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Power to the People: John August Swanson

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Today's "Feel Art Again" features the American artist John August Swanson at the request of reader lisa, who describes Swanson's work as "Color for a taupe world!" Some of Swanson's works, such as "Power to the People" (above), depict themes of social justice, although Swanson is most well-known for his biblical imagery.

1. John August Swanson describes his art as telling stories through narrative scenes. In the popular "Power to the People," Swanson tells the story of an unemployed man looking for work. The man journeys from an employment agency with a long line of people, at the left side of the painting, through the city to join with a group of people, at the right side of the painting, who are gathering to call for human rights and justice. (For scene-by-scene description of the painting, head to Circles of Hope.)

2. Often described as combining the "flat, stylized look of iconography" with the colors and stories of Mexican folk art, Swanson's artwork is influenced by his own mix of cultures. Swanson was raised by his mother, a Mexican garment worker who immigrated to the U.S. when she was 18. His father, a Swedish vegetable vendor, was mostly absent from Swanson's life, though the culture still had some impact on Swanson's artistic development.

3. Swanson's serigraphs are produced through a laborious process which involves Swanson creating a Mylar film stencil for each of the colors being used in the final image. Although Swanson usually uses 40 to 60 colors (and stencils) for his serigraphs, his most elaborate work, "Procession," involved 89 stencils. "Procession" took Swanson more than a year to complete; he considers it "the grand work of [his] life." It is one of the relatively few contemporary works residing in the Vatican Museums' collection.

4. Swanson only found his passion for art at the age of 30, during an evening art class at Immaculate Heart College. Despite his late start, Swanson has achieved great success, receiving an honorary doctorate from California Lutheran University, having his "Entry into the City" featured in Life magazine, and having his work displayed in many museums, including three of the Smithsonian Institution's museums. Swanson's crowning achievement, though, was in 2006, when he was named one of the 33 recipients of the first International Mother Teresa Awards, which acknowledge spiritual, artistic, humanitarian, and philanthropic accomplishments. Other 2006 recipients included Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Jimmy Carter, Mel Gibson, and Sister Wendy Beckett.

5. To Swanson, "art is important as a way of communication," a way to "convey transcendent ideas that will empower people to take the next step on their journey." While most of his serigraphs feature religious imagery, Swanson emphasizes that his work shouldn't be defined as "˜Christian art.' For Swanson, his art "goes beyond Christian" and can bring about hope and change.

A larger version of Swanson's "Power to the People" is available here.

Fans of Swanson should check out his official web site; his Flickr account, which includes photos of him creating "Procession;" and the collection of his work at Grand Gallery.

"Feel Art Again" usually appears three times a week. Looking for a particular artist? Visit our archive for a complete listing of all 250+ artists that have been featured. You can e-mail us at feelartagain@gmail.com with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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