Turn the Handle: Interactive Mechanical Engineering Artistry

This just in: Just outside the east entrance of the Sidney Lu Mechanical Engineering Building (MEB) stands a new piece of public art. Called Grasp, the three metal vertical arms move back and forth with the power of a simple handle-crank on the base. On the back of the gearbox, glass panels allow the user to see the gears at work.

So, give it a turn!

The piece comes as part of the major renovations to MEB which started in 2019. The “Art-in-Architecture” program allocates .5 percent of the overall project budget to public art. The Grainger College of Engineering had requested a sculpture that moves from wind or rain or somehow moves. Artist Pete Beeman was chosen in July 2021.

“On this piece, I really wanted to talk about mechanical engineering,” Beeman said. “That was very important to me, and it’s why the gearbox down below has glass in it, so you can see what’s going on. You can figure out exactly what the mechanics are.”

As for what the art means, Beeman asks the viewer to “bring what their own mind says.”

“I work in the abstract, so I don’t like to say too specific, but I was thinking about something that had a sort of high-minded spiritual-ness of a cathedral, but the mechanical engineering of gears and structural engineering. It’s reaching for the above and the beyond. I was thinking about the grasp, and it’s called Grasp, so grasping a concept, and it’s doing a simple mechanical grasping.”

Erika Lee, interior designer and project manager, also grasped the intentions of stakeholders as part of the renovation and construction project at MEB. She and the other members of the MEB Art in Architecture Committee helped determine the artist and placement, as well as organize the responsible employees and necessary equipment.

“The sculpture has purpose and meaning to the facility in which it stands in front of,” she said. “Beeman’s expertise in engineering fit the artwork call for this facility extremely well.”

Installation: F&S Provided “More Help Than Ever”

F&S Construction Services saved the day, or days, when it came to helping installation in the week of September 25.

Throughout the installation process, the project stayed ahead of schedule as the art arrived in pieces in a large wooden crate, which had to be meticulously opened with a series of screws and bolts.

“It was really fun, and super great working here,” Beeman said. “It was more help than I ever get, which is fantastic.”

F&S Help

Capital Programs:

  • Erika Lee
  • Brent Lewis
  • Tony Battaglia
  • Dennis Craig

Construction Services:

  • Randy Long
  • Rick Gallivan

Facilities Information Resources:

  • Justin Pinnell

Engineering Services:

  • Kelly Jo Hoffmann

Shop 07 (Laborers):

  • Robert “Rube” King
  • Reece Klaudt
  • Riley Jones
  • Eric Tempel
  • Chad Daly

Shop 37 (Operators)

  • Andrew Moore

Shop G3 (Transportation)

  • Denver Piatt

Shop 49 (Cement Finishers)

  • Craig Harris
  • Travis Iliff

Shop 50 (Ironworkers)

  • Todd Hawkins
  • Rene Algiene
  • Brett Balsamello

Shop 12 (Grounds)

  • Ryan Welch
  • Isaac Williams
  • Dustin Reifsteck
  • Chad Garrett
  • Sky Drewes

Shop 31 (Mill)

  • Alex Merkle

Shop 06 (Sheet metal)

  • Mike Nelson
  • Brian Severin

Right Place, Nice Response

“It’s been a real fun project,” Beeman said. “The university has been great to work with, all the way through.”

Beeman said he’s especially happy with the location, and surprised when he arrived on campus to see its centrality to campus locations and transportation.

“I had no idea how busy this intersection was until I pulled up the first day. It was like ‘Ohhh, there’s thousands of people who move by it every day.'”

Those thousands offered their thoughts, real-time, as Beeman and F&S got the art in place.

“It’s been fun to do with this many people around. I get all my usual responses and a whole lot more. My favorite response is when somebody walks up and says, “What the hell is that?!” with a big smile on their face. I know that’s just right. There’s been a lot of super positive responses. It’s been really nice.”