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Images of imagination

July 8, 2009


Painting of flooding in Louisiana town.

Detail from "Grand Isle," by University of Minnesota, Morris, artist Michael Eble, who is among the University's new Imagine Fund awardees.

From the Stone Age to Hurricane Katrina, the varied visions of four Imagine Fund awardees

By Deane Morrison

Sweeping in from the Gulf of Mexico, hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Louisiana coastline in 2005. Among its victims: the coastal wetlands, already under siege from erosion and flood control structures that divert sediment- and nutrient-laden water out to sea.

To draw attention to their plight, painter and Louisiana native Michael Eble is embarking on a series of aerial surveys of the Louisiana coastline, taking photographs he will use as source material for aerial landscape paintings. An associate professor of studio art at the University of Minnesota, Morris, Eble is among the first winners of a $3,000 Imagine Fund award from the University.

He notes that levees, oil and gas pipelines (which "make Swiss cheese out of the entire marsh"), and other engineered structures aren't the wetlands' only nemeses.

Stimulus package for the mind

The Imagine Fund is an annual, $1.3 million program supporting faculty systemwide in arts, humanities, and design, regardless of rank or tenure status. It provides up to 250 awards of $3,000, which recipients can use to enhance their research or teaching.

The fund was created from a major McKnight Foundation gift, with added support from the Graduate School and Office of the Vice President for Research. The Imagine Fund also supports endowed chairs with money from the Permanent University Fund, a public endowment. For more, see the news release.

"Wetlands are disappearing because of more frequent hurricanes pushing saltwater into freshwater areas, sinking of the land, and rising water levels." says Eble. "The more wetlands you have, the more it slows down hurricanes and protects [inland areas]." 

He also hopes to drive home how the loss of wetlands continues to destroy southern Louisiana and a unique wetland-based culture that is literally washing away. His painting "Grand Isle" shows how water has intruded into the small fishing village west of the Mississippi Delta.

Eble will use his Imagine Fund award to take several chartered flights, producing more aerial photographs he can turn into paintings. The awards support a wide variety of faculty projects in the arts, humanities, and design; three more winners are profiled below.

The wall as living skin

Just like the membranes that enclose living cells and control what gets in and out, Marc Swackhamer envisions the walls of a house as an arbiter of exchange with the outside. Instead of static windows, his walls, now in the prototype stage, will feature movable elements he calls "apps" (short for applications).

The apps will be intercalated within a vertical framework of sturdy materials, says Swackhamer, an assistant professor in the College of Design's School of Architecture. Different apps would allow the passage of heat, light, air, rainwater, or pets, and may be programmed to open on a breezy day, shut on a rainy one, or otherwise shift function as a resident desires.. 

"Apps can be made of all kinds of materials, like wood and metal, carbon fibers, or a fabric Nike is developing with pores that expand as you get hot and shrink when you cool down," he says. "With pretty minimal training and [research], people could design them."

Swackhamer and Blair Satterfield, his business partner in Houston, will run a contest for designs of real walls on their Web site. Swackhamer will use the Imagine Fund grant to hire someone to fabricate one or two winning designs "to get the ball rolling on the project." He and Satterfield hope to eventually fabricate six to eight versions.

Sounds of Silence

To hear the heartbeat of a snail, to listen as mist condenses on a window. Our aural landscape teems with lost sounds, as far beyond us as the microbial world before the invention of the microscope.

The possibility of introducing us to these sonic landscapes in unexpected ways captivates Diane Willow, an assistant professor of art in the College of Liberal Arts. Her idea of rendering these sounds audible "is a poetic invitation to engage in the process of listening to the everyday in new ways," she says.

Toward that goal, she will use her Imagine Fund grant to buy a high-sensitivity contact microphone. Developed by researchers in Japan, this moving-coil microphone will open up the auditory riches of the "seemingly silent." She plans to use it to create a new series of interactive art works "that re-scale our sensory perceptions and shift our experience as we encounter these sounds while traversing public spaces."

The video from her recent exhibition in Beijing shows the experiential nature of her work. "Serenade," an interactive sound installation, responds to a particular architectural space and the movement of the people within it.

With her new project, Listening to the Silent Landscape of the Everyday, Willow will "continue to explore the interplay between the sonic and the tactile and their capacity to offer us a restorative sense of being in the present."

Axes of evolution

Did Neanderthals and modern humans meet, and if so, to what extent did Neanderthals contribute to culture or biology? Gilbert Tostevin, an associate professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts, tackles these tough questions by studying stone tools dating between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago, when moderns were replacing Neanderthals in western Eurasia.

"Some scholars say that Neanderthals and modern humans never met. We know that's not right," says Tostevin. "We know they overlapped in time and space, so they must have met." If so, they may well have exchanged techniques of making tools, such as the flint artifacts Tostevin studies.
But there's no way to tell who made a stone tool. Thus, it's hard to trace how the culture of toolmaking might have passed from one group to another.

Tostevin approaches this problem by reconstructing the exact series of blows used to chip a piece of flint into a stone tool. He does it by examining both the finished piece and the sizes and shapes of flakes chipped off the original block of flint. Since the exact method of flake removal varies from one group to another, reconstructing the method gives a valuable clue to patterns of contact.

"If multiple [archaeological] sites have tools made the same way, then probably they were in cultural contact," says Tostevin. "If the groups were culturally intimate, most likely they were biologically intimate."

The video is a 3-D model of the sequence of blows in the reduction of a piece of flint into a hand axe--called a biface, because it's two-sided. 

Tostevin will use his Imagine Fund grant to acquire 3-D models of actual flint flakes found in Europe for further studies.

Don't leave it to your imagination

View the complete list of 2009 Imagine Fund awardees and read more about the program, including how faculty can apply.

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Imagine Fund recipients 2009

Imagine Fund information