Makin' Art: Nature Mobile

So you wanna build a kinetic sculpture?! Let's walk through what it's like to make a creative art installation.

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I recently designed and built my first kinetic sculpture Nature Mobile which I made for the "Convivial Machines" show at the Museum of Boulder. My friend and mentor Jiffer approached me in the summer to create a piece for his upcoming show. Naturally, the first thing you’ve gotta come up with is a great idea. The show’s theme was the balance between the benefits and setbacks of technology and he suggested something that was moving to be placed in the lobby windows. I had some experience with kinetic sculpture but had never conceptualized one by myself.

Coming up with an idea was the hardest part. I kept in mind the following questions: What theme did I want to explore in my piece? What are the themes and constraints of the exhibit? What inspires me? What materials did I want to work with? What skills did I want to learn when it comes to fabrication?

I sat on it for close to 4 weeks, and then finally had an idea. My personal style is all about bright colors and I am constantly inspired by nature and flowers. I’m also a big fan of the plexiglass sculpter Marina Fini and wanted to use this as an opportunity to work with acrylic plastic and learn to use how the laser cutter. That’s how Nature Mobile was born.

Mobile notes 1 Mobile notes 2

Nature Mobile initial notes and sketch

It’s important to realize that the design process is fluid. Conversations with Jiffer, myself, and other artists helped me to rebase, redefine, and refine my ideas.

With my idea set, I was ready to order materials. I started by looking for acrylic. I knew I wanted really bright, neon, and translucent plastic. I wanted the thickness to be as small as possible (¼”) to keep my mobile light. Turns out you can get anything from Amazon. As for the circuitry, I’ve built motor systems 83457938 times. You could simply power a DC motor or easily snatch one of these BED kits, but I ended up using a pretty beefy stepper motor.

Obviously this is an over-engineered solution, especially for something spinning in one direction constantly that doesn't require accuracy, but the system I used created a good visual effect and is the engineering part of my piece. It was for an engineering art show after all! All my components came from SparkFun.

Big Easy Driver

Big Easy Driver

SparkFun RedBoard Plus

SparkFun RedBoard Plus

Stepper Motor - 68 (400 steps/rev)

Stepper Motor - 68 (400 steps/rev)

Power Supply - 12V/5V (2A)

Power Supply - 12V/5V (2A)


Next was the most fun part: learning to use the laser cutter. Luckily we’ve got one at the office, and our resident expert, Joshua, showed me the ropes. It’s actually as easy as printing out a design in Illustrator. Here are a couple of examples of my cuts:

Laser cutter 1 Laser cutter 2

Nature Mobile laser cutter files

Now that I had all the separate parts, I was ready to string everything together. My buddy Trey invited me over to his studio to practice installation. He’s got those high ceilings! First, he helped me plastic weld the sun together. We did some measuring and tied the top parts to the tails. Then we put together the motor housing and practiced what it would be like attaching it to the drywall in the museum. Sourcing all the screws, nuts, and washers was another thing I’m not too familiar with, but Trey gave me a shopping list of what I would need.

Nature Mobile tails

Nature Mobile tails

Plastic welding

Trey plastic welding Nature Mobile sun

Nature Mobile packaged

Nature Mobile all tied together

Nature Mobile test

Nature Mobile test

Nature Mobile notes 3

Nature Mobile parts list

Installation day came and I had originally blocked out two hours to get everything hung up. I had all my parts and installation steps written out and rehearsed. The best advice I was given was to expect a WHOLE day for installation and to plan for the worst. For the most part, everyone was on their own when it came to installing, but Jiffer was super nice in helping me get my stuff screwed into the ceiling. The original interface we had planned for of screwing 3/8th all thread into the dry wall anchors quickly broke down because there wasn’t enough clearance above the ceiling.

After toying with ideas of building a shelf or moving the piece completely and creating an acrylic ceiling to screw into ($$$), we refocused and cut out three more holes in the motor housing’s top plate and bought shorter drywall screws and anchors. Once the housing was secure in the ceiling, I could hang up my mobile, fine tune the BED to make it quieter and less vibrate-y, clean the acrylic of fingerprints, and tape up the extension cord. Everything came together in the end.

Nature Mobile 1

Nature Mobile 2 Nature Mobile 3 Nature Mobile 4

Nature Mobile, 2021 - photos by Priyanka Makin

Nature Mobile explores the future relationship between technology, engineering, art, and nature. The organic shapes have been cut from colorful plastic using a laser cutter. Nature has a lot to teach us. Man-made designs are often inspired by nature and the materials come from the earth. Ironically, these nature-influenced processes often hurt it. The solution to our changing climate hangs in the balance of listening to nature and the future of engineering advancements.”

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