Kid-friendly art that clangs, chimes, and shimmies

If you had tried a few months ago to persuade Abby Gardella to go to an art museum, it wouldn't have been easy. It's not that the fifth-grader doesn't enjoy art. She does. But "usually art at a museum is made by adults," she says. "If adults do it, we don't understand what it is." That, she suggests, makes art "not fun for kids."

However, Abby is slowly changing her mind. That's thanks to some unusual art that has transformed the walls of the entryway in her elementary school into a giant kinetic (moving) sculpture called the "kinetiscape."

"It's amazing," Abby says while looking up at the clay etchings, moving levers, chiming bells, mirrors, and motors that make up the sculpture at Broadmeadow Elementary School in Needham, Mass.

It doubles as art and as a tool for teaching science. Teachers also hope it will overcome students' resistance to the "adult world" of art, science, and invention.

It seems to be working. Students really enjoy the kinetiscape. Why? "It's moving, and it's made by [us], not just adults," says Charlotte Stanley, another fifth-grader.

Kinetic art is not new. Some of the first kinetic sculptures appeared in the 1920s. Later, Alexander Calder, the inventor of the mobile, pushed kinetic sculptures into mainstream consciousness beginning in the 1930s with his massive, and sometimes outrageous, moving sculptures.

Although the kinetiscape is by no means outrageous, it is massive. It's about 30 feet tall and more than 100 feet long.

It's also so complex that it took five years to build. Throughout the sculpture, vibrating parts make noises, and every few seconds, motorized levers cause small metal balls to drop and "ding." Mirrors on the walls reflect and refract (bend) light from windows above the sculpture. A solar panel on the roof collects energy from the sun, which powers the sculpture's moving parts.

But the goal wasn't just to create a sculpture powered by solar power. It "demonstrates a variety of physical science concepts," says Susan Bonaiuto, a school official. "It demonstrates light, shadow, prism, and reflection, as well as the physics of balance and motion."

The artist behind the kinetiscape is Emile Birch, who lives in New Hampshire. In 2000 he was given the task of creating something that, through art, revealed the ever-changing nuances of light, color, and form.

Grants paid for supplies, and Mr. Birch relied on Broadmeadow's students to provide the labor. He asked the first- and second-graders to etch pictures on small slabs of clay. Then he asked students in Grades 3, 4, and 5 to help design the simple machines and moving parts of the kinetiscape.

Charlotte was in first grade when she etched her tile. "I've always liked trees, so that's what I did," she says. That tree tile - along with the etchings of her classmates - are positioned in between the moving parts and the mirrors.

Mr. Birch says that having the kids help enabled them to connect with the art. "It's about using vocabulary kids can relate to ... so they understand it," he says. "There are whales, prehistoric animals, the sun, the planets, airplanes, cars, and spaceships. It's art ... and it's science."

In the original plan, the movement of air in the hallway was supposed to set the kinetiscape into motion when people walked by. But there wasn't enough moving air, Birch recalls. "When I realized that the airflow was not sufficient, I went back to the studio to redesign it with solar power."

For Birch, who has been making kinetic sculptures since the mid-1990s, the redesign was simply part of the creative process. When working with art that moves, there's a lot of trial and error, he says. But that's what makes kinetic art fun.

"Thomas Edison used a thousand different materials before he found the right filament to make the light bulb work," he says. "Edison said that each time he tried something, he knew for sure that that wasn't it. [Kinetic art] is an evolving process. Custom-made machines work differently, and each one has to be experimented with for some time."

For Abby and other students, the kinetiscape was well worth the wait. Abby even says that if museums had more kinetic art, she'd probably visit them. "It's totally cool."

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