Arthur Ganson is an artist and an engineer. Now he's also a bear with fuzzy brown ears.
Ganson, a former MIT artist-in-residence whose kinetic sculptures are on long-term display at the MIT Museum, has a new medium for his work -- animation, courtesy of the PBS cartoon show "Arthur." An episode interweaving Ganson's character with the cartoon cast was produced by WGBH-TV in Boston and first aired on Dec. 24, 2003. It's slated for repeat showings on Wednesday, March 3 at 7 a.m. and Thursday, March 4 at 4 p.m.
In the episode titled "Muffy's Art Attack," Muffy's father takes her to see an exhibit of Ganson's work as a way of boosting her artistic appreciation. The spoiled Muffy is unimpressed, even though her father purchases Ganson's "Machine With Wishbone" for his den. ("It brings to mind the tragicomic works of Samuel Beckett -- a tiny figure forever yoked to its burden of absurdity," the curator says to Muffy's father.) Muffy decides to build her own knockoff sculptures out of junk, but learns that art is a lot more meaningful when it's created out of sincere self-expression rather than competitiveness.
Every year, "Arthur" features a special guest, which in the past has included cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Mr. Rogers. "This year we wanted to center a show around appreciation of art, and we really wanted a visual artist for a guest," said executive producer Pierre Valette. "Ganson's work is very playful, very visual, very accessible to kids. And it could translate to animation well, which is important to us."
Ganson was a bit reluctant at first, but he warmed to the idea, eventually approving the script and providing his character's voice-over. The writers told Ganson which of his pieces they wanted to include, and he sent them text and short videos showing how the parts moved. The finished show accurately depicts several Ganson sculptures in action. The producers also filmed at the MIT Museum for an "interstitial" -- the short live-action sequences that run between episodes of "Arthur."
Although the cartoon Arthur is an aardvark, the animated Ganson, like most guests, is a bear -- in this case, one with a mustache and stained work overalls. "He was very happy with how he turned out," Valette said.
When the episode first aired in December, Ganson was unprepared for the reaction. "I got calls from friends all over the country who were shocked when their little kids started yelling, 'Mommy! Mommy! Arthur's on TV!'" he said. "More kids know about me as a bear than as a person. It's kind of cool, actually."
Ganson has done work for children before. He is the creator of the award-winning Toobers and Zots, a set of bendable foam pieces in abstract shapes that can be assembled into almost anything.
For details about the MIT Museum's Ganson exhibit, see http://web.mit.edu/museum/exhibits/ganson.html.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 25, 2004.