The birds were what first captivated the imagination of young Wrenford Thaffe. Growing up in St. Mary parish in northeast Jamaica, he was “tuned in,” he says, to the symphony of nature’s grace and beauty in the rolling green landscape. Especially the birds, the couple hundred species that owned the skies from the Caribbean coastline up into the Blue Mountains. As a child, Thaffe watched them take wing and felt himself soar.
One day a little over two years ago, during his studies at Amherst College, Thaffe found inspiration in movement no less fluid, yet a step removed from nature’s design. He was shown the inner workings of a car’s windshield wiper, and the elegance of rotary movement changing into a side-to-side motion fascinated him. “It occurred to me that the back-and-forth movement kind of resembled that of a bird flapping its wings,” he says. “That gave me an idea to build something.”
Thaffe, who as a chemistry and art double major had a strong interest in combining his scientific precision and creative flair, adapted the rotary concept in designing his first kinetic sculpture. Fashioned out of recycled parts from a printer and an egg beater, his creation was “Phoenix,” a bird-like artwork with wings flapping, thanks to a remote-control mechanism.
“Phoenix” is one of six Thaffe pieces that make up “Animal Motion Park,” an exhibit now on display at the Boston Children’s Museum. Others include “Freddy Fish,” “Large Boa,” and “Running Man.” The last derives from Thaffe being a four-year member of the Amherst track team, competing mostly in 200- and 400-meter sprints. “Running has always brought inspiration,” says the 24-year-old. “In general, I’m just into movement.”
Movement is an especially compelling invitation into art appreciation for children. “With kinetic sculpture, it’s less about standing in front of a piece pondering its meaning,” says Thaffe, “and more about, say, following the motion of one particular element and relating that to how the sculpture as a whole moves.” Adding to the appeal, Thaffe and other kinetic artists often do not cover up the gears that set their sculptures in motion. “That demystifies movement and, really, the creation of art itself,” he says. “Seeing one gear transfer movement to another lends a mesmerizing quality that I think is unique.”
This meeting of art and engineering truly took root in Thaffe’s imagination during an internship at the MIT Museum in the summer of 2012. Among his duties was giving tours of the gallery displaying the work of Arthur Ganson, whose kinetic sculptures have been fixtures at the museum for many years and are now on view in the exhibit “Gestural Engineering.” Thaffe met Ganson at a gallery event, visited his studio, and connected with the artist’s approach. “One of Arthur Ganson’s favorite sayings is that his art is a mixture of engineering and choreography,” says Thaffe. “His concept of having a sculpture mimic the logical flow of energy through a system helped me form the way I create my own designs. I don’t just settle for random movement, like in a Rube Goldberg contraption.”
And yet, in his current role as a postgraduate fellow at Boston’s Museum of Science, Thaffe often finds himself standing in front of “Archimedean Excogitation,” artist George Rhoads’s 25-foot-tall Goldberg-like monstrosity in the museum lobby. “Yes, I’m not going to lie,” he says with a laugh. “Often I stop by and stare at it for five minutes, watching one ball move along the tracks, following its trajectory. It’s hard to walk away.”
Now is a great time to sample kinetic art around the Boston area. Moving experiences include the following:
Animal Motion Park Through April 27. Boston Children’s Museum. 617-426-6500, www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org
5000 Moving Parts Big ideas and large-scale creations are among the attractions on display from sculptors Anne Lilly, John Douglas Power, Takis, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and Ganson, whose piece “Machine With Breath” is a collaboration with sound artist Christina Campanella. Through Nov. 30. MIT Museum, Cambridge.
Gestural Engineering: The Sculpture of Arthur Ganson The artist invites visitors to set his creations in motion with cranks and pedals — in other words, by becoming part of the artistic process.” MIT Museum, Cambridge. 617-253-5927, www.web.mit.edu/museum
Chain Reaction Contraptions! As part of the Cambridge Science Festival, Rube Goldbergs of all ages are invited to lend engineering and physics expertise — or trial-and-error adventurousness — to the creation of a chain-reaction mesmerizer. Any household junk you’d like to repurpose? Bring it along to add to the building materials that will be provided. April 21,
10 a.m.-noon. MIT Museum, Cambridge. www.cambridgesciencefestival.org
Machines and Mechanizations: Explorations in Contemporary Kinetic Sculpture Motor-driven and hand-powered objects, some whimsically recycling everyday items in abstract ways, by contemporary artists Kim Bernard, Chris Fitch, David Lang, Erica von Schilgen, and Mark Davis. Through June 1. Fuller Craft Museum, Brockton. 508-588-6000, www.fullercraft.org
George Rhoads Ball Machine Tour: Why stop at a single exhibit? Follow the rolling balls from the Museum of Science lobby (“Archimedean Excogitation”) to Logan International Airport’s Terminal A (“Goldberg Variations”) and Terminal E (“Exercise in Frugality”). Without a flight to catch, you’re free to stare even longer.Jeff Wagenheim can be reached at email@example.com.