Sculpting with Wind and Fog

By Grace Merritt

4 minutes to read

You really have to see a video of a Ned Kahn sculpture to understand its mystical genius. A photo just won’t work.

Then, you appreciate how a building facade magically ripples in ever-changing patterns to reveal the hidden force of the blowing wind. Or you feel meditative as you watch a large steel ring mysteriously breathe out fog. Or feel soothed by the way the wind ripples through field of thin aluminum panels, making them bend and sway like long grasses on the plains.

Kahn ’82 (CLAS) is an environmental artist from northern California. While most sculptors work with hard substances like bronze or marble, he uses ephemeral elements like fog, mist, and wind that condense, move, and disappear and re-appear to define and animate his sculptures.

Photo of Ned Kahn '82 (CLAS)

“Even though I’ve built the structure, it’s actually nature—the wind or the light or some other natural force or flow pattern—that does the sculpting of it.”

His most spectacular piece so far is a huge, water vortex skylight in a Singapore shopping mall. Jets of water kick up a powerful whirlpool in a huge acrylic bowl. Then the water hurdles through a hole at the bottom of the bowl and drops down two floors into another pool.

Kahn, who grew up in Stamford, Conn., has made more than 100 pieces around the world, though none in Connecticut yet. The closest example is a kinetic skin that resembles shark skin that wraps about the New York Aquarium’s new building on Coney Island.

He first became interested in building kinetic artwork out of bearings and springs at age 10, encouraged by his mother, Renee, a painter who taught at UConn’s Stamford branch.

“There was this great junkyard in Stamford where I grew up called Vulcan Surplus that has all kinds of interesting industrial leftovers,” he said. “I would just fill the back of the car with weird stuff.”

Kahn went on to major in environmental science at UConn and has fond memories of his days in Storrs.

 

“UConn was a perfect school experience for me. If I had gone anywhere else I would have been a different person. I have a lot of gratitude for the couple of amazing teachers who were profound influences on me. I also just loved the nature around there.”

He says he was exposed to Buddhism in one of his classes at UConn, and many of his pieces possess a Zen-like quality.

Upon graduating, he headed across the country to San Francisco, where he eventually became the artist in residence at the Exploratorium science museum. Ten years later, he opened his own studio and began to bid on large-scale, public art pieces and his business grew.

He now lives with his wife and their 4-year-old son and 13-year-old stepdaughter about an hour north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, on a mountain top looking down towards the ocean. He also has two adult children with his first wife.

Some might say he’s living the dream. And while he’s deeply appreciative of being able to live in such a beautiful place and make a living doing his art, he says it can be stressful dealing with the tight budgets, politics, and lengthy approval processes that come with it.

“It’s not the ideal image of the artist creating in his studio that most people imagine, although I do get to do that too, and I’m very appreciative of that time and space,” he said.

The Ecology and Evolutionary Biology endowment provides critical resources for UConn students and faculty as they work to discover, understand, and protect biodiversity around the world.

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