Carbon fiber art — unique and fascinating ‘on so many levels’

Scientist, artist, inventor, U.S. Marine and economic developer Jesse Smith says that throughout his career in polymer science and industry, “I was always wanting to create something that hasn’t existed.”

Raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Smith has early memories of accompanying his mom to her art classes.

“She painted lots of cool stuff. Art has always been in our family. And my dad has been an entrepreneur ever since he came back from Vietnam, running his own HVAC business. Selling cold air in southern Mississippi is a very good business during the summer!

“I did watercolors in high school, and we had a super cool art teacher who took us to a ‘starving artist’ show. I remember looking at how remarkable the art was, appreciating how much time and effort it took. But the price tags were like $20 or $30. And I thought, ‘I love doing this, but I don’t want to be a starving anything.’”

After a stint in the Marine Corps, he pursued his other love — science — at the University of Southern Mississippi. He earned an MBA and a degree in polymer science, which enabled him not only to invent products and improve state-of-the-art technical aspects in manufacturing, but also to evaluate and expand their business potential.

But the art bug remained. “There are so many talented artists in the world. I searched for years to be able to do something completely different. I decided to use what I learned in polymer science and industry to create something that no one has done before.”

His chosen medium? Carbon fiber.

A gifted teacher, Smith can impart the singular, significant qualities of carbon fiber to the most clueless layperson.

“Composites are important. The Egyptians used bricks made of straw and mud. In 1200 A.D. the Mongols came up with a composite bow of animal glue and bone. It was the most powerful weapon on the planet until gunpowder. Think of laminates, fiberboard. They’re much stronger than a board cut from a single piece of wood.”

Carbon fiber, says Smith, is the ultimate composite. “It’s a fascinating material on so many levels. It’s like yarn: not one fiber but a bundle of fibers, called the ‘tow.’ The tows are sold as 3, 6, 12, 24, 50K. A 12K tow means there are 12,000 fibers in that bundle, each much smaller than a human hair. That’s where the strength comes from.”

While making a “Carbon Fiber for Dummies” video in 2012, Smith started monkeying around with the material, wrapping it around a Coke bottle. “I basically had made a spring, which I still have.”

Smith was hooked. He tried his first torso — a female. Then he noticed his young daughter Canie trying to do a handstand, calling, “Watch me, Dad!” The sculpture “Watch Me Dad!” was the result, with Canie immortalized in yoga’s scorpion pose.

Next, he created “Tribute to Misty,” based on Black ballerina Misty Copeland, and followed that with a depiction of Pandora opening her … urn. “The story started out as ‘Pandora’s Pithos,’ which means urn or jar, and eventually got translated as ‘box.’” Being a purist, Smith stuck to the original.

The manufacturing of carbon fiber requires extensive know-how, and the wrapping of it requires a mold, or mandrel. Smith won’t reveal his trade secrets — some of which are proprietary to him.

All of which, of course, make it possible for this Maker City Maker to create — at last — “something that cannot be duplicated and has never existed before.”

What’s next? 

“I haven’t decided. Probably a male figure doing something. I need to reassure my wife that I’m not infatuated with Misty Copeland.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Carol Z. Shane

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Published July 9, 2021