Eskinder Abebe fuses passion for art and science with creative computation
Eskinder Abebe’s eyes light up when you ask about his favorite project. He has many to choose from: He is pursuing two degrees at the same time, a bachelor’s in creative computing and a master’s in design and innovation. There are his personal projects, which include drawing and coding futuristic gadgets, assorted data visualizations and comic books. Then there are his multiple projects at SMU’s Hunter and Stephanie Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity. When asked which project is his favorite, he jumps to the tablet. “This is where I get excited,” he says. “I’m designing an an 'inclusive' tablet for the Hunt Institute. It’ll be inexpensive - maybe $15 or so - for people living in poor and rural areas.”
Abebe works at the Hunt Institute as a project analyst. He is one of a small selection of SMU students working with Hunt staff on projects such as clean water solutions, sustainable agriculture and affordable shelter, among others. In addition to working on the tablet, Abebe has created an online forum, logo and promotional materials for the institute’s “Huntalks” program, which promotes research and ideas with social impact, particularly for the global poor.
Abebe’s passion for art began when he was a child growing up in Ethiopia. He attended a high school operated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, where he learned about ancient sacred art. He spent his summers going to art workshops at Addis Ababa University’s Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, and applied to the university to study fine arts. He was accepted to the university, but was told he would have to study business and economics instead.
“The politics of education in Ethiopia almost forced me to forfeit my dreams,” says Abebe. “Prospective students are not necessarily accepted into fields of study that match their educational preparation and passion. Instead, through a highly controversial and discriminatory process called the ‘talent distribution system,’ the government ultimately decides the fate of student studies.”
Abebe appealed the decision. The appeal process stretched out over months and delayed his admission, but he eventually was approved to study painting at Alle. His time there was brief; he and his mother and father moved to the United States in 2011.
Embracing American education and opportunities
Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Abebe entered Richland College, where he dove headlong into his studies. He started an art blog and frequently posted his digital works, sketches and paintings. He began winning art contests at Richland and was soon taken under the wing of Dwayne Carter, lead faculty member of Richland’s Multimedia Learning Center. Working as a teacher’s assistant for Professor Carter, Abebe helped students with Photoshop and animation, and he created a poster for the Multimedia Learning Center’s digital arts festival. The poster, titled “Interface,” was his first public work to merge art and digital technology.
"Interface" poster, designed for 2014 digital arts festival at Richland College.
Artist and educator Michael Morris, whom Abebe met while at Richland and who is now a visiting faculty member at SMU Meadows, encouraged Abebe to consider studying at SMU’s Center of Creative Computation (C3). During a visit to SMU, Abebe was welcomed by Professor Yong Bakos (now a computer science instructor at Oregon State University Cascades) and was invited to sit in on a creative computing class led by Center Director Ira Greenberg. It didn’t take long for Abebe to decide that SMU was where he wanted to be. Thanks to his excellent recommendations and good grades at Richland, Abebe earned an Honor Transfer Scholarship and a Phi Theta Kappa supplemental scholarship to SMU. He entered the creative computation program in 2014.
“I hadn’t done much programming before entering SMU,” he says. “I started from scratch and experienced new subjects, new levels of learning and orientation. I came from the traditional practice of art to the digital practice of art. Creative computing strengthened both sides of my mind – left brain, right brain.”
“Alex [Eskinder’s friends call him Alex] is one of those people whose still waters really do run deep,” says Greenberg of his soft-spoken, focused student. “He has a rich internal vision for the work he creates. I’m often pleasantly startled by his drawings. There’s a lot going on with Alex.”
Abebe says that during his studies at SMU he has gained not only skills but also confidence. He is on track to graduate in December 2018 with both a bachelor’s in creative computing from Meadows and a master’s in design and innovation from Lyle School of Engineering. He plans to apply for a Fulbright scholarship and is interested in studying abroad. He is looking forward to his future.
“My ideal work would be product design and experimental work,” he says. “I am attracted to developing new ideas like VR [virtual reality] and generating concepts for new products. I’d like to work with a company like Frog Design Inc. out of San Francisco.”
While Abebe is skilled at helping people visualize concepts, he is careful to avoid describing himself as a “graphic designer.” “What I do is different than what a graphic designer does,” he explains. “When people think of ‘graphic designer,’ they generally think of someone who focuses their work on advertising. I’m more into designing products and ideas, and using my art skills to help convey the concepts.
“Once you combine art and computer science you can do work that merges engineering, art and design. Companies see those combinations as different and desirable. We have this unique platform to show work. There is a lot to explore, a lot to work on.
“Plus,” he adds, “it’s a lot of fun!”
B.A. in Creative Computing
Eskinder Abebe websites: Videos, blog, comic project, early portfolio site, Facebook, LinkedIn
All images courtesy of Eskinder Abebe