Meet the Maker: Jody Culkin

Priya KuberApril 4th, 2013

Jody Culkin

Imagine being an artist with an insane desire to learn the tools that would set your art apart, that would inspire you to create something closest to your imagination. Imagine a burning desire improve the lives of others with all the skills that you have. Imagine, being Jody Culkin.

Jody started her career with Technical Photography at the Medical Department of New York University, an art form that is long lost in today’s world of Instagram and digital photography. A course taken on Physical Computing in 1998 at the age of 45 at ITP, NYU to learn electronics and coding, pushed her to be the maker that she is today. She is currently teaching a course in a Community college in New York. She is also an avid sculptor, an artist, a comics maker, a welder and many more things that marks a true maker. An exclusive interview with her here would take you closer to the world of makers.

Priya: What is your oldest memory as a geek and a maker? Also what were the first experiments that got you started in electronics?

Jody: I remember my junior high school days when we were taught about computers yet never got to work on one. Me and my friend used to exchange notes in ASCII art with pencil on paper. Also I had been making small functional objects like a table and lamps.

The first circuits were really simple with a play of many switches. I loved to use switches for so many different things.

Priya: How was the transition from being an artist to an electronics maker? Which, according to you, is the better way to go?
Jody: I think ideas need to be more clearer than only electronics, for that you need to be a designer. Otherwise I see a lot of designers getting help for electronics in the art world.

Priya: I am a huge fan of the Arduino comic strip that you did years back for arduino. What inspired you to do that? Are you working on more such comics?

Jody: Back in 2009, during a summer camp at ITP, I wanted to express whatever I had understood very clearly. So I decided to document it using a comic strip for others too. What you might observe in the comic, is that there is a central character telling the story, it is not only electronics and wires, which is an essential part to make it appealing in any comic.

Yes, I did some work for a breadboard workshop organized by Make. I would also like to do some work on CSS and JavaScript.

Priya: Wait wait.. You code JavaScript?

Jody: Yes, I started with Code Academy, they have some really great lessons to get you started with.

Priya: Impressive! What are the tools, might you suggest to be the essentials for any designer aspiring to add electronics to the art?

Jody: The tools I would suggest are Arduino, Processing, JS, also I liked MAXmsp interface, other random stuff like Digital multimeter, screw driver, basic sensors etc.

Priya: As an artist what are your most commonly used sensors? Also do you have to use general purpose PCBs or get it custom made?

Jody: I use photocells a lot. I also like IR sensors and Force sensitive Resistors, as they are pretty easy to interface. Regarding PCBs, I have always used breadboards. For some reason, they have always held up pretty strong.

Priya: What drives you? And what advice do you have to make it big in the world of Interactive Designs?

Jody: Curiosity drives me. I love putting different stuff together and observing the final results. Like one of my installations is a self turning-pages book, an added functionality of turning the pages via web was interesting.

To be a designer, one should learn to express things in a simple way. A majority of time should be spent working. Apart from that, networking is a must. Try to hang out with the designers whose work you get inspired by. People like to see works of different designers under the same roof. So try to improve your work to get in the grove with them.

Priya: Very insightful. What are your latest works that you would like to talk about these days?

Jody: There was a show at Florida, at the Boca Raton Museum of Art – I had some displays on fashion there. Also had a presentation on the way comics can be used to explain technology. I was working on a Lasersaur build with Eric Hagan, which is an open source laser cutter project started by Nortd labs at ITP at NYU.

Priya: Lastly, how does it feel to be a woman in tech doing electronics and art together? How did it feel back at the university? What is your current passion?

Jody: It feels great and empowering. T, The strength in the university was 50-50 for men and women. However, I observed that the men were putting in more efforts to learn in Physical Computing, whereas the women were more into web development. I wished women participated more. Tom, really supported and guided me well.

Currently, my passion is to teach the diverse students attending the Community College. Yes, some are very well prepared, some are not, but then, that is where a teacher’s true test of creativity lies.

Thank you for your time Jody!

(All of her work has been documented here.)

9 Responses to “Meet the Maker: Jody Culkin”

  1. Jody Culkin Says:

    Thank you, Priya, for such a lively profile. One thing, in regards to your last question, I would just like to make sure its clear that while there were more men than women working in physical computing at ITP at NYU when I was a student, the women working in this area were some of the strongest and hardest working students in the program. Some continued to work in this area and are currently leaders in the field. Women were encouraged and supported by the faculty and staff at ITP to develop their work in whatever areas their interests might take them.

    Thanks again.

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