- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
The way curators Tod Rafferty and Brian Lawler describe it, just getting their exhibit “The Achievers: The Art of Engineering” in working order was a feat of engineering itself. There were photographs to print and hang; video footage to edit; and huge, bizarre contraptions of the land, air, and sea to be borrowed and wheeled in to the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
“It's mind-boggling how hard it was,” said Lawler, a professor in Cal Poly’s Graphic Communications department. “I was averaging four hours of sleep for two weeks there, trying to get that whole thing done.”
The comprehensive show, on display through June 12, pays tribute to early inventors, engineers, tinkerers, and daredevils who made machines fly, swim, and race across the earth. There’s a human-powered vehicle; an old-fashioned, precarious bicycle of cartoonish proportions; model planes; and early scuba gear so intense it looks like the wearer ought to have sunk to the bottom of the ocean. New Zealand motorcycle racer Burt Munro’s original streamliner is on display as well, the basis for the film The World’s Fastest Indian. There’s space hardware from Next Intent and an exhibit dedicated to aviation pioneer Burt Rutan. Black-and-white photographs nostalgically recall the days when San Luis Obispo’s Meadow Park was a racetrack; the higher ground above it, now densely populated, was a de facto perch for onlookers called Cheapskate Hill.
Then, unexpectedly for a show about travel and mobility, there’s an exhibit of Ernie Ball guitars.
“Music carries you away,” journalist/motorcycle dude Rafferty explained. “It’s an emotional, rather than physical, transportation.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Lawler and Rafferty, while first-time curators, have already worked together extensively on the show’s precursor, the book The Achievers: Central California’s Engineering Pioneers, a historical look at early local engineers, pilots, and racecar drivers. The Achievers book was an exhausting process in itself, involving two years of research, writing, designing, and editing. The book was the first project of the Central Coast History Foundation, a nonprofit started for the purpose of telling the stories of the area’s early innovators.
And what stories there are to be told! Take screenwriter, journalist, and aviator Harriet Quimby, America’s first licensed female airplane pilot and the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. Vintage photographs depict the stylish Quimby in her original purple satin flying suits, grinning from the pilot seat of a monoplane.
“She soared above land and sea at a time when the number of pilots alive was barely more than the number who had crashed and died,” writes contributor David Ciaffardini.
Like many early aviators, the trajectory of her life was cut far too short. But her contributions to aviation safety endure to this day: An article titled The Dangers of Flying And How to Avoid Them evolved into the pilot checklists that are now routine flying procedure. That Quimby once lived in Arroyo Grande is a point of pride for local historians.
“The Achievers” unearths forgotten facts on local towns: Paso Robles was once the country’s largest producer of charcoal; Shell Beach spent a short time as the country’s biggest oil terminal. But its pride and joy—and reason for being, according to Rafferty—is pilot and “father of the off-road vehicle” Vic Hickey, Cal Poly grad and GM research and development engineer, whose designs eventually landed on the moon in the form of the Lunar Rover.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
A significant portion of the book, and the show, also focuses on aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, famous for his aircraft Voyager, the first to circle the globe without stopping for fuel, and for the sub-orbital plane SpaceShipOne. The latter, which became the first privately funded aircraft to enter space two times within two weeks, was a top-secret project while it was being built.
Lawler recalls visiting Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, several times for another project, which documented the construction of the aircraft GlobalFlyer. Meanwhile, he later discovered, SpaceShipOne had literally been constructed next door, though Rutan’s employees never let on.
The Achievers is the ultimate template for the show, though new exhibits, like the guitars and diving equipment, have been added.
Rafferty, the book’s editor, and Lawler, its designer, were happy just to see proceeds of their labor of love break even with the printing costs. The funds in turn went back to the new foundation—though organizing the “Achievers” show, the two admit, has taken a sizeable chunk of change out of that initial sum.
While there’s a definite aesthetic dimension to the artifacts on display, an engineering show is an unusual choice for a space dedicated to fine art.
“Some people are a bit mystified,” Rafferty admitted. “Some people may think it just doesn’t have a place in a museum of art.”
But even to the naysayer, some objects’ incidental beauty can’t be denied.
“The most beautiful thing in the whole show, I think, is the thing called the flexure,” Lawler said, referring to a block of titanium, manufactured at Next Intent, whose function is to absorb the vibrations of a rocket.
“Machining it is nearly impossible,” he went on. “So when you look at the complexity of that part, and you realize how beautifully it’s made … ,” he paused, as if trawling the infinite depths of space for a fitting comparison, a properly tooled alignment of verbs and nouns. He shrugged, “It’s like music.”
Arts Editor Anna Weltner once played a jazz solo on a carburetor. Contact her at email@example.com.