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What is possible?

In summer of 2016, the tech landscape of South Lake Union became the site of an experiment. Informed by centuries of traditional art making methods, activated by technology, and fueled by a question.

What is possible when scientific curiosity and artistic mastery
are given room to coexist? The answer? Anything

What Is Possible?

The Unexpected
Blurry sculpture
Steel pendulum ball
Rusty metal
Wire sculpture
Light bouncing off a sculpture
Planetary ball bearings
We've produced pieces that have brought out some really interesting questions in the studio that we've answered physically. We've answered in terms of ‘what—ifs.
Amie McNeelAssociate Professor, School of Art + Art History + Design
Rope sculpture
Man drilling a PVC piece
Rusty metal

Magic is possible

when arts researchers
have room to investigate

Light waves on glass

For a span of five months, College of Arts & Sciences professors Mark Zirpel and Amie McNeel, in collaboration with designer Sam Stubblefield, filled Seattle’s MadArt studio space with large-scale sculptures reminiscent of nautical machinery brought to life by natural phenomena. With the help of two former students from the 3D4M (Three Dimensional Forum) Program in the School of Art + Art History + Design, these artist-collaborators embarked on a creative investigation, blurring disciplinary boundaries and uniting art and science.

Leveraging 15th century maker techniques and 21st century technologies, the collaborators developed a captivating set of interactive artworks informed by data from space, from the sea, and from the streets of Seattle.

The resulting work — known as the Portfolio of Possibilities — emerged as more than an exhibit. It emerged as an investigation into the relationships between art and technology, between process and product, between earth and sky, between investigative rigor and creativity, and between teachers, students, and the community.

Innovation is possible

when curiosity sparks collaboration

Amie working on a wire sculpture
Sketches of sculptures
Moving a sculpture
The name — Portfolio of Possibilities — suggests that there's a number of ways to go. The path is not always clear. It's not always straight.
Mark Zirpel Associate Professor, School of Art + Art History + Design
Mark Zirpel


Click To Play
Sculptures on display
The University of Washington is a place that really supports independent investigation of what faculty members and students find motivating and compelling. For me, making art is a kind of investigation into what I find most interesting, most necessary to learn more about. The object exists as evidence of the investigation.
Mark Zirpel
Associate Professor,
School of Art + Art History + Design

The Portfolio of Possibilities embodies what’s unique about being a faculty artist or art student in the College of Arts & Sciences at UW — one of the nation’s top research universities.

When McNeel and Zirpel wanted to understand weather patterns for a piece they were creating, they reached out to a colleague in Atmospheric Sciences. When they needed access to precision machining and 3D printing equipment and expertise, they relied on colleagues and students in Mechanical Engineering. From UW Medicine to Applied Math to UW’s CoMotion, McNeel and Zirpel reach across disciplines to infuse their research and creative enterprise with the collective brilliance of the UW.

It’s this culture of collaboration beyond traditional boundaries that infuses our work with almost endless possibility.

That’s why McNeel and Zirpel didn’t hesitate to bring their recent undergraduate students Tzyy Yi (Amy) Young and Collin Bampton aboard to help with the project. As research assistants, Young and Bampton were involved in critical steps of the design and fabrication. Whether creating molds for plaster and rubber anvils or sketching out equations for a gigantic, conical ring machine, they were treated less like students and more like peers.

This mentorship and collaboration happens constantly throughout the College of Arts & Sciences. Students are encouraged to ask bold questions, take risks, and come alongside faculty mentors in research, scholarship, and creative endeavors. And as a result, they gain the practical experience and intellectual nimbleness that prepare them for success in whatever career path they choose.

Along Westlake Avenue in South Lake Union, large glass doors open wide to reveal an expansive studio laboratory known as MadArt. Inside, large-scale art installations hang from exposed beams, tower above visitors, and move and change with the shifting light outside.

Guided by founder Alison Milliman and director Tim Detweiler, MadArt turns the normally private work of art making into a public act. Once artists are selected for a residency, they are given several months to take their work from conception to reality, the process culminating in an exhibition period. But along the way, the community is welcomed in to interact with the art in process.

For Portfolio of Possibilities collaborators, the space was perfect for translating grand and sweeping questions into large-scale pieces of interactive art. Situated in a bustling neighborhood known for tech innovation, MadArt provided the three collaborators a flexible, energetic environment for forging connections through their work — connecting the UW campus to the larger community, connecting centuries-old art making methods and technology, and connecting people of all walks of life to art through an unexpected, multisensory experience.

At MadArt, we invite the public in to experience art at each stage of the process — while it’s being made and as a completed exhibit. This access to the stages of art making often redefines how people think about art. And this is where meaningful communication can start, when people can feel surprised and moved to curiosity and thoughtfulness.
Alison Milliman
Founder, MadArt Seattle (BA, Art History)
Artists talking
Is Possible
When teachers and students
become peers
Ultimately I'm interested in teaching because I think, especially in art, it can make a difference. It's a language that can convey meaning that verbal communication can't necessarily convey.

Amie McNeel, Associate Professor, School of Art + Art History + Design

When Zirpel and McNeel asked former 3D4M students Collin Bampton and Tzyy Yi (Amy) Young to be research assistants on a big project, the two didn’t know quite what they were getting into. But given the opportunity to work alongside such talented and innovative professionals, the answer was an immediate ‘Yes.’

During the fabrication stage of Portfolio of Possibilities in School of Art + Art History + Design’s Ceramic Metal Arts (CMA) building, Bampton and Young made molds for anvils, welded and fabricated metal parts, and weighed in on design for a couple of the key pieces that would eventually make it to MadArt.

But they weren’t the only students that benefitted. Throughout early fabrication, students in classes at the CMA observed Zirpel and McNeel as both teachers and artists — planning, creating, failing, and starting over. They got to see first-hand what it means to be a maker. It’s not always about a clear vision for a final product. It’s about asking meaningful questions and taking bold steps to answer them.

Artists showing resin covered hands
Internally illuminated anvil

Mark Zirpel always said to students, ‘Carry on with reckless abandon!’ He really pushes that idea to his students. I think I learned how to be a maker and appreciate craftsmanship but also to push things further and really take risks.

Collin Brampton, BFA, 3D4M: ceramics + sculpture + glass ‘16

Wire sculpture on floor
Wire sculpture

Ring Machine/Cone

Steel, wood, ball bearings, motor, motor controllers, fabric, projection. The motion of the sculpture initiated by live wave-height data from NOAA ( The sound created by the movement of the ball bearings emulates the sound of ocean waves.

Artist using a form to build sculpture
Sketches of sculptures
Metal sculpture
Visitor watching spinning sculpture
Closeup of hands working on circuit board
Group of sculptures
Students working with glass
Artist working on metal grate
Artist unveiling metal anvil

Discovery is possible

When we unite art and science

I think the scientific process, artistic process, and creative processes are all related to discovery, they are related to asking questions and then generating answers. So that could happen numerically or in a lab or in the studio. There's a whole sort of developmental process in getting to the bottom of things.

Mark Zirpel, Associate Professor, School of Art + Art History + Design

At a Research I university, meaningful research occurs in all disciplines. From the sciences to the arts, faculty are driven by an unending will to understand, to uncover, to make, and to contribute to the world.

The pieces in the Portfolio of Possibilities evidence the kind of rigorous exploration arts faculty undertake in the process of making. From a complex spinning ring machine built on precise mathematical calculations and informed by tidal fluctuations, to glass forms brought to life by lasers, these works are more than creative, more than imaginative. They are the result of investigation and study — informed by millennia of scientific and artistic knowledge and empowered by a spirit of inquiry.

Artists working with sheet metal
Sketches of sculptures
Forklift moving anvil
Green light shining on wall
Artist using angle grinder on metal piece
Fabric sculpture

Balloon / Laser

Balloon | Weather balloon, internet, software, motorized blower, fabric. The sculpture inflates every time the International Space Station passes over predetermined locations on earth.

Laser Lure| Blown mirrored glass, water, aluminum and steel, vice, lasers, scientific tripod. Light from the laser reflects off of the water and mirrored glass to create light patterns reminiscent of brain synapses, bone marrow, electrically charged particles from the sun as they enter the earth's atmosphere.

Mark working on sculpture
Amie working on sculpture
Rusty metal piece
Horseshoe-shaped rusty sculpture

Anything is possible

in the College of Arts & Sciences

In the months since the Portfolio of Possibilities exhibit ended, new sketches and plans cover the walls of the CMA building. Former students Bampton and Young pursue careers as working artists, and new students manipulate glass and metal alongside Zirpel and McNeel.

But curiosity continues to spark innovation. Every day faculty and students in the College of Arts & Sciences come together to question, explore and push at the edges of what’s been done before. By supporting our students, faculty and programs, you can join us in expanding what’s possible.

Learn more about the artwork in the Portfolio of Possibilities.

Photos courtesy James Harnois, MadArt Seattle, Amie McNeel, Sam Stubblefield, Collin Bampton, Tzyy Yi (Amy) Young.

Originally published November 2016

What you care about
can change the world

The University of Washington is undertaking its most ambitious campaign ever: Be Boundless — For Washington, For the World. You can empower possibility, drive innovation, and enhance the student experience in the College of Arts & Sciences by contributing to these funds.