Childhood – How it can inspire direction

Jen Lewin – Childhood – How rich environment inspires direction and passion in life.

How did it all get started? I grew up on Maui, my mom was an artist and a dancer and my dad was a doctor so there was this great combination of art and science and it was Maui in the seventies. We had really cool people that would come over to our house, people like Buckminster Fuller who was a really prolific and amazing man who came up with ideas around the geodesic dome, another person was Bill Mollison who invented permaculture, so I grew up I this incredibly rich environment that involved a lot of science and a lot of art in this environment that is Maui which is exquisite and beautiful so it was sort of like a super blessed childhood.

I made art from the time I could talk and walk and it was in every different kind of realm writing music, singing, to dancing, painting, art was something I breathed and my childhood was really full of dance, it was a very rich environment that involved a lot of arts. But there was another side of me, the science side, I was very good at math and very good at computers even at the time computers were just slowly integrating into academic programs, I learned some computer programming languages as a third grader.

I was part of this really cool initial study where they pushed a program called Logo into the elementary schools and I was one of the original studies and this transformed me, for me it was very impactful, I learned that I could use math and science on computer and I could actually make art a combination between the two. I was also a dancer, I was a classically trained ballet dancer and for me there was something about ballet which was this interesting balance between extreme, rigid, methodical, structured, training and you know, work and also you weren’t very good at it you also had this artistic expression, that kind of balance between a rigid framework and art, an organic kind of, it reminded me of computer programming quite frankly because it was structure but you could do great creative things with it.

That was really me childhood, and buy the time I was a teenager I really was dancing, I was making things, I was performing and living within that world. When I was eighteen and graduated from high school, I did not know what to with myself I was lost, completely lost. I did not know if I wanted to go into engineering and computer science or if I wanted to be an artist or a filmmaker, I mean I was completely lost and so what I did was sort of become a gyspy, I went to school, I dropped out, I went to school, I dropped out, I live in LA, I lived in Australia and my parents were actually a little bit concerned, I drove all over the place and many wild and crazy experiences, I sort of lived life.

Eventually I figured out I could study architecture, and why I choose architecture was it was right smack in between, if you think about it there was the art school there was the engineering school and right in between was architecture and I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have a love for architecture, I knew I was never going to practice as an architect but I love the fact that I could learn both mechanical engineering, engineering, math, science but also art to this day I think that architecture is one of the true liberal arts educations because you do both,

So I did that and I loved it, I absolutely flourished in it and designed all these crazy things and started creating models and creating buildings that moved and were animatronic and the next thing I knew I was learning electronics so I could make things animatronic and make models move, it just sort of steamrolled, it was such a great environment for me.

What happened at that point had a little to do with timing in the sense that it was the nineties and the tech boom was happening, and because through all my natural inclinations and different studies I started doing more computer programming and got really good on the side with things that had to do with software and computing, and at that time everyone was going to Pal Alto and working on computing so if I’m going to do this I might as well go to Pal Alto, so I ended up in Pal Alto before the big boom and I worked there and I did really well. I was very attractive to a lot of companies because I had this artistic side and I had this computer side so they could put me in this creative director position and I could talk to the engineers, I could talk to the artists, I could do both.

But I was completely miserable because I was in one of those dark, windowless offices with just men frankly, I have to be honest, and there was no light and everything I made was on a screen and it felt really empty to me and I had this really amazing moment where, it was really late at night, about four in the morning, and I was looking at this project that I spent so much time doing, and I’m looking at it, it’s finished and on the screen and I’m copying it to a media device and it felt so empty to me, I kind of stepped back from it and thought I need to make real things, they need to be real, I need to touch them, I need to use my body I just needed to be more connected to it.

So I started looking at graduate programs and I found a really interesting graduate program at NYU called ITP, it’s part of the Tish School of the Arts, and there were two programs I looked at I looked at that and I looked at the media program, and the media lab felt a little too academic for me and the ITP felt like a place I could go and just play and so I applied and I got a great fellowship to go there.

I moved to New York a year later and the very first thing I did when I showed up there is I made a laser harp, and this was like a uh-huh moment for me because it was  like oh my god, I just needed something that had sound and dance and some theater, and it had computing, it was sort of everything together at one moment, it was sort of trippy which was like my childhood in Maui so it was kind of like everything together in one place and I’ve never looked back. I’ve been building projects like that since that are very much integrated between art and technology and connected between two.

It was tricky, how do I turn that into a career, what do I do with it, you get pulled in different directions, I get pulled really aggressively in the engineering direction because that’s where the money is, that’s where you can make a good livelihood, and yet I have so much love for the arts, how to build a lucrative career in the arts is very tricky and very complicated so mitigating that and figuring that out and finding that balance is something I struggle with daily but I’m figuring it out as I go on.