When a Part Becomes Art

Gears are gorgeous on their own, but watching the interaction within a gear set is especially intriguing. Read how this artist taught himself to make gears in order to power the drive of an art installment.

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I’ve always considered gears to be works of art. No matter the material or the surface finish, the geometry of a gear, as well as its function, is a beautiful thing to behold.

In all my years spent covering this industry, I’ve worked with art directors and designers to incorporate gear imagery into the designs produced to accompany articles. Sometimes these photos were contributed by the subjects of the feature to be augmented, and other times the image was produced by an artist basically out of whole cloth. This has always happened on a screen, however—until recently.

Jeff Norgord is creative director of Gardner Business Media, (publisher of Modern Machine Shop, Production Machining and MoldMaking Technology, among other print magazines). Like most designers I know, he creates art on his own time as well. Not long ago, he was commissioned by Cincinnati’s Xavier University to create an ambitious work of art focusing on business ethics in a tangible, motion-based piece to be installed in a public space on campus.

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Everything about this artwork was challenging, especially the gear sets Mr. Norgord had to learn how to design and machine (sun gears, carriers, planetary gears, all acrylic and cut via laser machining) that would produce the desired movements and tactical elements so integral to the piece’s message. The project originated when Tim Pennington—editor of Products Finishing, another Gardner publication—brought his daughter, Emily, together with Jeff. She was graduating magna cum laude from the Williams College of Business at Xavier, and her final assignment for the Cintas Institute for Business Ethics—from which she’d received a scholarship—involved working with an artist of her own choosing to devise a project on ethics.

The thing to know about Jeff is that he’s absolutely relentless once he establishes a goal. He began working with Emily to develop concepts, first asking her to give him a list of words having to do with business ethics. Her choices included honesty, transparency and cooperation; she came up with about 150 words in all. The two wanted to convey the interaction of these concepts in creating an ethical business environment. They began to think of a wooden wheel with the word “Ethics” at its hub, surrounded by concentric rings printed with the words they’d developed so that, when a knob was turned, the bands revolved in opposite directions and different concepts came into proximity with one another, depicting the relative and changing nature of a workplace inhabited by people who must interact. Colorful inlaid tiles signified diversity. The resulting artwork—nearly 4 feet in diameter—has a sealed wooden exterior that contains the gear sets and contributes to the mystery of the motion.

I’ve seen gears used for artistic purposes or transformed into art, but to watch Jeff teach himself what he needed to know for gears to drive the intended motion of this artwork was a fascinating experience with impressive results—which are now on display at Xavier University.

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