jonathan foote  

artist's q & a


I can't write an "artist's statement" without sounding pretentious. However, my pal Justin Haddock asked me some great questions for a class project. With his kind permission they are reprinted here, along with my replies.

Dear Jon,

My art class is doing research projects and each kid has to choose an artist. I decided to do you, because I find your art boxes extremely interesting and beautiful. I was wondering if you could answer a few questions for me.

A: Thanks, Justin! I'm very pleased you like my work, and I'm happy to answer your questions.

Q: My favorite of your boxes/lamps is the Dodecahedron lamp.

A: Thank you! You might also enjoy the work of George Hart, who is a mathematician as well as an artist:

Q: I'm interested in how you come up with your cool ideas!

A: Most of my things are like little scientific experiments. I'm always thinking up questions, for example "what would it look like if I combined a green and a red laser?" and the only way to answer the question is to make something that does that.

I'm also influenced by light effects -- like sunsets, or neon reflecting in a puddle -- things that look beautiful but aren't necessarily "art." Once you start looking at things that way, you will notice you are constantly surrounded by light and beauty -- it's everywhere.

Q: How do you design your projects?

A: For me, a big part of the fun is working with constraints. Like "how do I make a point light source (like an LED) look smooth and spread out, inside a small box?" Or, "how do I make a light that smoothly and slowly changes colors?" These are often tricky problems, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of solving them. Often I will have to teach myself things, like new electronics techniques, as I go along.

Q: Where do you get all the supplies for these amazing boxes?

I recycle! I take pride in re-using found objects and obsolete technical equipment. For example, the sides of the Dodecahedron Lamp are platters from old computer disk drives that I scavenged and disassembled. Most of my boxes are cigar boxes that I get at the local smoke shop, though I have bought some on occasion.

Because I live near Silicon Valley, there's a huge amount of surplus electronic equipment around. This is stuff that very recently cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, and now it's just junk sitting in a dumpster. Because circuit boards contain solder, which leaches toxic lead in a landfill, I feel good that I can reuse electronic parts. I also have a big soft spot for obsolete technology, that (like me) was state-of-the-art not too long ago, and I'm glad to be able to extend its life in a way.

Q: What would you like an art class of 4th and 5th graders to know about your work?

A: I enjoy science and mathematics, and I use a lot of it to do my work. For example, to make a light slowly dim, you have to change the brightness exponentially, which is a mathematical curve that goes like:  1000, 100, 10, 1. This is because your eyes respond to light that way. If you use a linear curve (like 1000, 900, 800, 700 ...) it doesn't look right, because it stays too bright for too long, then gets dark too quickly. So all that math (and biology, and computer stuff) can be useful, even if it doesn't seem like it when you are memorizing multiplication tables.

Q: Which piece is your favorite? Why?

A: Oh, please don't make me choose! As experiments, some are failures, and some are successful, sometimes in ways I didn't anticipate. I've learned something from all of them.

Q: How much time do you spend making art? How much time do the boxes take?

A: They can take a lot of time, from a week or two to several months. I spend several hours a week making them, and on occasion I will stay up all night if I am close to finishing one, because I'm excited about seeing what it will look like when it's done! (If this sounds like a big amount of time, you should know that I stopped watching TV some time ago, and you would be amazed at the amount of time this frees up.)

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: I have an idea for a beautiful fountain. The idea is a pump in a basin that recirculates a stream of water through a nozzle, back into the basin. The trick is to arrange a green laser to shoot out through the water nozzle. Because the light will reflect off the inside of the water stream (science again: this is called  "total internal reflection" and is used in fiber optics to guide light signals), the light will follow the arc of the stream. The result: if you cup your hands under the stream you will be rewarded with a pretty handful of sparkling colorful water.

Q: What do you do at work?

A: I have a wonderful job -- I'm a scientist at a computer research lab, where I invent things that are (hopefully) useful, like a search engine for music and video. I'm very fortunate in that many of the things I enjoy doing in my art, like mathematics and problem-solving, I get to do for work.

Q Thank you for your time - and I loved looking at your web page!

A: Well thank YOU for the great questions.

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