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Kenneth Duane Snelson       

Date/place of birth:
29 June 1927
Pendleton, Oregon

Relationship to the college:
1948 Summer Session in the Arts
1949 Summer Institute



Snelson's Website

Early X-Form (Tensegrity)

Kenneth Snelson Website



Ken Snelson grew up in Pendleton, Oregon where his father John Tavner Snelson had a camera shop. After his discharge from the navy, he enrolled at the University of Oregon in Eugene to study painting. He remembers Jack Wilkinson, the head of the art department, as a man with far-ranging interests and an interesting mind. It was through Wilkinson that he was first introduced to Bauhaus ideas. Foundation courses incorporating Bauhaus design problems were requisite for art students. In the library Snelson found a book about the Bauhaus with a reference to Josef Albers and Black Mountain College. When he learned about the 1948 Summer Session in the Arts, he applied. A fellow art student Roger Lovelace drove them from Oregon to Black Mountain.

Like most students, Snelson knew little about the college’s philosophy or what to expect. Having completed two years of art studies including the foundation courses, he was at first miffed when Albers insisted that he enroll in the basic design and color classes instead of painting. He recalled that although some of the exercises were similar to those in the foundation courses he had taken, Albers was a challenging teacher, and he worked hard on the assignments. He especially was intrigued by the three-dimensional studies in paper-folding and wire. He recalled that when he brought his wire sculptures into the class, Albers commented, "These are the work of a sculptor." Albers considered him to be a good student, “adept at three dimensional things.”

Two weeks into the session “this strange man Buckminster Fuller arrived.” Snelson recalled that no one really knew who Fuller was and that he was not particularly interested in taking a class in architecture. Albers asked him to help Fuller unload and assemble the many models from his aluminum trailer in preparation for Fuller’s community lecture. Although Snelson expected to find models of small houses based on the cube and rectangle which he would organize and assemble, he found instead models made of Venetian blind strips, marbles, straws, and other materials based on the tetrahedron and geodesic geometry. He recalled that he was "mesmerized" by Fuller’s first three hour community lecture and enrolled in his class. He, along with other members of the community, was captivated by Fuller's message of saving the world through technology, economy of means, and by his fascinating geometry.

At the end of the summer, Snelson enrolled for the fall term to study mathematics with Max Dehn and physics with Natasha Goldowski. He found the regular term to be much slower and more methodical than the summer and soon returned to Oregon.

It was too late in the semester to register at the University, and Snelson returned to his home in Pendleton He recalled that he felt lost and confused. He was no longer interested in painting but did not know what he wanted to do. Although he was unaware of it at the time, both Albers and Fuller had changed the direction of his life. Recalling Leonardo da Vinci's characterization of Michelangelo as a dust covered workman, Snelson had considered painting to be of a higher order than sculpture. Still, he was intrigued by Albers's insight into his facility with three-dimensional forms and by his description of him as a sculptor. Sculpture began to assume a new "dignity." From Fuller Snelson first understood structure as the underlying principle behind all from rather than a combination of elements simply fillling space: “It became clear to me what kinds of experiences or experiments you had to conduct before you knew what a structure really is because it’s a result of forces which can form a stable system.” In Wilkinson's class, form had been discussed in aesthetic terms such as proportion and the relationship of elements. Snelson enrolled in the winter for one trimester of engineering at the Oregon State College in Corvallis, and soon realized that he was neither fully at home with engineers or artists.

Building airplane models of balsa had been a passion in Snelson's childhood, and he began to build models to further explore the ideas Fuller had introduced including the relationship between tension and compression members. Snelson recalled that in his experience discoveries always have come after a series of exploratory steps, and that when they revealed themselves, they were so simple as to seem self-evident. Such was the case with Early X Piece, a model in which tension and compression members were separated in a linear fashion. In retrospect, Snelson has noted that although tension and compression members had previously been separated in a circular form as well as in a non-linear model, this was the first known time that they had been separated in a linear form.

Throughout the winter Snelson corresponded with Fuller who was teaching at the Institute of Design. When Fuller agreed to direct the 1949 summer session at the college, Snelson enrolled for a second summer. This time he hitch-hiked from Oregon to North Carolina.

Although Snelson took Fuller's class, he recalled that he was not comfortable with the Chicago Institute of Design students who had already formed as a group and whose prescribed program for the summer was basically a continuation of their work of the previous winter. A compelling distraction was Joy Ballon, a young Canadian student with whom he fell in love.

At Black Mountain Snelson showed Fuller his Early X Piece and recalled that he was intrigued by the invention. Using curtain rods which he had purchased in Asheville, he built a larger sculpture based on a modification of the Early X Piece. Snelson photographed Fuller holding the sculpture, and the dissemination of the photograph along with Fuller's claim to authorship of the invention led to an unfortunate schism between the two men. Fuller coined the word  tensegrity -- a fusion of the words "tension" and "integrity" -- to describe the invention.

In the fall of 1949 Snelson enrolled for a semester at the Institute of Design but did not like the atmosphere and moved to New York after a semester. In 1951 he enrolled at the Académie Montmarte in Paris where he studied with Fernand Léger.

In time Snelson came to realized that his passion lay neither with engineering and science nor art but in a fusion of the two disciplines. In his sculptures, his panoramic photographs, or his computer art, either a structural principle or a physical instrument such as a camera or computer has been an essential element in the process of creation.

This synthesis between technology and art was first achieved in his sculpture. He has pointed out that the essential value of tensegrity was not to be in architecture for which it had limited application but in the aesthetic qualities of the forms. In 1960 be began to create the first large sculptures based on the principle. In 1966 he had his first one-person exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in New York, and in the same year his work was included in the Sculpture Annual at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Two small models from Snelson's Black Mountain experience presaged his fascination with the structure of the atom. The first used crazed marbles salvaged from the ashes of the science building that burned in September 1948. The second, based on a model by Fuller which used triangles instead of circles, was made in 1949 using model airplane wheels which Snelson bought in Asheville. He recalled that John Walley helped him silverbraze the axel. In this model, if one wheel is turned, the others reciprocate.

Snelson grew up taking photographs. In New York for fifteen years he earned his living as a motion picture cameraman. His first panoramic photographs of cityscapes were made using a 16-inch Cirkut camera. In recent years Snelson's work has extended to the creation of computer art.

Snelson is the recipient of many awards including New York State Council on the Arts Sculpture (1971), DAAD Fellowhship for Berlin Kunstlerprogram (1976),  Honorary Doctorate, Arts and Humane Letters Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York (1985),   American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Art Award (1987),    Award, Prix Ars Electronia, Linz, Austria (1989) and   Membership, American Academy of Arts & Letters (1994). His work is in major collections.

In 1972 Snelson married Katherine Kaufmann. They have one daughter Andrea Nicole.

Photograph: (Snelson) Masato Nakagawa. Courtesy Black Mountain College Project; (models) Kenneth Snelson.


This biography was funded by a grant from the Graham Foundation for a study of architecture at Black Mountain College.

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