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Amenda Tate Turns Dance Movement Into Paintings With Help From Robot

Jul 23, 2019

DES MOINES – It happens every week in performance halls across the country.

People find their seats, the lights dim and the curtain goes up. Over the next few hours, dancers and audience members share an experience that lives in the moment and then it’s gone forever.

But Iowa Artist Fellow Amenda Tate has found a way to capture and interpret those magical moments in real time with paint on canvas. Her work is now on display through Dec. 31 in the Iowa Women's Art Exhibition in the Governor's Office at the State Capitol.

“I always wanted to do something to capture the sense of movement,” she said. “But I didn’t want to do something that was just inspired by ballet. I wanted to be a part of what they were doing and immersed in what they were doing.”

With bachelor degrees in mechanical engineering and fine arts, she invented a robot called “Manibus,” which means “from the hand” in Latin.

Essentially, it’s a mechanical brush on wheels that responds to motion sensors placed on dancers’ arms. When the dancers move, the brush moves in sync with them. Acrylic paint runs through a felt tip and onto the canvas. Tate controls the robot through a Bluetooth connection on her cellphone.

“The whole process is like becoming a record of the moment in time, capturing the energy that is transmitted during a live performance,” she said. “The project captures the movement and that turns the medium into a new art form.”

She put Manibus to the test recently during a six-week residency at Ballet Des Moines.

“At first, I didn’t know what (the paintings were) going to be,” she said. “I wondered if it would work and I was concerned it would make a really ugly painting. But the four paintings came as the dancers were rehearsing for 'Snow White.' They were very excited to be part of it.”

While Manibus is a mechanical robot, Tate said the works are based on human interaction.

“Technology is so pervasive in our lives,” she said. “This is a way to embrace it and keep humanity in the arts. It blurs the creation of art with the digital world and performance, and it's framing the performance in a new way.”

She said her biggest challenge is making sure she’s using Manibus to tell a story that is authentic and true to herself.

“‘What’s the art?’” she asked rhetorically. “Is it the product or the process? Either one is okay on their own but both together tell a richer story.

Ultimately, she said, Manibus is about finding the balance between spontaneity and control.

“It happens in real time and it is what it is,” she said. “It’s about letting go of what you're doing and letting it capture the magic of the moment.”

Iowa Women’s Art Exhibition: “Manibus” by Amenda Tate
Governor’s Office, State Capitol
July 1 - Dec. 31, 2019
Monday-Friday, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. (by appointment only)
Saturday, 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. (by appointment only)

Admission: Free. Call 515-281-5211 in advance to make an appointment.

The Iowa Women's Art Exhibition is overseen by the Iowa Arts Council in partnership with the Governor's Office. The Iowa Arts Council is a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.