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Artistic Alchemy: Merging Math, Art, and Innovation with Joe O’Connell

In this captivating episode of Life Along the Streetcar, we journey into the imaginative world of Joe O’Connell, a visionary artist and innovator whose work is redefining the public art scene in Tucson. Joe’s unique approach, merging mathematics, art, and technology, has given birth to interactive installations that are not just visually stunning but also invite community engagement and storytelling.

Episode Highlights

  • The Genesis of Creative Machines: Learn about the inception of Joe O’Connell’s studio and how it became a cornerstone for interactive public art in Tucson.
  • The Art of Interaction: Discover how Joe’s installations encourage community participation and become focal points for public engagement.
  • Mathematics in Art: Gain insights into how mathematical concepts are intricately woven into artistic designs, creating visually striking and intellectually stimulating pieces.
  • From Concept to Reality: Explore the journey of an art piece from a mere idea to a tangible, interactive experience in public spaces.
  • Tucson’s Cultural Tapestry: Understand how Joe’s work contributes to and is influenced by Tucson’s rich cultural and artistic landscape.

Connect with Joe O’Connell

For more information about Joe O’Connell and his work, visit Creative Machines or connect with him on social media:

Get Involved

Your stories and ideas are what make Life Along the Streetcar a community treasure! We are always eager to hear from you. If you have a story, a character, or a slice of Tucson life that you think deserves a spotlight, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Contact Tom with your episode ideas. Let’s keep celebrating the unique culture, people, and stories of Tucson together!

Transcript (Unedited)

Good morning, it’s a beautiful sunny in the Old Pueblo and you’re listening to KTDT Tucson. Thank you for spending a part of your brunch hour with us on your downtown Tucson community sponsored all volunteer powered rock and roll radio station. On this week’s show we’re going to speak with Joe O ‘Connell. He’s the son of an artist and a mathematician and his passion for creating toys and gadgets eventually led him here to Tucson where he leads his company Creative Machines and they produce art and interactive exhibits all over the world. We’ll hear that story in just a moment. Today is November 19th, 2023. My name is Tom Heath and you’re listening to Life Along the Streetcar. Each and every Sunday our focus is on social, cultural, and economic development in Tucson’s urban core and we shed light on hidden gems everyone should know about. From a mountain to the University of Arizona and all stops in between, you get the inside track Right here on 99 .1 FM streaming on downtown radio org

also available on your iPhone or Android with our very own Downtown radio Tucson app if you want to interact with us on the show You can join us on Facebook and Instagram and if you want more information about us our book past episodes We’re simply to contact us head over to life along the street car org And of course, you can listen to our podcast and all kinds of platforms like Spotify iTunes iHeartRadio and the like. And a huge shout out to the friends of the Saddlebrook Libraries. It was a really fun for me. They invited me to speak at their luncheon earlier this week and it was a hundred some people were there and I got to talk about the book and life along the streetcar and talk to an audience that not all of them get downtown into the urban core. Got to share some fun stories and I think I think we may have helped a few decide to come down and explore Tucson. So if you are one of those that were at the luncheon, I really appreciate you giving me that opportunity and hope you do come

explore. And if you’re coming downtown, December 1st might be a good day to come downtown because the Tucson Gallery and The Proper Shops are celebrating their one -year anniversary. It was December 1st of 2022 when this endeavor launched. We’ve talked about this. It’s a collective of several different retail shops And the Tucson Gallery is inside of the proper shops, the 300 East Congress across the street from Hotel Congress in the same block as the Rialto Theater. We offer arts and merchandise from 30 local artists, and the other retailers have other local goods like clothing, jewelry, and home goods as well. So our one -year anniversary is coming up, and we’d love to see you out there and exploring. The exploration of downtown for me always involves some of our public art. I love Toby the Gryphon, there’s a great display at the U of A, interactive display of how the energy is used and shared around the university. It’s just really fun, and I found out that all these are done by a company

here in Tucson called Creative Machines, and they do things globally. I happen to run into them over at 10 West, which was fabulous to meet someone there, but I had a chance to speak with the director, the founder as a matter of fact, Joseph O ‘Connell, who moved here some years ago, head up the Creative Machines. He’s got a new cool project coming and just a really, really fun interview. So here’s my phone interview with Joseph O ‘Connell. So we’re joined today by the inspiration, the founder of a Tucson company called Creative Machines and I kind of stumbled upon them accidentally at the 10 West Festival, which is I think what the 10 West Festival is designed to do. And then when I found out all the cool stuff they were doing in Tucson and, you know, the urban core. I was like, I got to talk to them. And Joe, I know you’re busy and I appreciate you taking some time to chat with me, but welcome to Life Along the Streetcar.

Thank you, and I’m so glad you found us. We are a little bit of a well -kept secret in Tucson. We do a lot of work around the world, actually. We’re one of the world’s largest art, design, and fabrication firms run by a single artist. And we are based here in Tucson, and we got our start here in Tucson doing amazing projects that you can see around town. So, my wife and I moved to Tucson in 2000. And a lot of the projects we’ve done in Tucson are really just sort of a conversation with the city about what people want. So, for instance, the piece we installed about a year ago, the Wet Wheel, which is part of the Downtown Links Project, was actually one of our first commissions. But, you know, the Downtown Links project took some time to come to fruition. But the idea came from there’s not really any splash parks in downtown. And I would ride my bike to and from my…between my studio and home, and I would typically get myself soaking wet on one end, and then be hot and dry and sweaty in the middle, and thought, boy, wouldn’t it be great to have some

form of squirting art here? And that idea kind of grew. And then, lo and behold, we had our son, who, when he was about six, saw me sketching it up. And he said, oh, dad, I know exactly what that does. But what if people don’t want to get squirted? And so, that led to the little circular path that adjoins the main path. So, it’s not on the main path. You circle through it as many times as you want. And I have circled through it, so it is a refreshing little blast of water as you’re going through. It’s very interesting, too, when you’re on a bike. And it definitely is nothing like that in Tucson. And I really can’t wait till the bike path is complete, and I will become a regular user of it when it goes through all the way. And hopefully by next summer, we’ll all be getting refreshed on it. But that idea of coming to Tucson… Actually, I moved to Tucson. My wife is my fiancée, so I’ve been in Tucson a single person, a married person, a married person with a child, and now he’s off at college.

So, just experiencing the different phases of life living in Tucson has led to many, many of our pieces. So, another thing that we’re doing… Throughout the years, we would host people to visit Creative Machines. So, our facility is eight acres. It’s huge. And we’re always making interactive exhibits. We’re making monumental sculptures, many of which are interactive for destinations all over the world. And so several times a year, we invite the public to come and visit. And our son and his friends were always visitors as well. And I would see families coming and everyone would say, really, I wish you would do this all the time. And I’d be like, oh, it’s so much work to like close things down, unplug the table saw, make sure people can’t get hurt, which has never happened, of course. And then, you know, host people. So, from that came the idea for our newest Tucson venture, which is Second Sky, which is a not -for -profit that we’ve formed to every day host people to an adventure playground

with a food and beverage destination, a robust program of after -school support, support for homeschool and micro -schools, and then evening and weekend events and programming for the whole family. Wow, where is this located? So we are located, the biggest cross streets are Irvington and Alvernon, which is kind of in the southeast corner of Tucson, but we are right at the base of Contractors Way, which is what Aviation Parkway leads to. So we’re actually closer to the east side than downtown is. And many of our visitors through the year have come from Vail and other communities to the southeast to visit us, where we are a closer destination than many of the destinations downtown. And then the second sky, that’s going to be on your, on that same property? It is. We’re going to take about close to two acres of space on Creative Machines, eight acres, and formally make it for this not -for -profit. And we have an existing 12 ,000 square foot building that we recently remodeled. And then we’ll

be taking about 40 ,000 square feet of outdoor space to make a really shaded, verdant, and welcoming outdoor social space. And yeah. And then, you know, the interesting thing is that it would be available for kids, adults, families, et cetera. And the typical American refrain you hear is, in business at least, is, oh, focus on your market, target that market, and go for that market. But I’m like, well, when I was a parent growing up, you know, I liked to drink beer in moderation, of course, and our son would be going to a birthday party. And if it was next to a brewery, I’d be like, oh, I’ll take him. And I’d hang out with the other parents. And that’s what adults like to do is they like to socialize with each other in close proximity to their kids playing. And if you think of like a European city square or the way village life has been organized for probably 50 ,000 years of our evolutionary history, that’s what we do is we segregate ourselves into activity groups that have a lot of overlap.

We don’t really have whole entire buildings just devoted to narrow age ranges in the bigger sweep of human history. And so again, that personal experience, having a family in Tucson, made me realize there would be an opportunity to let parents play with their kids, but also have their own, the socialization that they need with their peers. Yeah. And how far along is this project? Is it opening soon or where are we in that timeline? Well, as all things do, it comes down to money. We are starting our capital campaign and we’re hoping to raise just a little over $3 million, which is not an unrealistic sum of money. We already have the building and the ground. We have relationships with a number of existing Tucson not -for -profits that would use this space. We did a little test event in the end of September, and we got hundreds of people. So we know we have an audience. We applied foreign got our liquor license. We just need, we need, we need some donors to step forward and contribute to our

capital campaign. That’s where we’re at. I’m very anxious to see how this all turns out. Because again, just when I heard the name creative machines, you’re never kind of joking before we came on air, I thought it was going to be like an AI related software. And then I was talking to one of your designers at 10 West, and she was explaining some of the work that you do. And, and I mean, I’ve been talking about your work for years, I just didn’t know it. Like Toby, the downtown Griffin, I love telling that story. And, and, you know, the, the interactivity of a still statue because of, you know, the path that you’ve given them from the old library, the now the Children’s Museum, I think that’s just a phenomenal story that is so connected, you know, connects you not only to the history of Tucson, but you have a beautiful statue, and you’re connected to literally the earth because you show people how to, you know, retrace the steps of that griffin. I just thought that was amazing. That’s such

a beautiful way to put it. I hadn’t thought about it that way. But what you mentioned highlights the ways in which things can be interactive in the public sphere. They don’t have to have push buttons and blinking lights to be interactive. They just have to invite people. There’s sort of a common way of describing public spaces as the first place is home, the second place is work, the third place is the public square, is public spaces. And in that public space, we need these third objects so that you and I can interact with each other. If you just sit us in a sterile landscape and chairs facing each other, we’ll feel awkward to not have anything to say. But you put us next to a sculpture with footprints on the ground and we’ll get to talking, our kids will interact. And so a lot of times We say we make the stuff that help communities interact with each other and we make that third object in a space that helps people Triangulate you me and an interesting object that we can interact with together

We’re talking with Joe O ‘Connell of creative machines way back to the second half of that interview talking about a fun Project over at the University of Arizona and they get more information about his upcoming venture with the second sky My name is Tom Heath. You are listening to life along the streetcar on downtown radio 99 .1 FM and streaming on downtownradio .org.

Let’s jump back into our interview with Joe O ‘Connell. He is the president and founder of Creative Machines. They’re doing interactive exhibits, art, all kinds of interesting things across the globe. And they’re situated here in Tucson. They’ve done a lot of projects in the urban core. We’ve talked about a couple of them. And there’s one at the U of A Mall on campus that I didn’t know they’d created until recently. I thought it was really fascinating. We’ll talk about that and more about his project with the second Sky Event Center. Well, and then on the other end of the streetcar route at the U of A, and I didn’t know until I was researching for this show that this was one of your projects, it’s on the U of A campus on the mall, and there is a display kind of showing the solar energy or the energy savings that the university has and how they create their own energy. And you’ve got a model design in there that’s, you know, really kind of just demonstrating how all this energy is being

used and saved. It’s just phenomenal. That was a thrilling project to work on. We worked with TEP and the University of Arizona on that. And it started just with some conversations in our boardroom. We’re actually neighbors to TEP. They’re generating stations across the street from us. So they came over when the idea was just sort of vaguely percolating. And on our whiteboard, we sketched the generation, storage and flow of energy throughout the southwestern United States, where TEP is exchanging power with southern California utilities, with New Mexico utilities, like when the wind is blowing in New Mexico is just about the time when people in Tucson are turning on their air conditioners, and how it’s stored in batteries, and how there’s banks of panels. And then one of the bigger energy users is the U of A, and so we’d have fans doing the wave in the stadium, it all, that art piece you see there is like a three -dimensional expression of what we diagrammed on the whiteboard. And a lot

of ideas happen that way in collaboration with our client. Yeah, it’s just amazing to me how educational something can be, and it’s almost sort of like subtly educational, it’s just fun. Like you’re just looking at it, it’s just fun to see all these pieces, and you don’t realize until you kind of get into it, oh crap, I’m learning something, darn it, I didn’t mean to learn anything today. Yeah. Just to go back to Toby, for instance, Toby wasn’t just made up entirely. There used to be griffin sculptures on… There were four griffin sculptures across the west edge of the Children’s Museum, which at the time was a Carnegie Library. And those were removed after a fire and the whole western edge was remodeled. So there’s architectural history. And the reason why the footprints are in the ground is that the idea is one of those griffins escaped being remodeled and jumped off. And the footprints from the sculpture lead back to the corner of what’s now the Children’s Museum, but used to be the

library where that Griffin jumped off of. And there’s actually, we worked with the landscape architecture firm at the time to develop the text. There’s some markers up at, I think it’s at Broadway and Scott that explain a little bit of that history. So yeah, there’s always a second layer. So for instance, one of the first pieces we did, Desert O, which is the glowing donut in front of the art museum, has a secret button. It has one of the bolt. If you touch it, it looks the same as every other bolt, but it lets you change the color at night. Trevor Burrus Oh, get out. Trevor Burrus Get out. I’ve seen that sculpture for years. Oh, I’m so excited. I can’t wait to go back there now. David Stilwell Let me tell you and your listeners how to find the secret button. If you face the donut facing north, and it’s on Alameda. It’s where the street widens and there’s a little island in the center, just to the south of the art museum. So if you walk to the island and face the sculpture from the south

side, you’ll see it’s covered with little stainless steel bolts, about half an inch or less in diameter. Right where your knee is, there’s a single bolt in the middle, and that is a touch sensor, even though it doesn’t look any different. And the sculpture goes through a different color program every night of the week. It has seven different programs that it rotates through, so one for each day, but you can change it and do your own color scheme by touching that bolt. And the idea was I told 10 people when it was installed and each of them was supposed to tell 10 people, and those two were supposed to tell 10 people, and every once in a while I’ll be downtown and someone will come up to me and say, hey, I wanna show you a secret, and they’ll show it to me. So I know it didn’t totally die out, but every once in a while I have to tell more people. Well, the good news is I think my entire listenership might be ten people, so you may have told ten more people. That’s good. That’s all we need.

They’ll tell ten people. Wow. It’s just so amazing to me, the things that we pass by, and I don’t want to say yours go unnoticed because the work that your company does is very noticeable, but I would not have connected the work at the U of A with Toby with the multicolored donut. But those are three things that are just distinctly different in appearance and creativity, and I wouldn’t have thought of them being connected. And it’s really, really interesting as I look through your website to see these projects all over the world that are doing this in communities just like Tucson, but in different parts of the world. A lot of times people ask us, yeah, what is the connecting thread? And they’ll remark that we’ve evolved through the years. and I say, well, if you go back to the founding, the mission statement from 1995 is, we create objects and environments that encourage creativity, support social interaction, and inspire self -confidence, which that’s two years before the phrase experience

economy sort of entered the popular imagination, this idea that we are creating experiences, not things, because back in 95, I think plastic, plastic clunky computers, BlackBerrys, I don’t know, no real social media. There wasn’t the sense that you would have experiences in public. I think there was a sense that all of the things that made your life worth living happened in private or were things that you owned. And now I think that attention has turned to some degree, maybe for the wrong way. It’s experiences you have in public and can post on social media. But attention has turned to the public sphere. And so we never said at the start, oh, we’re a museum exhibit firm or we’re a ball machine company or a public art company. We do all of those. And in five years, you’re doing new things too. It’s all about those objects and environments to encourage human flourishing and community. Well, and Joe, I mean, we don’t have nearly enough time on our show to go into the depths of the work that

you’ve done and like to maybe schedule a follow -up for early in the year and kind of get a sense of some of these other projects that you’ve been working on. But I don’t want to leave without talking again about, you know, this project that you’re working on at your facility, you know, when you talk about all the things that are happening around the community and I look at them condensed into like one area called Second Sky, you know, to me it’s just, it’s going to be like an amusement park and for creativity. I think so. So if you think about the flourishing that we’ve seen across America in the last five to ten years of places like Meow Wolf, Super Blue, Architect House, in my opinion, all


of them are focused on a relatively high admission fee for an amazing experience, but you’re not going to come back the next day. We are completely different from that. I want Second Sky to be a place you come three, four times a week, and your child gets bussed there as part of an after -school program, and then childcare is provided, and then you come and you have happy hour with your friends, and you have a healthy, fast, casual meal, And then you stick around for like a rocket launcher stargazing party or how to think about applying to colleges in the evening And then in the weekend, it’s a dance party or a wedding or a corporate event I don’t see the reason why all of that can’t happen in the same space and flourish every day like it’s your second home Well, I don’t I don’t have any doubts with your ability and your creativity to to make this a reality How do people find out more though? Are you on social media? I mean, where do people learn about the project? Right now, the best place

is SecondSky .org, our website, which we’re redoing as we speak. But yeah, go to SecondSky .org for an overview. There is a donate page, and you can follow a link to send me an email. What we’re looking for is really partners, is people who want to take the lead. The way fundraising works in Tucson is if you have one or two brave people who give significantly and say, I really want to be part of this, then the rest follows. One of the issues we have is a lot of projects don’t really get off the ground in Tucson and everywhere. And so we are looking for people to take the lead, but we’re also looking for people who want to say, Hey, if you did this, I would volunteer. And we’ve already had a lot of people say that they would love to volunteer. So you go to that website, SecondSky .org, and use the link on the contact us page to get in touch. All right. We’ve got Joe O ‘Connell. He’s the president, the artistic director, the founder of Creative Machines with projects all over Tucson and the

world. Fabulous, exciting new event space and collaborative space coming hopefully soon, but we need to help him get there. Joe, I really appreciate you taking your time today and look forward to maybe catching up with you again and getting into more depth about some of the things that you’re doing. Thanks. We’ll talk in a few months and I look forward to it. Thank you. Joseph O ‘Connell, founder, president, inspiration behind creative machines and their ongoing and upcoming project here, Second Sky, really fascinating what happens when you get a mathematician and an artist together and they create a child and he goes out into the world to combine all of these skill sets and attributes together. My name is Tom Heath. You are listening to Life Along the Streetcar on Downtown Radio at 99 .1 FM and streaming on downtownradio .org. You’re listening to KTDT Tucson, Arizona 99 .1 FM downtown radio. I’m Brother Mark, host of a show called Radio Club Crawl that airs every Tuesday at 3 p .m. We

try to focus on most of the bands that are coming through Tucson and we give you a tasty taste of their music. You want to check out what’s happening around Tucson? Check out Radio Club Crawl Tuesdays 3 p .m. right here on KTDT Tucson Arizona 99 .1 FM downtown radio thank you very much enjoy your evening bye bye well this episode 273 is coming to a rapid close here on this fabulous Sunday but stick around Ted Brzezelski’s words and work will be next followed by Ty Logan at the top of the hour back to the music at one o ‘clock and rock and roll all week congratulations to the El Tour de the Tucson riders and runners. They had a run for the first time this year. And as someone who lives downtown and got to watch the run go right by their house and see these thousands of cyclists, some of the fastest in the world riding right by, it was really, really fun to do that. I know there’s traffic congestion and all that stuff that we harp on, but really we’re doing a lot of good for the community.

We’re raising awareness about Tucson and the El Toro Tucson does raise a lot of money for local charities. I believe this year they’ve raised JTED, The CheyTED school district was one of the top fundraisers. So that’s just fantastic that we’re doing that. It’s worth, in my opinion, a little bit of aggravation if you’re trying to get around town. And the new route going south I think is helpful that it keeps the northern congestion free. The El Toro is always followed quickly by Thanksgiving. So Thanksgiving will be coming up this Thursday. If you weren’t aware, mark your calendars. I know it always slips by many of us. that was sarcasm. But I totally take the last few minutes here the show just thank you. I know it’s kind of a cliche to say thank you to all of my supporters and fans out there. But truly, I’m thankful. I’m thankful for your efforts to promote the show. I’m thankful for the very kind words that I get from those of you that may write in or I see out in the public. And I want

to thank Like a huge shout out to the Downtown Radio family, all volunteers, downtownradio .org. If you check that site out, you’ll see all these wonderful shows done by volunteers, our board, everyone, the technical part of it. Someone steps up and just does that for us without pay and simply because they love what they’re doing, and I am thankful for that. Many other things in my life, I am blessed to be, but since this is a radio show, I thought and I would focus my gratitude on those elements of my life. But I invite you to check out downtownradio .org. And if you’re thankful for what is provided by these wonderful volunteers, please click that donate button. Remember to put December 1st on your calendar. That’s the Tucson Gallery and Proper Shops anniversary. I’ll be there. Maybe I’ll see you there too. And gosh, yeah, been a rapidly moving year. so we’ll see what we do for year end here. I’m kind of excited about maybe doing something different this year than we’ve done in our previous

six years.

My name is Tom Heath. I want to thank Ryan Hood for the pleasure and courtesy of allowing us to use their music to open our show. We’re gonna leave you today with the Vince Guaraldi trio. It’s back from 1998 on the Charlie Brown Holiday Hits album. You’re listening to the Thanksgiving theme. I hope you have a great week. Happy Thanksgiving and tune in next Sunday for more life along the streetcar.