Sham to discuss intersection of art and engineering

It is not often that an artist teams up with a chemical engineer, but that is exactly what James Sham has done.

Working with fellow University of Austin professor Brian Korgel, Sham has created something called the “Rapid Design Pivot” program to combine the strengths of engineering and art.

“It addressed all the things we wanted our fields to be, but weren’t quite there,” Sham said.

Sham will discuss the RDP, as well as some of his older projects, at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center.

One of the RDP’s major advantages is that it can circumvent traditional engineering research, which can be very slow as new materials are developed and tested for applicability.

“What we’ve found is there is a lot less imagination than there could be,” Sham said. “Artists can fill that gap. They can test these new materials.”

Instead of painting or sculpting, Sham has thrown himself into this new experiment, blurring lines between art and technology.

“I make my art in a lab, submit it for patenting and then figure out what it is,” he said.

According to Sham, this kind of work has historical precedent.

“Artists were, during history, the inventors of things,” Sham said. “Now, inventions trickle down very slowly.”

Even before turning his attention to the gap between art and engineering, Sham’s work has been anything but typical. Among his projects was the creation of an endowment to allow a diner, the Empire Grill, to give one guest a free muffin every day in perpetuity.

The Sham Foundation Muffin Endowment, as the project was known, started with a simple question.

“What is the smallest thing I can make last forever — in an economic sense?” Sham said.

The muffin was dutifully presented by the staff of the diner to one person a day for three years, until the diner shut down. The muffin became a living novel of the town, according to Sham.

One day, it was presented to a senator who was visiting town. Another time, the muffin sparked outrage when it was given to a sex offender. The following day, an employee found the offender’s victim and presented that person with the muffin.

Among Sham’s more recent projects is an attempt to extract pigment from pet store goldfish that have died. And he seems to have no intention of exploring more “typically” artistic projects in the future.

Amid all the technological advancements available to artists, Sham is most excited by artificial intelligence and the ability to break orbit.

“The conversation between Earth and space is getting easier for artists to take part in,” Sham said.