Engineer student changes plans after winning art award

When Noah Walcutt arrived at Vanderbilt to study engineering, he had little or no interest in art. But a chance decision to take an elective course in sculpture led him to create an award-winning design melding his engineering skills, musical interests and new-found artistic creativity into a project that has changed the course of his life after graduation May 9.

As the winner of the $25,000 Margaret Wooldridge Hamblett Award in Studio Art, the senior from Cape Cod has put off his search for post-graduation engineering jobs and will spend the next 12-to-18 months traveling the world exploring musical and artistic ideas. His travel will culminate in an exhibition of new art works created over the next year.

The 8-to-10-foot-tall prize-winning piece is topped by a dome that acts as a soundboard for 20 strings, attached tangentially to the surface. The dome is supported by a 4-foot support so that a patient can stand or sit underneath the soundboard. Striking a computer keyboard from inside the dome activates hammers, similar to those found inside a piano, that strike the strings and resonate along the A-minor harmonic scale.

Walcutt and his fellow project team member, Cindy Hlavacek, also a graduating senior in engineering, envision the project becoming a prototype for a sound therapy instrument to stimulate patients with brain disorders such as autism, Alzheimer’s or brain trauma. “The underlying principle is that sound has the ability to change people consciously and physiologically,” Walcutt said, adding that sound therapy has the benefit of being a non-invasive therapy.

Sitting inside the dome creates a multi-sensory experience where patients can create, hear and feel the chords. “Engaging in the typing to create the music is like play,” Walcutt said. “And play has been shown to be therapeutic.”

After spending two years in the engineering curriculum, Walcutt  was “looking for a creative outlet to engage different areas of learning” when he decided to sign up for the sculpture course with Professor Michael Aurbach.

Initially, Walcutt wanted to expand upon the idea of creating an “escape pod.” “People use an i-pod to carve out personal space in a public area,” he said. But as his project took shape and became more complex — involving carpentry work as well as consulting with electricians and hanging out in guitar shops to get ideas — Walcutt said it morphed into something he could not have initially envisioned.

“It evolved beyond the concept for an escape pod into this prototype for sound therapy,” he said. Walcutt is somewhat bemused by the attention his work has received so far. “I don’t consider myself to be an artist, but I’m getting used to that idea.”

“This was a very ambitious project,” said Aurbach. “It’s nice to see a student represent the best in research and art.” Walcutt took the idea from square one to completion, from conducting the initial research to making decisions about what type of wood would best stretch over the dome to grappling with circuitry design. He also had to find ways to make the finished product look aesthetically pleasing. “He came a long way in the process,” Aurbach said.

Walcutt credits fellow students and teachers for help along the way, including Hlavacek, Downs Reese, a fellow student who contributed to musical and artistic development, Thomas Anderson, who advised him in sound therapy, and Robin Midgett, a Vanderbilt electronics technician, and faculty adviser Paul King, associate professor of biomedical engineering.