Off the Clock: English Professor Makes Art Out of the Scrap Heap

Posted: January 26, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: January 25, 2011 at 9:02 pm

By Art Taylor

Steven Weinberger, English

English professor Steven Weinberger sees beauty in computer chips, transistors and other utilitarian scraps.

Old TVs and computers. Broken wristwatches and defunct calculators. Vacuum tubes, diodes, stray memory chips. A 1960s-era light bulb. An old bowling trophy. Bits of wire.

What some might consider junk, English associate professor Steven Weinberger sees as art — both the raw material for pieces he’s been creating since his graduate school days 20 years ago and, in many cases, works of graceful design in and of themselves.

“There’s a hidden beauty in every circuit,” he says, pointing to the intricate design inherent in a single component of one of his finished works.

“People who use them might not find them beautiful, might see them as only utilitarian, the same as with the inside of computers, but others see them as curiosities and see the beauty within.”

Weinberger’s artwork ranges in size and scope. At the smaller end of the scale, he has made brooches from vacuum tubes and earrings from tiny carpenter’s levels, fuses or typewriter keys.

One of his largest constructions is 5 feet tall and just as wide. Most of his work lies somewhere in between: small frames with an amalgamation of parts, many of them interactive, lighting up, buzzing or beeping, all at the push of a button. One even has a remote control.

Weinberger's work has been shown in galleries around the country.

“There are different levels of creativity to each of the pieces,” Weinberger explains.

“One of these might come from six different sources: transistors, resistors, diodes, half a memory chip, a battery, a light bulb. I like to mix things from different eras, then I solder the separate components together.”

The parts come from a variety of places. Weinberger subscribes to major surplus catalogs and once made regular trips to surplus stores in lower Manhattan. He gets frames from antique stores. “You can never have too many,” he says.

And these days, he has a helper for gathering material: his 8-year-old son, who brings home things he’s found on the playground and helps scout out material on “Junk Day,” each Friday when father and son walk to school.

Weinberger’s interest in building dates back to his own boyhood.

“Every toy I had was immediately taken apart,” he says. “But I’d never put them back together. Instead, I’d make something else out of the pieces. My parents called me an inventor.”

In graduate school, what began as a diversion took on semiprofessional dimensions. “I had a small space in a store in a tony section of Seattle, and I sold stuff, mostly pins, for charity.”

In the years since, demand for Weinberger’s art has grown substantially. His work has been featured in gallery shows in Seattle, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. He has received commissions from collectors, and he is frequently asked to donate pieces for charity auctions. He currently has a studio and gallery space in Takoma Park, Md., but may move his studio to his home to allow easier access and more time for his art.

“I wish I had more time,” he says. “When you’re running a PhD program and an MA and undergraduate concentration, it’s tough to find the time to gather and create and promote. There are months when I won’t make anything, and other times when I become quite prolific.”

But now, as throughout the years, Weinberger is driven less by commercial demands than by curiosity and the creative impulse. “When I’m inspired,” he says, “I work.”

This article originally appeared in the English Department newsletter Not Just Letters.

Write to gazette at