The people? Jenna Bergmann (myself), Shira Prusky, and Hannah Szapary. The concept? Painting poetry with robots. I know what you’re thinking — painting poetry either is nonsensical or pretty lame. I don’t mean painting words, though. I mean painting moods. You know — blue could be calm or sad, red could be violent or passionate, green could be growth, greed, or jealousy. The list goes on and on. Still confused? Let me explain.

Let’s start at the very beginning
I found a picture online of a project attempting to create a visual representation of the Emily Dickinson poems by lighting a candle for each poem, where the candles would be a color mentioned in that poem. As a passionate Latin student, I went to my teacher at the time, who happens to also teach computer science, explained what I had found, and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could create a visual representation of the Catullus poems?”
It was just a little conversation piece, and the idea was left ignored for months. After all, I loved the idea but did not really have any idea where to begin or the time or place to do so. When I joined STEAM this year, however, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to chase this seemingly elusive goal. I brought it up again, and quickly and gladly recruited Hannah and Shira to join me. What started out as a vague, uncertain goal turned into a concrete work in progress in which we take great pride.

The ideas didn’t just pop into our minds and onto a canvas. As we brainstormed together, I became really excited about what this project could eventually turn into. We kept coming up with new ways to make the project more complex, but also more amazing. Wouldn’t it be cool if we used the Aeneid, since that’s what Hannah and I are currently reading? Wouldn’t it be cool if the painting were a spiral where beginning is the center, since the Aeneid begins in media res? Wouldn’t it be cool if we used words and meter to find moods and corresponding colors to each part of the text? Wouldn’t it be cool if this worked for multiple texts, and we could compare poems not by their words, but by their colors? And while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be cool if we take out human bias as much as possible and design a code to assign colors for us, and a robot to paint it for us?
The answer is yes. It would be very cool.

So let’s get moving!
Obstacle number one: I’m technologically inept, and Hannah and Shira weren’t exactly coding wizards either.
Solution number one: Learn to code using Processing! We started with playing with colors, and kept playing with shapes, making things more complex by following tutorials or looking at examples that fascinated us and trying to recreate them. I spent at least one free block making a flower that changes size based on how close your mouse is to the flower.
Why it’s relevant: Once we felt as if we had the basics covered, we began applying our newfound knowledge to coding motors. On a larger scale though, how awesome is it that we all started learning to code in such a fun way? We played into our curiosity, and learned in a really productive but unexpected way. It’s an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had without STEAM.

Obstacle two: Move a paintbrush up and down with motors. Huh?
Solution two: Oh boy. We went through a lot of solutions for obstacle two. We started out with just potentially attaching a paintbrush to a rotating gear, and ended up with a motor controlling a bolt so that depending which way the motor is spinning, the bolt moves up and down through a fixed nut. The paintbrush will be attached to the bottom of the bolt.

Obstacle three: Move the paintbrush back and forth across a canvas.
Solution three: There have been many iterations of this as well. Early models included a lot of string and duct tape. Now, we have a metal track, a belt made of fiberglass and rubber (so that we’ll have traction without stretchiness for maximum control) which will eventually be controlled by a motor on one end which we still have to code (see obstacle one). Both solutions two and three were aided by some inspiration from “Super Awesome Sylvia” who actually designed her own WaterColorBot.

So, that’s where we are so far, and we’re really excited to be moving forward and about how far the idea has come since my first spark from Emily Dickinson candles. I think there are some really important things about this project, though, that go beyond our process work.

The Big Picture
I cannot speak for Hannah and Shira, but ultimately, I think the most valuable thing I’m getting from this project is being in a learning environment in which I am exposed to connectedness, potential, and creativity. Not many students have the privilege of exploring Latin, computer science, art, and more in the context of a non-class with extremely helpful and resourceful teachers who encourage us to pursue our ideas and will help us in any way they can. I’m being pushed not only to act on my ideas, but to act on them quickly. Take risks, make progress, don’t be afraid of failure, and just go make. It doesn’t matter that I’m not being graded or that it’s not for credit. I’m learning more about these disciplines and about myself than I do in most of my other classes, and it’s extremely fun. I intend to keep things moving as quickly as possible, and I’ll continue sharing what I can. If you’re still with me at this point, thanks for reading!

Jenna Bergmann
Class of 2014

Painting Poetry with Robots
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