The Wilkinson Building Art Collection: A Celebration of Creativity in Engineering

1/21/21 Pratt School of Engineering

Duke Engineering lives at the nexus of knowledge and creativity. Artwork in the new Wilkinson Building will reflect this unique identity

The Wilkinson Building Art Collection: A Celebration of Creativity in Engineering

Duke Engineering’s new Wilkinson Building was designed to serve as a high-tech space for teaching, learning and research, with state-of-the-art equipment in classrooms and laboratories and even a hologram to display 3D design models. But from the very outset, Vinik Dean of Engineering Ravi Bellamkonda was determined to also highlight the importance of imagination to engineering endeavors, by incorporating works of original art throughout the building.

“We at Duke Engineering think of engineering as a creative problem-solving enterprise,” said Bellamkonda. “The pursuit of creative solutions involves both the left and the right brain, the analytical and the inventive. That’s why we chose to celebrate art in the Wilkinson Building—just as with dance, painting or music, engineering is a creative enterprise.”

Bellamkonda asked Facilities Director Mitchell Vann to form and lead a volunteer committee that would acquire a collection of art to fill the new building. For the past two years, Vann has chaired a core working group composed of Duke Engineering staff members August Burns, Mandy Dixon, Katie Krieger, Ben Locascio, Quiana Tyson and Miranda Volborth; Duke Engineering faculty members Martin Brooke, Christine Payne and Tuan Vo-Dinh; and Duke university architect Bill McCraw to curate the collection.

After numerous meetings and consultations and partnerships with art experts at Duke, the committee has acquired the beginnings of a world-class collection. The included works draw their inspiration from science and technology, whether that’s expressed through subject matter or technique. The committee hopes that the selected works will spark engineers to approach their own work with the same creativity.

“One great thing about Pratt students is that they are part of the larger Duke community including the arts and humanities,” said Payne, whose materials science classes periodically consider themes in literature and art. “Engineering is just part of a Pratt education. Combining this level of art collection with engineering classrooms and research labs will remind students to think broadly and creatively.”

“Combining this level of art collection with engineering classrooms and research labs will remind students to think broadly and creatively.”

Christine Payne, Yoh Family Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

Among the artists whose works will be on display throughout the Wilkinson Building are Duke BME graduate Mikael Owunna E’12, internationally lauded installation artist Luke Jerram, Durham activist Saba Taj and former Duke art professor Vernon Pratt. Arts & Health at Duke will lend two pieces to Duke Engineering, from abstract artists Anthony Poon and James Hendricks, and the widow of New York artist John Hiigli made a gift of several of her husband’s polyhedron paintings to the school.

Duke Engineering possesses two other notable pieces of art in its Teer and Hudson buildings: a sculpture by Victor Salmones given as a gift by Nello Teer III in honor of his father and grandfather, and a quartet of metal orbs by geometer George Hart suspended in the Fitzpatrick CIEMAS atrium—a gift from Duke engineer and mathematician Ingrid Daubechies.

“The results so far are eye-popping.”

MItchell Vann, Duke Engineering Director of Facilities

“Being excited about art personally, I was honored to be asked to head this very engaged group and the results so far are eye-popping,” Vann said, noting that the pieces currently on display are only the beginning of what the committee has planned. “As students, faculty and staff return to campus, we hope to re-engage with the other renowned artists we’ve identified, who we’d love to include in our collection,” he added.

The Wilkinson Building art collection will be installed in the first part of 2021. Although public access to Duke facilities is currently restricted due to COVID-19, the Pratt School of Engineering has launched a virtual version of the gallery on its website.

Visit the virtual gallery