Engineering students learn about abstract artist's unique background

University Park, Pa. -- On Monday (March 3), Penn State civil engineering professor Andrew Scanlon's senior Capstone Structural Design course (CE 448W) had a guest speaker who addressed a topic unusual for an engineering class -- abstract art and one man's crossover from civil engineer to artist.

Randy Ploog, an expert on artist Manierre Dawson (1887–1969), discussed Dawson's background in engineering and architecture and shared examples of his abstract work that bear striking similarities to illustrations in his engineering textbooks. Ploog, an affiliate assistant professor in art history and coordinator of international programs for the College of Arts and Architecture, has been researching Dawson since writing his dissertation on the artist in 1996.

He first noted connections between Dawson's mechanical drawings and abstract paintings several years ago. His recent discovery of further similarities, in addition to artist statements by Dawson that reference his education in engineering and math, inspired him to tailor his research for engineering students.

"I am better prepared to present art history to engineers than I am to explain the engineering to art historians," Ploog said. Dawson, who had no artistic training beyond a high school art class, received a degree in civil engineering from Armour Institute of Technology (now the Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1909 and was immediately hired by a Chicago architecture firm. He produced his first abstract painting in spring 1910.

More than 50 years later, he wrote an artist statement that noted the "distinct influence of the engineering and mathematics studies of college." A number of his works, for example, feature an arch as a central motif. At the time, the arch was a fundamental structure in most civil engineering projects.

"Before steel-reinforced concrete gained acceptance, masonry construction was the norm. Given the properties of stone, the arch was the most suitable structural form," noted Ploog. In addition to the visual similarities between his paintings and mechanical drawings, Dawson titled many of his works using mathematical terms and even used mathematical symbols within them. For example, a painting titled "Prognostic" includes the pi symbol, while "Coordinate Escape" includes the partial derivative symbol.

Ploog's research is drawing attention to an artist whose originality and veracity have been challenged due to similarities between Dawson's work and that of Vassily Kandinsky, who is considered the first great abstractionist. However, some of Dawson's abstract work predates Kandinsky. Scholars like Ploog are debating how artists directly influence one another and what other factors influence an artist's work.

"All attempts to link Dawson's early development to European artists have proved unsuccessful. Prior studies of Dawson have ignored his known context, his civil engineering training. This reflects a European bias even among scholars of American modernism," said Ploog.

Engineering students at another institution may have a chance to learn more about Dawson through an exhibition Ploog is planning with Mary Tartaro, art program coordinator at Virginia Tech. It is tentatively scheduled for spring 2009 at the university's Perspective Gallery.

"A primary mission of an art gallery at a tech school is to get engineering students into the gallery," said Ploog.  "This exhibition is an attempt to achieve that goal."

View photos from Ploog's presentation to the class at http://live.psu.edu/stilllife/1602.

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Last Updated August 12, 2011