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Engineers Empower an Artist

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In my last blog post I wrote about my friend Raul Pizarro, a gifted painter and sculptor living with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy. 2 weeks ago a group of engineers at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems teamed up to design innovate assistive devices that would allow him to continue creating art despite the failing strength of his arms.

When I walked into the FabLab gallery I burst into tears. A corner of this giant warehouse had been converted into an elegant art space, with a 12 foot mural of Raul’s profile painted on the wall along with this quote:

“I paint every day, knowing that every ounce of strength I put into applying each brush stroke is the measure of life.  My muscles aren’t vanishing, they are transforming into permanent echoes on canvas.”

His entire Songs for a Deaf God series hung along one wall, and a few well-chosen pieces from Theatro del Mondo on the other. There were also three white pedestals, each boasting one of Raul’s sculptures carefully placed beneath a dome of glass.

sculptures

Raul hand-painting some of his sculptures

The gallery, called The Crash Pad, was created by NGAS Art Director Adam Ugolnik, he was beaming with pride as company members trickled in to check out Raul’s work. “I hope we can keep his paintings up for a while, I want everyone at the company to see how breathtaking these pieces are.” The NGAS campus in Redondo Beach boasts over 11,000 employees.

The FabLab was alive with energy, dozens of engineers working with impenetrable focus on all sorts of machines I’d never seen before, shop bots, laser cutters, 3D printers; computer screens flashed with renderings of Raul’s arms while a big ass fan whirled above. That’s actually the company name, Big Ass Fans; this one was easily 40 feet in diameter. The back wall of the giant warehouse was adorned with quotes from famous inventors (all male, unfortunately, but even that dynamic was changing on the FabLab floor). I chatted with Evelyn Yazmin Gutiérrez, an electromechanical engineer who was in her last semester at Cal State Northridge, an intern at NGAS who’d be graduating this spring to a full time job with the company. “It’s so exciting to be part of this event,” she told me, “it feels great to be able to use your skills to impact someone’s life like this.”

Raul’s family was there as well. His Mom spent the entire day with tears glistening in her eyes. And Raul himself was so awestruck that he could only laugh and say “that’s Awesome!” every time a hackARThon team member approached him with an idea or a piece of equipment to test drive.

At one point during the day, Julie Bishop, the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, stopped by for a tour of the FabLab. She visited The Crash Pad, met with Raul for a bit, watched him paint, and talked with some of the engineers designing devices for the hackARThon.

Raul and his mom with Julie Bishop MP and many (but not all) of the hackARThon engineers!

Raul and his mom with Julie Bishop MP and many (but not all) of the hackARThon engineers!

Now, I’m not a tech blogger, so I can’t come close to explaining how these devises were constructed, but here’s a laypersons description of what was created over he course of this 12-hour day. Keep in mind these were only prototypes. Tony Long, the director of FabLab and the hackARThon coordinator, is still working with Raul and NGAS executives to further develop the ideas created during this one magical day.

The first device was an overhead mounted sling that affixed to the back of Raul’s power chair. The beam on which it’s fastened pivots side to side with Raul’s motion, and the sling unit itself slides forward and back along the beam with very little effort. This allows Raul to keep his arm at the level required for him to paint and sculpt without relying on upper arm strength (of which he has very little remaining).

There was also a spring-balanced off-loader, a free-standing unit placed beside Raul’s chair. He could rest his arm in the cradle and the effect was a near-zero-gravity support that, similarly to the sling, responded to his slightest directional gesture.

Two mechanical easel systems were created to support the artwork itself and make it easier for Raul to paint with these new arm supports. One was designed to be mounted onto his studio wall; with the gentle pull of a trigger devised from a disassembled power drill the canvas could be raised or lowered with ease. The second was a free-standing easel that Raul could roll up to and, with the touch of a joystick, move his canvas up and down, side to side, and tilt it forward.

Street 1

Raul testing out the painting sling with his nephew, mom, and brother

 

Unfortunately, because Northrop Grumman is such a high-security company, I wasn’t able to take any photos inside the FabLab.

The next day, however, we returned to NGAS. About half of the engineers came in a second day to put finishing touches on their designs. That afternoon, we rolled out of the FabLab and left the NGAS campus to take some photos of the new inventions.

 

Street 2

Raul testing out the arm off-loader and the mechanical easel (with a pizza box for a canvas)

There is an exciting follow-up plan in place. The folks at NGAS have committed to assisting Raul in the long-term, with return visits planned to his studio to assess the functionality of the devices in consultation with his physical therapist. We are also talking about making a more substantial documentary that follows Raul’s work as he continues to paint and sculpt with these new supports.

Also, on the day of the hackARThon another of Raul’s friends launched a gofundme campaign to help Raul get a wheelchair accessible van. We’re now trying to raise $30,000 and have over 10% pledged already! Currently Raul’s brother drives him around in a beat up pickup truck with his powerchair in the back, sitting aside two makeshift folding ramps, the Bikini Kill and Chicks on Speed stickers on the back window a riotous reminder of the punk rock feminist defiance that’s kept him going all these years.

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Shakina Nayfack

Shakina Nayfack

Shakina Nayfack is writer, director, actor, and performance artist based in New York City.