The Charger Blog

Chair of University’s Art and Design Program Uses Art to Examine the ‘Nature of Nature’

Get to know Joe Smolinski, the University of New Haven’s chair of art and design, whose work includes projects that raise meaningful questions, explore the role of technology in our environment, and, even, generate electricity.

August 12, 2019

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Image of Joe Smolinski
Joe Smolinski’s art explores technology’s role in shaping our environment.

RC: How do you describe your work? What inspires you?
JS: My work in the past ten years has examined the role of technology in our changing landscape. This pursuit has led me to investigate communication networks, energy and oil companies, and the industrial agriculture infrastructure. I am interested in how these industries shape our view of the natural environment, as well as physically shape our planet. My work moves through drawing, painting, sculpture, and digital practices. I am interested in historical methods of image and object making while simultaneously embracing new digital technologies and media. This duality of longing for the past while striving for the future permeates the environmental discourse. My intent is to use both to raise new questions about the nature of nature.

Image of Joe Smolinski
Joe Smolinski uses a 3D printer to create some of his sculptures.

RC: What would you consider to be your area of expertise or your specialty?
JS: I work primarily with drawing, digital media, and sculpture. Almost everything I do starts as a drawing. From the drawing or sketch I allow the concept of the artwork to dictate the medium, materials, and processes I use. Concept drives everything I make. This mode of thinking is what I bring to all of my courses and is the basis of my class critiques.

RC: What projects are you currently working on?
JS: I tend to work on many projects at once. Right now, I am working on a series of cast aluminum sculptures of melting snow piles. For these, I search out the remnants of melted parking lot glaciers that appear through the winter. I 3D scan these and 3D print them in our makerspace on campus. Once I have the prints I like, I take them to a foundry where molds are made from the 3D prints. Molten aluminum is poured into the casts to produce the final sculpture. Through technology, these go from frozen snow piles to molten metal, to a solid metal sculpture.

Image of Joe Smolinski
Joe Smolinski reproduced the last snowball of 2018.

I am also developing a new 3D animated video and a series of large-scale watercolor paintings and drawings that explore the effect of automobiles on the landscape.

"I really enjoy the collaborative environment here, as well as working with many amazing students and faculty members."Joe Smolinski

RC: Which of your exhibits or projects are you most proud of? Why?
JS: There are many, but perhaps the most appropriate would be my Tree Turbine sculpture that is located on campus. The Tree Turbine project was commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2007. It is an 18-foot fake metal tree that spins in the wind to generate a small amount of electricity.

At the time, I was working on a series of drawings of cell phone towers disguised as trees. Cell phone towers populate New England parkways and highways. I read an article in the New York Times about wind turbines and how their opponents felt that they marred the landscape. In response, I developed a digital animation concept video in which wind turbines took the form of trees. When Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art curator Denise Markonish saw the video, she invited me to take part in an exhibition titled Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape at the museum. She also invited me to work with the museum fabrication team to make a real spinning-tree turbine. The exhibition was a great success and really launched my art career. Currently, the Tree Turbine Prototype #1 lives in the quad near Celentano Hall on the University of New Haven campus.

Image of Joe Smolinski
Aluminum sculptures of melting snow piles (back) are among Joe Smolinski’s recent projects.

RC: What is the best part about teaching at the University of New Haven?
JS: I really enjoy the collaborative environment here, as well as working with many amazing students and faculty members. There is a freedom to introduce new and creative curricula and to connect with the larger Greater New Haven art community.

RC: Why is teaching and learning about art and design so important?
JS: Art is a very human act, and it connects everything that we do and make. It is important to take the time to appreciate the value of art in our everyday lives, as well as how it serves as a mode to understand human culture and history. Art is a form of communication that we all can afford to practice and make part of our lives.