Artistry, civil engineering combine in student’s honors thesis project

Sam Johnson

ASU student Sam Johnson amid some of the paintings that made up the core of honors thesis in civil engineering. Photo by: Jessica Slater/ASU

Posted: March 27, 2012

It was at a time when he was deep into engineering and urban planning studies that a seemingly unrelated thought popped into Sam Johnson’s head.

It came as a simple directive: “I think you should paint.”

Johnson remembers “just having the thought like ‘I’m going to paint today and I don’t really know why.’ So I did some paintings and they were terrible at first, but I liked doing them.”

Using acrylics and water colors he covered canvasses with small and large free-flowing abstract images, with no intention other than engaging in a “stress-reducing, mind-relaxing” pastime.

Months later, a challenging course in structural analysis sparked something in him that he says “opened a floodgate of creativity” that he expressed through his paintings. He began giving his art more thematic direction. Some of the images he painted became more geometric, rooted in design principles and concepts he was learning in his coursework.

Johnson is a student in Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, majoring in civil engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He’s also studying for a minor in urban planning in the School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

When he first put brush to canvas almost two years ago, Johnson had no idea his paintings would form the core of the honors thesis he needed to complete to earn his degree this spring. His thesis defense session occurred at a public exhibition featuring 20 of his paintings at a small yoga-studio-turned-art-gallery near ASU’s Tempe campus.

He describes the images he used for the thesis titled The Art of Engineering as “a mixture of simplicity and wildness” in which he tried to meld the precision of engineering structures, processes and designs with artistic freedom of expression.

Some of the paintings consist of bold splashes of bright colors, others of simple monochromatic symbols, figures and shapes. Embedded in them are depictions of images representing basic technical and structural aspects of civil engineering design – cantilevered beams, concentrated load, distributed load, roll support, linearity, applied force and deflection, turbulent flow and other examples of fluid dynamics.

One abstract work is based on the kind of overhead view of traffic flow on a freeway that is commonly used in transportation planning and engineering studies.

Another painting presents an impressionistic aerial view of a cityscape, like the photographic maps urban planners use to show land development density.

“You see both structure and artistry in Sam’s work, which are the characteristics that great works of engineering combine,” says ASU engineering professor Brad Allenby, who was on the committee that evaluated Johnson’s thesis project.

“Art and engineering are, at their core, creative expressions of the human spirit,” Allenby adds. “We’re fortunate to be at a university and in an engineering school where the parallels between these two pursuits are understood and valued.”

Johnson says discovering this “creative outlet” and finding in it a connection between his aesthetic sensibility and his technical bent has helped heighten his academic and career interests.

After finishing his undergraduate studies, he plans to return to ASU to begin studies in a new sustainable engineering master’s degree program.

“Maybe these two ways of thinking, like an artist and like an engineer, can be merged,” he says.

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