Interview with Bradford Hansen-Smith: Creating Art Through Geometry

Bradford Hansen-Smith has been an illustrator, jewelry maker, sculptor, filmmaker, author, toy maker, and educator. His website,, focuses on the wonders of geometry through sculptures created from paper plates.

Extended Spiral
Bradford Hansen-Smith. Extended Spiral (side view). Chicago. 2008.
Folded paper circles. Approx height 12” x 12” x 9”. Each unit is
a circle folded in the same way using diameters from 7″ to 3/4″.
The change in curve is how they fit one into the other. A computer
image was printed on 20 lb paper, then cut into various diameter
circles, folded and joined by tying with thread.

ArtStyle: How did you get started in art?

Bradford Hansen-Smith (BHS): In the first 25 years of my life, I did a lot of cartooning, but not exclusively. Eventually I went to one year at University of Southern CA on a football scholarship. I spent most of that year in the art department, and then I went to Cooper Union in New York, and I was only there for a year because they didn't have a sculpture department. I came back in a year and a half and ended up at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I didn't get a degree but I spent 2-1/2 years there, got a fellowship and left for Italy. I went to the Marinelli Foundry, which is just outside of Florence, and spent a lot of time there and did some bronze casting. I went to Berkeley, CA, and put together a foundry and started casting my own work. I did that for 25 years.

ArtStyle: How did you make a living during this whole period?

BHS: Marginally by selling my work and doing freelance work. I carved signs and did commercial stuff too. I did some books early on. The first one was for the government, the US Agency for National Alert and Preparedness, when bomb shelters were in the news in the 60's. That actually allowed me to leave the Bay area and move to New Mexico, where I lived for 25 years. Jewelry was a big thing in Santa Fe. For a couple of years, I was making jewelry and doing pretty well. I did this for 2 years, and I was at the point of either having to hire some people or just let it go. So I just let it go because it had the strength of sculpture but it never had the fine jewelry design, so that limited my market even if I got bigger.

Open Dodecahedron
Bradford Hansen-Smith. Open Dodecahedron. Chicago. 2005.
Folded paper circles. Approx. height 12” x 12” x 12”. Twenty folded
7″ circles. Computer image printed on 20 lb paper, cut into circles,
folded, reformed and joined.

ArtStyle: How did you get involved in doing large sculpture?

BHS: I hooked up with the nonprofit organization The Institute for Regional Education, which did a lot of social change work in Santa Fe. They were at the beginning of putting together a national advertising campaign about the issue of privacy in the early 70's. They wanted me to work on a sculpture. I started casting positive things in black rubber. Then I started using found objects – rubber gaskets, things fallen off of cars – and combined all of this into larger pieces. They wanted me to do a large sculpture having to do with technology, but after I got started, we ran out of money.

Eventually we got outside funding of $50,000 for a film and $10,000 for the large sculpture project. The film turned into a 35-mm feature length film. We hired a lawyer and he got the legislation through that allowed us as a 501(3)c to do for-profit projects. We were able to get the money to do a feature-length film, of which, none of us had any experience. Through the years I was involved in the production of this film as well as keeping the sculpture project going. The film was called Koyaanisqatsi (pronounced Koh-yah-niss-khat-see), which in the Hopi language means “life out of balance.” It took 10 years to get it done and was released in 1982.

The sculpture project was becoming more and more of a massive presentation, and so we would go around to shopping centers, public places, and put this sculpture installation out with informational signs about issues around man and technology. People would be attracted to it. Because it was in part cast and fabricated rubber, it began to break down in the ultraviolet rays outside. There were a lot of welded steel and fiberglass forms where the rubber was stretched over and stitched so it was like skin, and it was peeling. We kept getting money in to keep it going for a number of years.

Fancy Tessellation
Bradford Hansen-Smith. Fancy Tessellation. Chicago. Folded paper
plates. Approx. height 10” x 12” x 7”. Sixteen 9″ circles with slight
variations to the folds with each successive unit.

ArtStyle: How did you get involved in geometry?

BHS: Everything came to a head with the sculpture project one day. At one showing in Taos, a lady came up to me and said, “This is the most spiritual, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” She was going on and on about how ethereal and spiritual it was. Half an hour later, some guy came up to me and said, “This is the ugliest, most evil thing I have ever seen. This is just garbage.”

That's when I began to realize that I'm not connecting with people who are in the same room. I really started questioning what I was doing. At the same time, I was getting tired of black rubber and steel. I wanted some color again. I began to develop a rash from the talc from the inner tubes I was using, and I knew a lot of the stuff I was using was toxic.

At the same time (this was about 1980), I had a friend who was taking a geometry class taught by Hazel Archer, who worked with Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain in North Carolina. Over a couple of months observing the things she was doing in the class, I thought it was kind of interesting. So I went to the first class and that was what I needed. Everything shifted. The sculpture went away and the geometry came up. This is what I'm trying to find out: how patterns in space work and why certain things generate and other things don't. Intuitively, I was looking for the mechanics of how things work. Geometry seemed to be an obvious form. On the first day, everything that we modeled, drew, and talked about was based on the same patterns. They were the patterns I was familiar with in art, nature, biology, and mathematics. I started looking at patterns very closely for the next 10 years doing an in-depth study of geometry.

Bradford Hansen-Smith. Branching. Chicago. 2007. Folded paper
plate circles. Approx. height 31” x 20” x8”. Five hundred and
thirty-five folded 9″ paper plates. Each unit branches into two
units. Glued together.

ArtStyle: When you say you did a study of geometry, what do you mean?

BHS: I went to geometry text books and I didn't find what I was looking for. Fuller was the place to start — he's talking about going back to the origin. I did drawing after drawing of geometry constructions looking for the patterns: the golden ratio, Fibonacci numbers, and the whole proportional thing. I said, that's not good enough because it's about the circle; it's not about the square. Then I'd spend days trying to figure out where something was in the circle. Everything I modeled, I had to draw, and everything I drew, I had to make a model because it's the same pattern and the same process of information but in different forms. It took me a long time to get out of the art frame of mind of the aesthetics, of the imagery, and the iconography. I had to get rid of that stuff to be able to see what I was doing and to be consistent in the developmental process.

Then I started looking at things spherically a lot closer until about the late 80's. I realized that the circle doesn't exist. It's only as an image. The circle we draw is not a circle. Art people know when they draw something, it's just a representation. Math people don't know that. When they draw a symbol, they think that's what it is.

ArtStyle: Why is the sphere important in your work?

BHS: The sphere is whole and demonstrates unity. No other form does that. So I made the assumption that everything is in the sphere. Polyhedra are truncations of a sphere. In destroying the unity of the sphere, we end up with nothing but parts. Depending on our craftiness or skill in putting parts together, we create what we call unity. It's only a coherent bigger part. It's not unity. It only reflects unity, which is the nature of the whole. We destroyed that when we cut the sphere. So how do we get information out of the sphere without destroying it? I've played with enough clay. That's easy. I get a ball of clay, compress it down, and I have a circular disk in space. Folding circles decompresses spherical information.

One of the things Fuller did in Synergetics is to take a paper plate and fold it in half, then into thirds, and put four of those together to make a vector equilibrium, which is the pattern of the closest packing of sphere, the ordering of spheres. If you can make a vector equilibrium sphere out of folding and joining 4 circles, I figured you can make everything else from the circle by folding it.

So I went back and started working with the circle and paper plates, folding them into thirds and developing a folded grid. I started making some sculptural things. Then in 1990, I had the opportunity, at the same time, to teach for a week at a year-round school. I was working with 5th and 6th graders, and we explored geometry through folding paper plates. That is when I knew this was educationally important.

Transformational System
Bradford Hansen-Smith. Transformational System of Half Truncated
. Chicago. 1987. Painted wood and nylon hinging. In
closed position, it is approx. height 9” x 5” x 4.5”. Eighteen wood
sections painted with enamel and hinged with nylon cord. The
painting shows the re-arranging of the closest packing of spheres
(tetrahedron/octahedron equivalent), as it is moved and transformed.

ArtStyle: During that 10-year period when you were studying, were you creating at the same time?

BHS: I was creating transformational models at the time. The models I worked on were all transformational movement systems. I got a lot of interest from toy manufacturers, but nobody picked it up because at that point, the Rubik's Cube had come out and everything had to be a puzzle with a reachable goal. These models that I created are open-ended explorations. These are not about doing one thing or solving a puzzle. Exploration is about discovery, not solutions.

These models are incredible psychological tools because people work with them in different ways. A lot of times, people would need to put it back the same way they got it, even with seeing the options available.

ArtStyle: How did you start writing your books?

BHS: When I got to Chicago in 1992, I had a friend in Taos I was talking with on the phone, and she said she knew a publisher I could send my book to. I sent the publisher, W. H. Freeman, The Hands on Marvelous Ball Book. I expected that I would do finished illustrations later since this was just a rough draft. They liked the spontaneity, the looseness of it, so I didn't have to make any changes. It's in a story format, so it works well for the younger children.

After 2 years of selling this through Freeman, they sold part of the company, and then the people who bought it eventually closed it down. Fortunately my editor had written in my contract, if for any reason, they were not going to handle my books any more, I had the option of buying them back at half their cost. So I bought all the books back and started selling them on my own at math conferences. That's what got me on to the math conference circuit. I started putting together a second book of about 200 pages and printed up 100 copies at Kinko's. Those quickly sold so I found a printer and self published it. The third book, which was almost 400 pages, came out 5 years later.

Now I've got 2 more workbooks and I'm working on a third. So it's 5 books and a DVD now. The DVD demonstrates the process as I presently understand it.

ArtStyle: Would you consider what you're creating to be artwork?

BHS: This is not about art. I dropped the art focus of it long ago. It was arduous to stay with what's going on with the development and formation of patterns that are in play and forget about whether it looks good or not. Of course, the more I got into it, the more I found that all of this stuff is beautiful. I'm not trying to do art but people come in and they say, “It's beautiful.” It's art only because people like it and want to call it that.

ArtStyle: What are you interested in if it's not creating art?

BHS: Some of the early work had to do with exploring sculpture using folded paper plates because I was curious about where that would go and then realized that that could go anywhere I want to take it. But that's not what's of interest to me. What's of interest is the process and where the circle will take me. It's not what can I do with the circle. And so I really had to start rethinking about art in a different way, being involved in the creative process all my life. I don't think we really understand those words.

Bill II
Bradford Hansen-Smith. Bill II. Chicago. 2007. Folded paper plates.
Approx. height 9” x 9” x 6”. Eighteen folded circles from 9″ to
1-1/2″, tied with thread and glue.

ArtStyle: Are you saying you don't want to be called an artist?

BHS: David, one of the Hopi elders, came down to the Santa Fe plaza to meet with me. He was 91 years old and he has a beautifully carved cane, which I had not seen before. I said, “David, did you make that?” He said he had. I said, “I didn't know you were a sculptor, an artist.” He said, “Let me tell you something. Hopi don't have a word for artists. We all do things and we do them the best we can; we make things beautiful. Art is not a part of our culture. That's your culture.” This made me think back to when I was a kid. I would go over lots of pictures of western art and primitive art, a collection my mother had put together from her art history class in college. The thing that intrigued me was the primitive art because they weren't done by anybody. They were done by a person, but I was responding to what it was. I wasn't responding to it because Michelangelo or Raphael did it. The work was enough.

ArtStyle: Is that your thinking now about art?

BHS: We're not creative in the way that we think we are. We haven't created anything that hasn't been created for us. We re-arrange things. We don't create color. We make the paints by getting the minerals, getting some oils, moving the parts around. If we are artists, and we call ourselves creative, maybe in a very limited way, that's valid.

ArtStyle: When you're creating your work, do you know where you're going with it?

BHS: Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't. In relationship to patterns, yes. Everything is a combination or reformation of pattern. Often times, I'm totally surprised with the forms of what happens.

ArtStyle: When you build some of your sculptures, how are they connected?

BHS: In a lot of different ways. I'll use tape, bobby pins, or glue, sometimes tying them together. When I got into the curving of the circle, I realized it's taking the same triangular pattern except without the creases, and it's doing it through simply curving the surface. So a combination of curving and creasing all of a sudden extends the vocabulary. None of this could happen if it was not inherent in the circle/sphere to begin with.

For more of Bradford Hansen-Smith's artwork, click here ArtStyle Blog Gallery.

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