Student combines art, engineering

Computer science senior Austin Granger’s video of his creation went viral in September.

Computer science major Austin Granger's latest structure, currently a work in progress, created with K'NEX parts Monday at his home in St. Paul, Minn. Granger has worked on this project, as of yet unnamed, for the last three weeks and has already used over 12,000 pieces.

Ichigo Takikawa

Computer science major Austin Granger’s latest structure, currently a work in progress, created with K’NEX parts Monday at his home in St. Paul, Minn. Granger has worked on this project, as of yet unnamed, for the last three weeks and has already used over 12,000 pieces.

Rebecca Harrington

Tucked away in a St. Paul home, a cozy 10-by-12 foot bedroom has long been defined by the clicking plastic, whizzing balls and flashing lights that line its walls.

Over the past 22 years, it has become a place where engineering meets art and Austin Granger’s imagination runs free.

Granger, a computer science senior at the University of Minnesota, has used tens of thousands of K’NEX building toys to craft large-scale working machines since he was a young boy. Those closest to him say the passion reveals the artist within the engineer.

His most recently completed machine, “Clockwork” — a 40,000-piece contraption that spanned his entire bedroom — went viral on YouTube in September and now has more than 2.1 million views.

The video follows pingpong-sized balls through the 450-foot track of a structure that resembles a Mouse Trap board game. The balls travel the twists and turns of track, encountering a series of chain reactions including lever arms and a mechanical crane as they go.

A mere hour passed between the deconstruction of “Clockwork” and Granger’s new project, which he said should be complete this summer.

Granger works on his projects in short, productive bursts. He and a friend assembled 5,000 pieces for the latest machine the first night, but Granger hasn’t done much construction since.

Growing up, Granger asked for K’NEX for every Christmas and birthday. His mother, Renee Bergeron, said he quickly tired of LEGOS and other
building toys but saw endless potential in what he could do with K’NEX.

Bergeron said her son has always had an engineer’s sensibility but an artist’s approach to his projects.

“I would bring food up to wherever he was building the thing and often it would go untouched,” she said.

Even as he watches television, Granger has K’NEX pieces in his hands. He said he likes to idly fiddle with them to generate ideas on where a project should go next.

“As I go through the day, I’ll suddenly realize how to solve a problem,” Granger said.

When he’s working on the simpler parts of a machine, Granger said he likes to watch old Star Trek episodes. But when he’s working on the more complicated components, he prefers to work in complete silence.

Bergeron said she tried to get him to use other materials like wood or steel, but he only wanted to use K’NEX because it was familiar.

He has finally changed his mind and is taking a sculpture class this semester.

Granger constructed a sculpture of swirled blue, red and green steel and electromagnetic wire that makes a high-pitched whining noise when it lights up. He said he wants to take the sculpture apart so he can use the wire in his machine.

Wayne Potratz, Granger’s sculpture professor, said his way of incorporating engineering into art is becoming increasingly common in modern art.

“He seems to be a very dedicated, hardworking student,” he said. “It’d be interesting to see where he takes this.”

Granger composes his own music on his computer for his YouTube videos. Bergeron, a public defender, said Granger’s musical talent comes from his father, Adam, who is a musician.

Granger said his dream job is to one day build these large machines and projects for the K’NEX brand.

Computer science is his backup plan.

“I used to think that Austin’s destiny was to be an engineer, but I’m really not sure of that anymore,” Bergeron said. “I think he has a lot of talent and an artist’s eye and an artist’s sensibility.”rr