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Tom Shannon: The painter and the pendulum

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John Hockenberry: It's great to be here with you, Tom. And I want to start with a question that has just been consuming me since I first became familiar with your work. In you work there's always this kind of hybrid quality of a natural force in some sort of interplay with creative force. Are they ever in equilibrium in the way that you see your work?

Tom Shannon: Yeah, the subject matter that I'm looking for, it's usually to solve a question. I had the question popped into my head: What does the cone that connects the sun and the Earth look like if you could connect the two spheres? And in proportion, what would the size of the sphere and the length, and what would the taper be to the Earth? And so I went about and made that sculpture, turning it out of solid bronze. And I did one that was about 35 feet long. The sun end was about four inches in diameter, and then it tapered over about 35 feet to about a millimeter at the Earth end. And so for me, it was really exciting just to see what it looks like if you could step outside and into a larger context, as though you were an astronaut, and see these two things as an object, because they are so intimately bound, and one is meaningless without the other.

JH: Is there a relief in playing with these forces? And I'm wondering how much of a sense of discovery there is in playing with these forces.

TS: Well, like the magnetically levitated objects -- like that silver one there, that was the result of hundreds of experiments with magnets, trying to find a way to make something float with the least possible connection to the ground. So I got it down to just one tether to be able to support that.

JH: Now is this electromagnetic here, or are these static?

TS: Those are permanent magnets, yeah.

JH: Because if the power went out, there would just be a big noise.

TS: Yeah. It's really unsatisfactory having plug-in art.

JH: I agree.

TS: The magnetic works are a combination of gravity and magnetism, so it's a kind of mixture of these ambient forces that influence everything. The sun has a tremendous field that extends way beyond the planets and the Earth's magnetic field protects us from the sun. So there's this huge invisible shape structures that magnetism takes in the universe. But with the pendulum, it allows me to manifest these invisible forces that are holding the magnets up. My sculptures are normally very simplified. I try to refine them down to very simple forms. But the paintings become very complex, because I think the fields that are supporting them, they're billowing, and they're interpenetrating, and they're interference patterns.

JH: And they're non-deterministic. I mean, you don't know necessarily where you're headed when you begin, even though the forces can be calculated. So the evolution of this -- I gather this isn't your first pendulum.

TS: No. (JH: No.)

TS: The first one I did was in the late 70's, and I just had a simple cone with a spigot at the bottom of it. I threw it into an orbit, and it only had one color, and when it got to the center, the paint kept running out, so I had to run in there, didn't have any control over the spigot remotely. So that told me right away: I need a remote control device. But then I started dreaming of having six colors. I sort of think about it as the DNA -- these colors, the red, blue, yellow, the primary colors and white and black. And if you put them together in different combinations -- just like printing in a sense, like how a magazine color is printed -- and put them under certain forces, which is orbiting them or passing them back and forth or drawing with them, these amazing things started appearing.

JH: It looks like we're loaded for bear here.

TS: Yeah, well let's put a couple of canvases. I'll ask a couple of my sons to set up the canvases here. I want to just say -- so this is Jack, Nick and Louie.

JH: Thanks guys.

TS: So here are the --

JH: All right, I'll get out of the way here.

TS: I'm just going to throw this into an orbit and see if I can paint everybody's shoes in the front.


JH: Whoa. That is ... ooh, nice.

TS: So something like this. I'm doing this as a demo, and it's more playful, but inevitably, all of this can be used. I can redeem this painting, just continuing on, doing layers upon layers. And I keep it around for a couple of weeks, and I'm contemplating it, and I'll do another session with it and bring it up to another level, where all of this becomes the background, the depth of it.

JH: That's fantastic. So the valves at the bottom of those tubes there are like radio-controlled airplane valves.

TS: Yes, they're servos with cams that pinch these rubber tubes. And they can pinch them very tight and stop it, or you can have them wide open. And all of the colors come out one central port at the bottom. You can always be changing colors, put aluminum paint, or I could put anything into this. It could be tomato sauce, or anything could be dispensed -- sand, powders or anything like that.

JH: So many forces there. You've got gravity, you've got the centrifugal force, you've got the fluid dynamics. Each of these beautiful paintings, are they images in and of themselves, or are they records of a physical event called the pendulum approaching the canvas?

TS: Well, this painting here, I wanted to do something very simple, a simple, iconic image of two ripples interfering. So the one on the right was done first, and then the one on the left was done over it. And then I left gaps so you could see the one that was done before. And then when I did the second one, it really disturbed the piece -- these big blue lines crashing through the center of it -- and so it created a kind of tension and an overlap. There are lines in front of the one on the right, and there are lines behind the one on the left, and so it takes it into different planes. What it's also about, just the little events, the events of the interpenetration of --

JH: Two stars, or --

TS: Two things that happened -- there's an interference pattern, and then a third thing happens. There are shapes that come about just by the marriage of two events that are happening, and I'm very interested in that. Like the occurrence of moire patterns. Like this green one, this is a painting I did about 10 years ago, but it has some -- see, in the upper third -- there are these moires and interference patterns that are radio kind of imagery. And that's something that in painting I've never seen done. I've never seen a representation of a kind of radio interference patterns, which are so ubiquitous and such an important part of our lives.

JH: Is that a literal part of the image, or is my eye making that interference pattern -- is my eye completing that interference pattern?

TS: It is the paint actually, makes it real. It's really manifested there. If I throw a very concentric circle, or concentric ellipse, it just dutifully makes these evenly spaced lines, which get closer and closer together, which describes how gravity works. There's something very appealing about the exactitude of science that I really enjoy. And I love the shapes that I see in scientific observations and apparatus, especially astronomical forms and the idea of the vastness of it, the scale, is very interesting to me.

My focus in recent years has kind of shifted more toward biology. Some of these paintings, when you look at them very close, odd things appear that really look like horses or birds or crocodiles, elephants. There are lots of things that appear. When you look into it, it's sort of like looking at cloud patterns, but sometimes they're very modeled and highly rendered. And then there are all these forms that we don't know what they are, but they're equally well-resolved and complex. So I think, conceivably, those could be predictive. Because since it has the ability to make forms that look like forms that we're familiar with in biology, it's also making other forms that we're not familiar with. And maybe it's the kind of forms we'll discover underneath the surface of Mars, where there are probably lakes with fish swimming under the surface.

JH: Oh, let's hope so. Oh, my God, let's. Oh, please, yes. Oh, I'm so there. You know, it seems at this stage in your life, you also very personally are in this state of confrontation with a sort of dissonant -- I suppose it's an electromagnetic force that somehow governs your Parkinson's and this creative force that is both the artist who is in the here and now and this sort of arc of your whole life. Is that relevant to your work?

TS: As it turns out, this device kind of comes in handy, because I don't have to have the fine motor skills to do, that I can operate slides, which is more of a mental process. I'm looking at it and making decisions: It needs more red, it needs more blue, it needs a different shape. And so I make these creative decisions and can execute them in a much, much simpler way. I mean, I've got the symptoms. I guess Parkinson's kind of creeps up over the years, but at a certain point you start seeing the symptoms. In my case, my left hand has a significant tremor and my left leg also. I'm left-handed, and so I draw. All my creations really start on small drawings, which I have thousands of, and it's my way of just thinking. I draw with a simple pencil, and at first, the Parkinson's was really upsetting, because I couldn't get the pencil to stand still.

JH: So you're not a gatekeeper for these forces. You don't think of yourself as the master of these forces. You think of yourself as the servant.

TS: Nature is -- well, it's a godsend. It just has so much in it. And I think nature wants to express itself in the sense that we are nature, humans are of the universe. The universe is in our mind, and our minds are in the universe. And we are expressions of the universe, basically. As humans, ultimately being part of the universe, we're kind of the spokespeople or the observer part of the constituency of the universe. And to interface with it, with a device that lets these forces that are everywhere act and show what they can do, giving them pigment and paint just like an artist, it's a good ally. It's a terrific studio assistant.

JH: Well, I love the idea that somewhere within this idea of fine motion and control with the traditional skills that you have with your hand, some sort of more elemental force gets revealed, and that's the beauty here. Tom, thank you so much. It's been really, really great.

TS: Thank you, John.


Video Details

Duration: 13 minutes and 1 second
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 181
Posted by: tedtalks on Oct 6, 2010

TED visits Tom Shannon in his Manhattan studio for an intimate look at his science-inspired art. An eye-opening, personal conversation with John Hockenberry reveals how nature's forces -- and the onset of Parkinson's tremors -- interact in his life and craft.

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