Solar science is an art

Special to The Times

Afternoon sun beat down on the single solar panel attached to one side of Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, inspiring Melissa Manfull to pose a hypothesis: If someone blocked half the panel, would small propellers powered by the unit -- part of an art installation just inside -- slow down?

A visitor accepted the challenge, standing against the iridescent module as if taking a chest X-ray. And indeed, the closest visible prop slowed, illustrating the rudimentary physics of photovoltaics: photons strike panel, electrons do a jig and, voilà , electricity flows.

Such connect-the-dots learning is on the lesson plan for Solar Gizmos, a 10-week art class for middle schoolers that Manfull will teach at the center. Gluing together bottle caps, egg crates and other recycled stuff, each student will create a mini, movable masterpiece with a 1.5-volt fan motor powered by a 3-volt solar cell to learn about basic electronics and kinetic art as well as renewable energy.

“You had your body, your wings and your legs all moving in the same direction,” said Manfull, an artist herself, describing the bug her students made in a similar class. This time she plans to show them how to make a pint-size solar-powered car, but only by way of fueling their own creative drive. “I want to see what they come up with on their own.”


Today, plenty of kids deftly operate all kinds of electronic gadgets, but fewer know what makes their magic happen, Manfull said. “So when they see that you can take a solar cell, wire it up to a motor and make something turn or roll without touching it, they’re like, ‘Wow.’ They’re immediately engaged and amazed at how simple it is.”

The 20,000-square-foot Armory is possibly Los Angeles’ greenest arts institution. It has a 33-kilowatt solar energy system, one of Pasadena’s largest, that was installed in 2001 and recently upgraded. “The system allows us to air-condition the entire building without increasing our electricity bill,” executive director Scott Ward said.

Then there’s “Sun Dial,” artist John Klima’s permanent, propeller-friendly installation, and a computer showing how many kilowatts the panels generate at any moment.

The emphasis on all things solar is attributable to green-leaning trustee Donna Vaccarino, the architect whose designs transformed a 1930s National Guard headquarters into the Armory.


Manfull said she likes to tell her Solar Gizmos students about the Earth’s limited supply of fossil fuels “and that their generation is going to have to deal with it.”

Protecting the environment is not, however, her emphasis. Rather, it’s exploring the concept of solar power as a renewable energy and, ungirding it all, art for art’s sake. Her charges will sketch futuristic, solarized cities. Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Niki de Saint-Phalle and other artists known for their kinetic work are part of the curriculum too.

“Art is about the act of play,” Manfull said. “It’s really exciting to tinker around with electronics and make them into something beautiful and something meaningful.”



Solar Gizmos

Where: Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena.

When: 3:45 to 5:15 p.m. Wednesdays, Sept. 26 to Dec. 5

Price: $160, scholarships available


Info: (626) 792-5101