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May 2, 2013

Sustainable auto art drives MFA grad's success

Michigan State University graduate student Ryan Groendyk has been driving around town in his restored 1973 Mercedes-Benz 220D with a license plate that reads WVO – short for waste vegetable oil – counting the hours until he receives his master’s degree in fine arts.

The 40-year-old car sports a red exterior delicately pinstriped by Groendyk in a never-ending worm-like pattern. It’s the centerpiece of Groendyk’s master’s degree thesis project, “Living Off the Fat of the Land,” which was recently on display at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum for the Master’s of Fine Arts exhibition.

Groendyk’s “art car” is the first graduate project to stem from MSU’s Form from Thought Laboratory, an interdisciplinary research and studio environment in the Department of Art, Art History and Design. The car runs mostly off WVO, and it’s amazing how three letters can foster such intense conversation, admiration and sometimes contention, Groendyk said.

“I wanted to make a piece that’s accessible and exciting for people to interact with that promotes the use of renewable sources of energy,” he said. “‘Living Off the Fat of the Land’ is an artwork about renewable energy, climate change, fried food and car culture. A lot of this stuff isn’t cut and dry, and it’s OK if it’s complex and a little bit chaotic.”

Before beginning his project two years ago, Groendyk didn’t own a car, and when he bought the Mercedes-Benz for $5,000, it barely ran. But it had a diesel engine, which was key to converting the car to run on biofuel, he said. So Groendyk developed his own system and now the car averages 30 miles per gallon.

Along with his art car, Groendyk has created T-shirts with the pinstripe design and an exhibit that displays the technology behind the fuel conversion.

The lesson here, Groendyk said, is that art doesn’t have to be confined to a gallery space. It can be made and found everywhere.

“In an ‘anything goes’ art world, hybrid art forms are developing rapidly,” said Adam Brown, associate professor of electronic art and intermedia. “An interdisciplinary, research-based approach that embraces hybrid art, science and technology projects is what defines the area of electronic art and intermedia.”

With his master’s in hand, Groendyk, who is Brown’s graduate assistant, will drive his car to Mississippi to visit his girlfriend and then to the art car museum in Texas. At rest stops, restaurants and other locations, he looks forward to talking with inquisitive onlookers about the importance of sustainability – from an artist’s perspective.

Groendyk will document his journey with pictures and a blog, linking to the massive amounts of material he researched for the project.

“I’m using what I know about science and ecology in a way that I hope will push people socially to think about the objects in their lives in a different way and be more proactive about things they know to be true,” he said.

By: Kristen Parker