them out and can post them, in a great big video circle-of-life thing!


Stone Carving: Part Four

Closing In

Limestone blocks recycled from the Michigan Union have inspired a unique Art and Design class for the Winter 2011 semester. Under the guidance of Professor Michael Rodemer, the six students in this course are learning the stone carving process, from making clay models and forging their own tools to the techniques of carving and finishing limestone sculpture. The class, a unique opportunity for both philanthropy and learning, is intended to teach students more than just the techniques of stone carving: proceeds from the sale of the sculptures created will be used to give financial support to A&D students.

This post is by Lindsay Balfour, a student in the Stone Carving class.


With less than a month left before the auction, our hands have never moved this fast. Many of us are still trying to work the kinks out of the limestone before the actual sculpturing process begins.

Max has been trying to cut his piece of stone in half, transforming the process into a three-week commitment. Halfway through class last Friday, Max managed to spilt the limestone.  His accomplishment is captured above, along with the remains of his stone and the tools that helped him get there.

Sean carves


Sean is furthest ahead. Pictured above, he is shown working halfway through shaping the overall form of his piece.

Courtney Drills

Courtney is strategically drilling holes to accelerate the shaping process and remove large chucks of stone at once.