Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education
George Rickey’s Twenty-Four Lines, which recently graced the FWMoA Atrium for a time, possesses a special ability to soothe all who give it longer than a quick glance. In still images, it may appear to be nothing more than a series of spiky, needle-like lines stacked on top of each other, but Rickey was known for his kinetic sculptures, or as he called them, “useless machines”, that harness the power of air currents to move. While it was on display, I’d often sit with my tour groups and invite them to observe it for a time, listening for the soft “ting!” as the pieces occasionally bumped into each other. Even the most talkative groups became mesmerized by the gentle movement—there’s a reason why mobiles, another form of kinetic sculpture, are often hung above babies’ cribs!
But how does it move? Although Alexander Calder’s original mobiles were motorized, his later work and Rickey’s rely only on the movement of the air around them, allowing for much more natural and random motion. Both of these artists actually had a background in engineering, which equipped them with the knowledge to fine-tune their kinetic sculptures. Twenty-Four Lines is a series of levers (think of a teeter-totter) balanced so they rest at various angles on small hooks along the central axis. Constructing a kinetic sculpture is tricky because, well, it has to move! While we ordinarily would want to secure the parts of an artwork so they will be as sturdy as possible, kinetic sculptures require that certain pieces be able to move freely while remaining securely attached. The levers in Rickey’s work are one way to achieve this (one that I found difficult to do at home), but an even simpler way uses rotation similar to a windmill, weather vane, or propeller. In fact, you can find a kinetic sculpture that uses this kind of movement just outside the museum! John Mishler’s Renewal, which doubles as a bike rack, has a kinetic element at the top that spins in the wind.
Here are some ideas for how to create your own spinning kinetic sculpture!
- A thin stick, wooden skewer, or anything else fairly straight and thin to be the stationary central axis
- A base for your sculpture–I used a styrofoam block, but a few layers of cardboard glued together would probably work! You may also need something heavy to weight this down for added stability.
- Glue or glue stick
- Drinking straws and/or beads, wide enough to fit over the stick or skewer
- Wire (optional but recommended!)
- Optional materials to decorate your sculpture like paint or aluminum foil
First, decorate your base if desired (you’ll notice from my photos that I did this later, but it’s easier to do first!). I wanted to incorporate some metallic elements since Twenty-Four Lines is made entirely of aluminum, so I wrapped my styrofoam block in foil and secured it underneath with tape.
Then, stick your skewer or stick into the center of the base. Now it’s time to experiment!
Here are a couple ways to create the kinetic elements of your sculpture. Both start with simple construction paper shapes, and we need a pair of each one. Fold a piece of paper in half, then cut out your desired shape so you end up with two that are identical.
Using a straw: cut a section of a straw as wide as your shape. Apply glue stick to one shape, then place your straw, and place the matching shape on top, sandwiching the straw.
Using wire: Cut a length of wire and fold it in half (this helps keep the weight balance equal on both sides). Bend the fold into a small loop, just a bit bigger around than your base stick. Then, bend the ends of each into a larger loop, adjusting the shape so that it’s not bigger than the paper shapes you cut out. Use the same sandwiching process to glue the shape pairs together, enclosing the wire.
Now assemble your sculpture! At the bottom and in between each moving part you will need to place a still element so that the spinning pieces can move freely. This can be more paper shapes sandwiched together, or beads also work well as spacers.
As you place each element, try blowing on it or spinning it with your hand to see if it can move freely! I found that the components with wire bases moved much more easily than those with straws. It also allows you to place the shapes further from the center so that they don’t interfere with other elements. Try bending them at slight angles or curving them: How does this affect the movement? Do certain shapes move faster or slower?
I glued foil to some of my paper pieces and really liked how they caught the light as they spun! Adding foil to only one side of an element made it heavier and off-balance, but placing a bead on top helped level it out while still allowing it to move freely.
Once you’ve finished assembling your sculpture, take it outside on a breezy day or set it in front of a fan to watch it move! You can continue bending and fine-tuning the components, but also experiment with its placement in relation to the fan.