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Discovering Periodic Table Elements Throughout Penn Yan

Keuka College Associate Professor of Chemistry Andrew Robak has used fine art and photography to educate others about the intricacies of science, and his latest student collaboration showcases another new perspective.


In 2012, Robak collaborated with Kat Andonucci ’13 to produce “The Art of Chemistry,” a unique exhibit featuring chemical experiments often photographed by Andonucci at slow speeds or in low light to highlight the array of colors, shapes and textures within a variety of chemical solutions, reactions and even optical illusions. This time, Robak’s collaboration with biology major Phil Longyear ’14, a Rushville resident, explores the variety of natural elements from the Periodic Table found in and around the Penn Yan area.

Dr. Robak, left and Phil Longyear '14, right, on Main Street, Penn Yan.

Together, the duo visited manufacturing plants like Abtex and Ferro, artisan studios and even retail shops such as Pinckney’s Ace Hardware to document in photographs the elements in their natural or manufactured forms. The resulting images —with each name, two-letter scientific abbreviation, and a brief description of its characteristics and uses —are now on display in many storefront windows along Main Street, Penn Yan, effectively turning Main Street itself into an art gallery for “Elements of the Finger Lakes.”

Nearly 60 elements of the Periodic Table’s full 118 elements were found; the full collection of images can also be viewed at the Lightner Gallery at Lightner Library on the campus of Keuka College. An opening reception will be held from 4 – 5:30 p.m. at Milly’s Pantry, 19 Main Street on Wednesday, June 10. Milly’s is one of many local shops featuring works from the “Elements of the Finger Lakes.” The exhibit will continue through July on Main Street and through August on campus.

A welder at Coach and Equipment works with special tools, producing plasma from the reaction of (O) oxygen with the fuel in the tool (most likely acetylene gas).

“The project really helps people understand what chemical elements are, where they come from, how we use them and where they are [found],” Longyear said. “I like the fact that it will bring science to the masses in a way that they can understand.”

According to Longyear, the “field trips” he and Robak took last fall to companies like Ferro or Coach and Equipment proved how common many of the elements truly are. Ferro, the former Transition Element Company (TransElCo), manufactures an array of pigments, powders used to make computing materials, polishing applications for lenses, polymers, plastics and more. Coach and Equipment produces small to mid-size transit buses using elements including lead (Pb), Fluorine (F), lithium (Li) and argon (Ar) in its engineering process.

At Ferro, workers take basic elements like carbon (C), titanium, (Ti) and tungsten (W), and refine them for an industrial use. So the up-close-and-personal views offered at Ferro for the exhibit educate participants beyond just a logo or company tagline, Longyear said.

“This is more than the sign on the front and [the product] that comes out the door. This is what’s in-between and that was really interesting,” he described.

According to Robak, a project such as this serves to merge science with the community. Not only will participants learn a little more about chemistry, but they’ll learn more about the community where they live and work too.

“The Periodic Table can be hard to relate to … but in its simplest sense, it’s a list of the essence of every material that we can touch, see or interact with in our daily lives,” Robak said, adding that many people may not realize just how many elements could be in their own homes, too.

A classic Periodic Table wall chart, found at Ferro.

“This project would not have happened without those willing to let us ask questions, give tours or shoot photography inside their businesses,” Robak said, noting that many company staffers actively tried to find elements in use or suggest others for Robak and Longyear to document. Community participation for the exhibit has also been high, Robak added, thanking the numerous business owners along Main Street who agreed to display the poster-size images in storefront windows or indoor displays. A trifold brochure will also be available at many participating businesses so pedestrians can learn about the project as they stroll Main Street.

Dr. Robak examines a brick near the kiln at Peter Knickerbocker's Spider's Nest Pottery Studio.

Artisans such as Pete Knickerbocker of Spider’s Nest Pottery or Keuka College Professor Emeritus Dexter Benedict of Fireworks Foundry were also part of the exploration. Benedict sculpts works of bronze, using oxygen (O), aluminum (Al) and lots of copper (Cu) in the process. Meanwhile, Knickerbocker makes use of elements including cobalt (Co), iron (Fe), chromium (Cr), and also copper (Cu) in his pottery.

“I had no idea that a potter could tailor and design not only his or her own glazes, but the clay itself, and (Pete) was able to manipulate those elements in order to set himself apart in his field,” Longyear described.

While Longyear served as primary photographer, a few elements, such as hydrogen, posed a challenge to shoot because they can only be seen when reacting with another element, he said. In those cases, it was a challenge to “tell the story,” he said.

But Mother Nature also offered a few elements as well, which the duo incorporated into the project, including images of bones for calcium, the night sky (space) for hydrogen, and a sunset at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge to represent helium, Longyear explained.


“Every day we use elements from the earth. You can look at the Periodic Table and see a number and a name, but if you really dig into it, it’s really cool,” Longyear said.

Watercraft Wonders: Building a Boat Community-Style

A boat whose style hearkens back to the time of the Vikings, more than 1,000 years ago, is finding new life on Keuka Lake. Through a community craftsmanship program offered in the spring of 2014, Keuka College students and local residents had a hand – literally – in bringing the boat to life.

The 22-foot-long beauty now on display in Lightner Gallery in Lightner Library at Keuka College, boats a gleaming royal blue hull, with crisp white and wood interiors. Members of the public are invited to join those from the campus community at a celebration reception, to be held from 4:30 – 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 11. Light refreshments will be served. A showcase of images, ship-building terms, and historic attributes will guide guests through a visual timeline of the build. This special exhibit will continue through April 10.

The C-shaped wood clamps used to hold portions of the hull together are similar to those used in the Viking era.

Built by hand over six months on the campus of Keuka College, the St. Ayles skiff is a modern re-crafting of a boat first designed by the Vikings, circa 800 A.D., then imported from Norway to the Shetland Islands during the 1800s. The Shetland Islands lie halfway between Norway and Scotland, and these skiffs originally served as fishing boats along treacherous tidal areas in the North Sea. According to folklore, three men at the oars of the skiff were sure to reach their destination no matter the weather.

Now, thanks to a resurgence of community rowing and crafting programs worldwide since 2009, its popularity reaches far beyond its origin, and builds for some 200 of these historic boats are in the works. Hull 93, a reference to the 93rd such build, was commissioned by the Finger Lakes Museum & Aquarium, with support from Keuka College. Grant funding provided through NYS Council on the Arts and the Yates Community Endowment Fund made it possible for three College students to join community members during the build.

Craig Hohm led participants through the 6-month craftsmanship program.

Each Saturday, participants gathered in the College garage near the facilities plant to work on the watercraft, under the direction of Keuka Park resident Craig Hohm, a retired ER physician, who guided the labor of taking the skiff from wood kit to watercraft. When nearly complete, final touches were added, including a Viking-like lettering of the boat’s name along the top plank of the boat, known as the sheerstrake. Named for the animal who returned to the Finger Lakes region after a 100-year absence, the Otter had its maiden launch on Keuka Lake in August.

The Otter on Launch Day in August.

Panashe Matambanadzo, a native of Zimbabwe and a junior environmental science major spent four weekends last semester helping to glue segments together to create the base of the boat and crafting the old-fashioned oars.

“It was a great learning process,” she said with a smile.  “Where I come from, only [boat] guides would do such work.”

Halfway through the build with some of the students and community members who helped put her together.

Sophomore Eric Yax, a native of Guatemala, also participated in the craftsmanship program and said he felt welcomed as Hohm shared his boat-building expertise. While Yax recently switched his major from environmental science to political science, he enjoys projects involving nature and the outdoors.

Even the oars for the boat were crafted by hand.

The build was “very interesting,” Yax said, expressing gratitude for a new experience through hands-on learning. “There is nothing better than learning by doing.”

For his part, Hohm is thrilled more members of the community can see and experience the results of the unique collaborative building project through the exhibit.

“It’s hard to improve on a near-perfect design that’s almost 1,000 years old,” Hohm said.

During the public reception, any students who are interested in opportunities for a possible rowing program utilizing the Otter will be able to sign up to receive more information as the collaboration between the College and Museum continues.

Comics Workshop, Exhibit Paves Way for New Course

Image copyright Dave Chisholm, 2013

After studying like mad for a doctoral test at Eastman School of Music, jazz trumpeter Dave Chisholm decided he needed a new outlet for his creative energy. So he spent February through December of 2013 writing and illustrating a 204-page graphic novel. Then he set its seven chapters to music – composing a full-length soundtrack of seven songs to pair with it.

Chisholm's 204-page graphic novel sets comics to original music throughout seven chapters.

Now, 26 panels from this book, “Instrumental,” will be displayed in a gallery exhibit for his one-man show, “Music Meets Comics,” which runs October 27 – December 5 at Lightner Gallery in Lightner Library. An artist reception where light refreshments will be served will be held Thursday, Oct. 30 from 4:30-6 p.m. Earlier that week, Chisholm will also host a comics workshop at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28 on the second floor of Allen Hall. The exhibit and workshop will serve as a teaser for a coming spring semester course Chisholm will teach as a visiting professor at Keuka College.

“Anytime you do a class like this, people may think ‘How would I draw Batman?’ but really we’re telling stories in pictures and words. In reality, comics are just a medium for telling any story,” Chisholm said.

For many, superheroes serve as the initial gateway into comics, Chisholm said, describing his early interest as a child in the pulp iconography of familiar favorites of the genre. But it didn’t take long for him to move from interest in the superheroes to those drawing the superheroes, to think about their process and how they might think about translating a narrative idea to a 22-page series of drawings with words.

Chisholm's first graphic novel

With three degrees in music, including a doctorate in jazz trumpet, Chisholm says his day job is “all things music, with comics thrown in.” In addition to trumpet, he also plays guitar, piano, bass and drums and sings, too. He teaches music lessons and is also an adjunct music instructor at Keuka College. He toured the Western U.S. with a rock band in the years between his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and some of his adventures became part of his first graphic novel, “Let’s Go to Utah” which he described as “inspired by the craziness of touring … where it’s all spread out and you drive through the desert for hours and hours and kind of lose your mind a bit.”

Come spring, Chisholm will be running a full-semester, three-credit course through the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts on comics. Students will explore hands-on the detailed work of traditional ink-on-paper comic book creation. According to Chisholm, the course will cover the finer points of comic book panel composition, page composition, working with scripts, lettering, and character/environment design. The overarching goal of the entire course is training students in clear, communicative, sequential storytelling, he said.

“I’m interested in the mechanics of comics, meaning, how do you pace a story over eight pages? How do you put it together?” Chisholm said, describing a potential panel sequence where a man finds a key lying on the ground, uses it to open a nearby door, and a lion jumps out at him.

A 3-panel page from Chisholm's dark comic "Instrumental" (copyright Dave Chisholm, 2013)

“Is the key important? Is the man important? Will we show reactions on his face, or are we using words to show what he’s thinking? It becomes this incredibly rigorous intellectual exercise to communicate any idea or narrative in comics form. It has almost infinite possibilities and that’s inspiring to me,” he said.

Another example he cites is the work “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” by Josh Neufeld which documents life and times in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

“He did research, went down several times and kept in touch with people and he happened to tell this story in the medium of comics as opposed to a novel or documentary,” Chisholm explained.

If students were to follow elements of Chisholm’s approach of integrating music into comics, they might start with an exercise of illustrating lyrics, he said, citing Queen’s iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” as example.

“So if the lyrics state: ‘Mama, just killed a man/Put a gun against his head/Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead,’ how do we show this? Is he on the phone with his mom, calling from prison, telling her this stuff? Is it told in flashback?” Chisholm asked.

Image copyright Dave Chisholm, 2013

By the time the course concludes next May, students will each have written and/or drawn 24 character sketches, 24 environment sketches, a 1-panel strip, a 1-page comic, and a 2-3-page comic “book” for the final project, he said. All final project comic books will share a similar theme and will be printed in a collective anthology by the end of the semester.

For more information on registering for the course, students can contact the registrar’s office or visit http://registrar.keuka.edu

Artists Come Together for “Clay Connection”

Collaborative work by Richard Aerni & Carolyn Dilcher-Stutz.

Faith Benedict was looking for a way to inspire the growing number of students in her ceramics class at Keuka College, and the result is a new exhibit: “Clay Connection,” featuring the work of eight regional potters and sculptors from Rochester to Syracuse.

Although most of the artists don’t personally know one another, they have in common a passion for creating art from the same original element: clay. And though each piece began in the same form—as a wet, misshapen lump—the variety of shapes, sizes, colors and uses of the pieces that result reflects the distinct styles and skills of each artist and further contrast just how dynamic clay itself can be.

The array of pieces now adorning new gallery space in Lightner Library even features a handful of collaborative works where two artists teamed together to display the contrast possible between large-scale pottery and small-scale sculpture. While Richard Aerni of Rochester fashioned the foundational jars or pedastals of each piece, Carolyn Dilcher-Stutz, also of Rochester, designed the intricate, hand-sized animals – birds, a deer – atop each one.

Whimsical teapot crafted by John Smolenski

Nearby, other animals, particularly fish, serve as whimsical, cheery handles on several teapots crafted by John Smolenski of Skaneateles. The former Keuka College professor attended the School of American Craftsman at Rochester Institute of Technology, then served as artistic mentor to Benedict and other students during her undergraduate years before he went on to teach high school art in Skaneateles.

The “Clay Connection” exhibit also features the work of husband-and-wife artists Ann Bliss and Steve Pilcher of Butternut Pottery in Jamesville, N.Y., along with Peter Valenti, and David Webster, both of Skaneateles, and Peter Gerbic of Middlesex. Light refreshments will be served at the artists’ reception held from 4:30 – 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4 at the gallery inside Lightner Library, with a brief artists talk from Smolenski on the craft, starting at 5 p.m. The reception is open to the public and the gallery is open daily during library hours.

According to Benedict, her personal connections with potters such as Smolenski led to new connections with additional potters and sculptors until she had gathered eight masters of the craft. The show includes artists using traditional methods of firing high-temperature stoneware, as well as some who use a single-firing technique.

An earthenware piece by Gerbic

Peter Gerbic of South Hill Pottery in Middlesex has been working with clay since 1964 when he first started at the American School of Craftsmen at RIT, where he trained under the tutelage of renowned sculptor Frans Wildenhain. While initially trained in functional pottery, Gerbic said, like his “master” Wildenhain, he eventually moved into sculpture, even murals, which retain the same, brick-colored hue as the earthenware in which he specializes. Even its name, terra cotta, correlates to its nature as “baked earth.”

“At the moment, I’m doing straight sculpture, which means lots of curves, at least the way I do it,” Gerbic said with a chuckle. “My emphasis is more on the sculptural elements – the bark on trees, the way sand or snow moves from the wind, human body forms, fruit forms, the way a stream is etched by the water, rocks that have been sandblasted, or water itself. I’m trying to create my own interpretation with the bedrock of Great Nature behind me.”

Gerbic’s works also include some ceremonial pieces, which he described as “my interpretation of Native forms and designs and representations that speak to larger dimension of our life.”

A work by David Webster

According to Benedict, seeing what other artists are doing, with the same material she works with, will inspire her, not only as a fellow craftsman, but as a teacher.

“It’s important for the students to understand that every one says something different with their work – what is your voice? We’re all on different paths and experience different things,” said Benedict, drawing a contrast between her own functional pottery –plates, bowls, mugs and such – and the bronze or clay sculptures for which her husband, Professor Emeritus of Art Dexter Benedict, is known.

“No two of us are the same,” she said. “When we’re talking about the connection at Keuka College, I think that’s what is exciting about an organization, where you have all this diversity, this common bond of wanting to learn. It’s our glue”

The Art of Chemistry

Kat Andonucci and Dr. Andy Robak, associate professor of chemistry (Photo by Erik Holmes '13)

Start with a science lab. Add one chemistry professor with self-described “wacky interests.” Introduce a visual and verbal art major with a passion for photography and painting. Mix together a variety of chemistry experiments and have the student capture them on camera or canvas. What do you get?

The Art of Chemistry, an exploration into the beauty and form caused by a variety of chemical reactions.

Robak's hand pours a luminol solution into a narrow glass tube over a 15-second exposure (Photo by Kat Andonucci '13)

Student photographer Kat Andonucci completed a year-long independent study under the guidance of Dr. Andrew Robak, associate professor of chemistry. With Robak casting the vision and directing her in each experiment, Andonucci crafted the compositions, often using a tripod, a remote shutter and a long exposure to create the images.

“We wanted to treat it as a course, the chemistry of things that are neat to look at, to have a clue what they were,” Robak said, pointing out how many science textbooks use photography to illustrate experiments. The two received a $500 grant from Keuka College’s Division of Academic Affairs to help cover costs of printing and framing the images.

Glycerol makes glass objects dipped into it appear to disappear. (Photo by Kat Andonucci '13)

When Robak went in search of a student who could help illustrate experiments that would show “the fun side of chemistry,” he contacted Melissa Newcomb, assistant professor of art. Newcomb referred him to Andonucci, sparking the creative collaboration.

“I’ve always been interested in chemistry as art or science as art. You can see from the pictures that a lot of stuff I work with is really cool,” said Robak, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He rattled off a variety of compounds, from mercury, with its shiny metallic texture that is “really fun to play with,” to flourescein, which turns neon-green when in contact with water, to glycerol, which refracts light in a way that seems to make objects submersed in it disappear.

The hand of Erik Holmes '13, holding methane gas bubbles, a quick-second experiment shot by Andonucci '13.

Andonucci had to be sure to take several shots of each experiment, capturing images on camera as experiments were conducted several times in a row. She brought fellow visual and verbal art major Erik Holmes ’13 into the process, putting him to work as a hand model in some of the images.

Robak managed to convince Holmes to paint a graffiti mural on a concrete wall.  The mural illustrated the chemical structure of concrete itself, and gave Robak an idea for a second creative collaboration with Andonucci.  The two teamed up again on a project to create the letter code of select elements of the Periodic Table with paint created from each of the scientific elements themselves. Another Academic Excellence Initiatives grant funded this second project.

Andonucci paints the symbol for Lead.

According to Robak, all of the pigments Andonucci used to paint the periodic table symbols contain the elements.

Egyptian blue in solid form, before baking to convert it to powder form to then mix into a paint.

Using stand-alone 12×12 canvas squares painted with each element, Andonucci arranged them to hang so that some of the squares appear to be raised and some depressed, creating a more dynamic artwork. As such, the oversize work, she described as “an abstract kind of 3-D Periodic Table” could serve as a permanent reference source in a classroom or lab. In fact, the piece served as the backdrop for a National Pi Day event. Meanwhile, several of Andonucci’s images are now gracing the walls within the science center as permanent installations.

“I’ve got too many ideas and not enough artists,” Robak said. “I’m totally looking for more people to rope into these kinds of things.”