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Together the professor and students are developing a series of ideas and designs for a permanent installation on the roof of the museum using only photovoltaic cells. Ideas proposed include laying the cells out in the shape of land masses on a globe, and the students are excited about the opportunity to work on an installation of this size and visibility.

“Could I have done this project without my class? Yes. But this is an opportunity my students wouldn’t ordinarily get—this is something for their portfolio, and something that will elicit their individual creativity,” Oatman says.

This spring in a studio course called RxBox: Open Source Architecture for a World in Transition, co-taught with Associate Professor Ted Krueger, 15 students converted a retired 8'x8'x20' cargo shipping container into a mobile medical facility that could be used to bring accessible healthcare to developing nations. Based on an idea called “Doc-in-a-Box,” created by global health advocate Laurie Garrett, the transformed container was wired for electricity and fully lit. The repurposed container featured a water filtration system, a corrugated tin roofing system equipped with louvers for protection during inclement weather, a newly tiled floor, and conventional doors and windows.

From Rome to Rensselaer
For the past three years, Oatman has been collaborating with a small group of architecture students to create some of his most acclaimed work. During a 2003 trip to Italy to accompany architecture students who were studying in the school’s Semester in Rome program, Oatman began to share his work with several students, allowing them to help with small tasks on upcoming art projects.

By the time the group returned to Troy, Erin Cusker ’06, Matthew Fickett ’06, and Stephanie Cramer ’06 were playing more integral roles in the creation of Oatman’s projects. Before long the group members became regulars in his studio, spending the summer working intensely on a large-scale installation project called “Conservatory.”

An 18-foot-long greenhouse created from approximately 2,500 glass plate negatives of criminal mug shots from the turn of the 20th century, the construction of “Conservatory” required many months’ worth of labor.

“My installations are sort of novels by a non-writer,” says Oatman. “They are stories that I want to write, but I realize that I’m not a good writer. So I use art to create a scene where you can go to the place physically where I report that things happen, but it’s up to you to put the story in its order, and there is no specific order.”

While Oatman sketched out ideas for the installation, the students began the daunting task of scanning and digitally cataloging nearly 18,000 glass negatives. Soon Oatman started to share his designs for “Conservatory” with them, enlisting their architectural skills to help assemble the edifice. The students designed and fabricated the greenhouse’s steel structure and the panels that covered the walls and ceiling of the space. While valuing their architectural knowledge, Oatman also welcomed their input into the work.

“We tell Michael when things won’t work,” says Fickett, who was responsible for drafting the greenhouse’s renderings. “He wanted to use mirrored Plexiglas for the whole greenhouse in ‘Conservatory,’ and we told him [we didn’t think that was the best design]. When the final project got done, it was a good thing we didn’t use the mirrors.”

The group grew in number when the demands of the projects exceeded what Oatman and his three students were able to do. Over the last two years, the expanding team has worked to create a range of pieces—from an installation and documentary centered around a coin-operated binocular viewer and the question “If you could use this device to see anything, in the past, present or future, a person, living or dead, a historical event, or something that has yet to occur, what would you most desire to see?,” to a full-scale attic and basement installation called “Iceberg,” to a Metropolitan Transit Authority poster commemorating 100 years of motorized buses in New York City.

The name Falling Anvil Studios has extended beyond the physical space in Troy where Oatman and his students create these works of art, to become the group’s name, more evidence of the integral role they’ve played in shaping his work. “The students have been involved in all aspects of the design process, from the conceptualization, to the making of the stuff,” he says. “I started out with the intent of letting these students help me so they could gain some experience, but I ended up really enjoying the kinship I had with them. My projects were different because they’d worked on them.”

Although working with an artist might seem like a stretch for young architects, the students easily draw a strong connection between the two disciplines. “The opportunity to design and construct buildings takes years of education and experience, but artwork can be equally satisfying—and in some cases equally challenging,” says Cusker. “So much of our class work is theoretical or hypothetical and we design things that never get built. Working with Michael I’ve had the opportunity to design and build pieces to full scale. It has been a phenomenal learning experience for me.”

Cramer appreciates the freedom to design that comes with working with Oatman. “Principals in architecture design studios will primarily use us for our skill. They are mostly interested in what we are good at. Michael is actually interested in the way we think.”

With the original team members finishing their college careers, Oatman has begun recruiting a handful of students to work with him as the next generation of Falling Anvil Studios. But that doesn’t mean the graduating seniors have seen the last of their professor and collaborator. Oatman has already dubbed them Floating Anvil Studios, and he plans to keep them involved in upcoming projects.

Sitting in the Greene Building’s Drawing Lab one warm spring day before Commencement, the students talk about what’s next. Some are moving to Philadelphia, some to Boston, one to Germany. All are juggling multiple job prospects.

When asked if they’ll continue to work with Oatman as members of Floating Anvil, Fickett answers for the group. “Michael will have branch offices in every major city,” he says. “We’ll all be on call.”

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