Class Note: Karl Hale’s Moving Art
Switching from a degree in accounting and a career in software engineering to life as a full-time artist is strange, admits Karl Hale. But when his after-work detox projects turned out to be works of art, that’s exactly the leap he took.
Hale calls himself a kinetic artist. A longtime woodworking hobbyist, he now carves wooden sculptures that roll steel balls down twisting, turning, even jumping tracks—not unlike the marble runs that mesmerized him as a child. Hale has been crafting kinetic sculptures for less than two years, but his half-dozen pieces have already garnered awards at woodcarving shows across Utah. One was displayed in the museum of art in Springville, Utah, and another made it to the final round of the 2015 LDS International Art Competition and will be displayed in a children’s exhibit at the Church History Museum. An almost six-foot-tall work, the piece is crafted from five types of wood and symbolically tells twelve stories from the life of Christ.
Artistry and technology intersect in Hale’s sculptures. Creating them is cool, he says, from an engineering perspective—figuring out how to get a marble from point A to point B, lifting it from the bottom of the piece back to the top, timing jumps and switches just right. But Hale also brings an aesthetic sense to the technical challenge, crafting pieces with an organic feel. Initially his goal was to make something his wife, Ana Lisa, would display in their home. “That was my standard,” Hale laughs. “If Ana would let me put it on the grand piano, I’ve arrived.”
Hale, who earned a MAcc from the Marriott School in 1998 with an emphasis in information systems, depends on his computer background to create his art. He writes lines and lines of code alongside sketches when designing a piece. “I shape all of these paths on the computer,” Hale says. “I couldn’t do it without my technical background. But then it turns out, as people tell me, I have a decent eye for the design too.”
Much of the beauty of the final design can be attributed to the wood itself. “God does most of the hard work,” Hale says. “He did the colors, the grain, and the variation. My material starts out with huge character. Artists talk about liberating the piece of art from the material, and I’ve experienced that.”
Hale is unique, perhaps the first, in using wood to create rolling-ball sculptures. Others are made from metal—it’s easier to shape and much less temperamental. But “metal doesn’t speak to me,” Hale says. “Metal is dead—it doesn’t have any kind of life of its own—and the wood does. Wood came from a living thing, and it still feels alive; there’s a spirit to it.”
The wood Hale uses comes from an ash tree and an oak that once grew at BYU. He requested and milled the trees years ago when they were removed during campus construction, and he is happy to have found a use for them.
The Hales live in Mapleton, Utah, and have eight children—many of whom spend hours with Hale in the woodshop, oiling and sanding wood. Hale has worked as an adjunct information systems professor in the Marriott School, and his career in software and technology included time as vice president and technology director at Heritage Makers, with tech work at various businesses, including PublicEngines, Devcon Security Systems, App Jacks, and Alive. But now his time is focused on his art. “I still do some contract web work,” Hale says, “but I would like to kick that habit eventually.” He’s now designing prototypes for marble-maze wall art to be displayed in reception and waiting areas or conference rooms.
“People like to be aesthetically engaged—even the left-brained people,” Hale says. “And even the most aesthetically inclined people like to be intellectually engaged. I would love to produce pieces of art that are completely accessible and that are intellectually and aesthetically stimulating. There’s a need there, and I think I’ve got some ideas.”