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Tony May: Exploring Old Technology and New Possibilities

Bay Area artist Tony May offers talk at the de Saisset Museum to examine the relationship between art and engineering.

California-based artist Tony May, who is represented within the de Saisset Museum’s permanent collection, is known for works of public art, interactive sculptures, constructions of various scales and materials, paintings, and other artistic explorations. In November he will offer a discussion at the museum of how he problem solves in his art-making practice as art and engineering come together. [Published October 30, 2017]

Tony May was born in Mineral Point, WI in 1942 and received his MFA from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1966. At the age of 24, May moved out to California to teach art at San Jose State University where he is now an Emeritus Professor. In a sense, May arrived in San Jose before its art scene did. The San Jose Museum of Art did not open until 1969, three years after May became a San Jose resident. And he has commented how in the early years, he, along with fellow artists in San Jose, could only make a living by teaching art -- rather than creating it.

May, who does not have a formal engineering background, is known for works of public art, interactive sculptures, constructions of various scales and materials, paintings, and other artistic explorations. He explains that he has utilized the practical methods and skills acquired while growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, plus lots of lessons learned by trial and error, in dealing with the engineering requirements of his work.

In 2004, May began teaching a graduate seminar course titled Art in Community during which he and his students had the opportunity to create art commissioned by the City of San Jose to be publicly displayed. That same year, his class installed El Paraguas del Padre Mateo Sheedy, a 50-foot tall metal umbrella with a mosaic base, at Bestor Street Art Park. May utilized engineering components to ensure this piece was safe and sustainable for public viewing.

May is also known for his variable construction works, both collapsible and rope-based. His collapsible pieces are worked into suitcases and can expand several times their original size. His 2007 piece Portable Thai-Inspired Art Display Unit was constructed and collapsed into a suitcase which was then hand-carried to Bangkok, Thailand to be exhibited. The unit inside expands to resemble a traditional elevated Thai house.

May’s rope-based constructions can be easily manipulated with the use of a pulley, which transforms the work into a new piece. They are often mixed media, and different media are utilized at different stages in the conversion.

For examples of May’s work, please watch this video which includes his piece Drawing, Drawing Machine (1970) which is part of the de Saisset Museum’s permanent collection. This work of art will be on view in the de Saisset Museum’s foyer from October 24 - December 1, 2017 for a special installation in conjunction with his upcoming talk at the museum.

Tony May to offer artist talk “Is This Engineering?”

We are delighted to welcome May back to the museum and to Santa Clara University this fall. In addition to his time at SJSU, May taught at Santa Clara University, the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan, and Sheffield City Polytechnic in Sheffield, England. This November he returns to offer a talk as part of a new series of Art & Engineering Conversations the de Saisset Museum is co-sponsoring with SCU’s School of Engineering.

Please join us in welcoming Tony May to the de Saisset Museum on November 2nd at 1:00 pm for his talk “Is This Engineering?” This event is offered as a brown bag lunch, so please feel free to bring food or drink with you. After the talk, there will be time for Q&A. For more information please visit the event page.


This article was written by SCU Student Emily Lindsay who works at the de Saisset Museum as the Marketing and Special Projects Assistant.





Tony May, Drawing, Drawing Machine, 1970, wood, steel, lead, glass, cotton cord, copper, salt, de Saisset Museum permanent collection, Santa Clara University, Gift of the artist, 7.47 a-h, currently installed in the museum’s foyer.  

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