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Spotlight on Savannah Niles (B.F.A. Studio Art, '13)

Art major Savannah Niles explores the intersection of art and engineering while remaining involved in the community.

by Andrew Kaufmann

In many ways, Savannah Niles embodies the next-generation artist: She combines aesthetics and art with computer science and engineering, and she commits much of her time to contributing back to the Dallas community.

When asked how she finds time for all her interests, Niles explains that she follows a tried-and-true college tradition: “I don’t sleep much.”

Her degree plan acts as the starting point for examining her talent diversification. She is working on a major in art, a major in creative computation and a minor in computer science.

As comfortable with a block of C++ or Java code as she is with a paintbrush or block of clay, Niles dispels any outdated cultural notions that suggest the fine arts and the sciences don’t mix. To her, the combination of coding, engineering and art makes perfect sense.

“I feel like my work is in between the art and engineering worlds,” she says. “Art and science don’t belong on opposite ends of the universe.” Niles’ current project draws from both of those worlds. She has built a homemade 3D scanner using an Arduino circuit board as a brain, a turntable as a motor and a combination of a webcam and laser level as eyes. The webcam and laser level sit on the turntable, and as it turns, a program written in the Processing computer language reports values taken by the webcam along the x and y axes in space. Skews in the line created by the laser level are viewed by the webcam and represent a change in depth, creating the data for the z axis. OpenCV software generates a text file report of the room, which is then fed into Rhino 3D software.

The end result is a plotted, abstract representation of the room, which Niles describes as “surprisingly accurate.”

Theorists would ask, is the artwork the plotted representation of the room? Or the data that’s fed into Rhino? Or is it the machine itself? To Niles, the answer is all of the above, although a work-in-progress.

“I enjoy making work that’s a response to a space. This machine lets me do that while exploring the line between digital and material,” Niles says.

Outside of the artistic laboratory, Niles is involved in SMU’s West Dallas initiatives as part of Adjunct Professor Bernie Diaz’s “Art as Social Practice” class, where she teaches middle school students on a weekly basis. Her role as a teacher varies; she works with the kids, helps critique their work, and mentors them by having conversations and by being a positive influence.

Not content to slow down, Niles says that she wants to continue exploring 3D space in the combined art and engineering realm. She is continuing to tweak and improve her 3D scanner, and has her eye on the next logical step: creating a homebrew 3D printer.

Even if it does take a few sleepless nights.

For more information on Niles visit

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