How do art and engineering overlap for students today?
An interview with a current SCU student on the intersection of art and engineering
Micah Thomas is a senior studying Mechanical Engineering and Studio Art at Santa Clara University. He was previously employed at the de Saisset Museum as a Collections Assistant, and he most recently worked with a company specializing in high-performance stabilized cameras where he assisted in the calibration, manufacturing, and field testing of these imaging systems. As part of the Museum’s ongoing Art & Engineering series, we had the chance to hear Micah’s thoughts on the two disciplines.
The following interview took place on October 17, 2017 between Micah Thomas and the de Saisset Museum’s student employee, Emily Lindsay.
EMILY: So tell us about yourself. What are you majoring in?
MICAH: So I’m majoring in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Studio Art.
EMILY: What made you decide on that?
MICAH: Well, I mean, I liked Legos as a kid, but I also liked drawing as a kid, and eventually I figured out that there was something deeper, just at making things, and I got into the engineering track in high school. I did the International Baccalaureate program where you declare - it’s like AP - where you declare higher levels, like there’s a specialty, and two of mine were art and physics. In another life I might have been a studio art major and some sort of technical science minor, but, economies and stuff.
EMILY: That makes sense. Describe a job you’ve had that combines art and engineering.
MICAH: I got a job at the de Saisset Museum. I was a Collections Assistant but at the time I hadn’t declared my Art minor yet and, for me, I pursued the job at the museum just because I felt that I was missing out on that part of my life that I spent, you know, pretty much every year up until college really spending half my time on. And so I got to be around art, I got to see how it was made, I got to leverage some of my engineering and programming skills to make organizing the art better. And I’m really into photography because, for me, it’s a very technical discipline, there’s a lot of science that goes into it, but at the same time the end result is, ideally, art.
EMILY: Do you find that the two subjects intersect in your work? Like do you ever have to draw things for engineering that end up looking like art?
MICAH: Yeah, I mean, just the other day for our Senior Design project we were told to make some sketches of potential designs and I kinda went hard in the paint on mine [laughs]. I got out my colors and my drafting pencils and I spent a bunch of time on them when really they were just looking for some shapes on a piece of paper. But when it comes to things like that in engineering, I can’t really help myself. As far as where it shows up in jobs, the closest I see, like if I’m reading a brochure or something that says “Engineers need to be creative to make creative solutions!” - and they do - but it doesn’t always necessarily mean that the engineer needs to be able to deliver an art commentary on some oil painting or something like that. And so for me a lot of it is in engineering, finding ways to let art to kinda seep through the cracks.
EMILY: Have you ever looked at a piece of art and thought, “That’s engineering.”
MICAH: Yeah! The ones outside the museum [Going Around the Corner With X, Fletcher Benton, 2008 and Rondo I, Bruce Beasley, 2013]. I was literally out there at midnight last night taking pictures of them because I’m like, dude, somebody took stainless steel and like [engineering noise] and [engineering noise] and you gotta know how not to kill yourself when you’re doing that. You don’t necessarily have to be an engineer but...that’s definitely an area where, on the flipside, engineering kinda slips through the cracks into the art world.
EMILY: What elements of art and engineering do you think make it so easy for the two to cross over?
MICAH: It’s not always easy. But...engineering is a really technical, strict discipline, lots of numbers, lots of facts, and some people think that, or a lot of people do, that the two, art and engineering, don’t overlap very much. But one area is when you need to communicate something, like datasets or how certain spaces of math overlap with each other, having a skill in visual communication, maybe not necessarily, you know, expressing emotion within the deepest parts of your body but, you know, knowing what is good design and what isn’t, what colors work well together and what don’t, enhance the way you can present information. It’s visualization.
EMILY: Okay, yeah that makes sense. How do you see, if you do see, these two fields being part of your future or career?
MICAH: Industrial design.
EMILY: Say more about that.
MICAH: So, well, industrial design is, I mean, if I could go back and redo it I would’ve gone into it because it takes the technical, the systematic parts of engineering and the making process, really, but then follows through all the way to the end product where you get a team of engineers and they work together to solve some problem, like, I don’t know, “The electrons and the CCD sensor aren’t operating to their full efficiency!” But then what you do is you solve that mechanical problem and then pass it off to the advertisers and the marketers or the visual artists who then take that technical solution and morph it into something that looks good. And industrial engineering touches just about every part of that process.
EMILY: Is there anything else you wanted to share with us?
MICAH: If there’s any other people out there struggling with the decision whether to go for art or engineering, and you feel like you chose the wrong one, don’t lose hope. Like, college might be your whole life right now but it’s not the rest of your life.
To see some of Micah’s photography, follow him on Instagram.
This interview was conducted by SCU Student Emily Lindsay who works at the de Saisset Museum as the Marketing and Special Projects Assistant.
Nov 8, 2017
Photo by Micah Thomas.