Peter Athens

At MIT, anything is possible.

For Peter Athens (’52, ’58), an MIT education in both civil and mechanical engineering, led to a successful career working in technological risk analysis at Arthur D. Little for over 35 years and, surprisingly, to a productive role as an artist of sculpture and painting.

As far back as Peter can remember, he was always drawn to visiting museums and galleries, especially those with contemporary and modern art. His travels have brought him all over the country and the world, visiting the best museums on several continents. But, it was MIT that first exposed him to art making, in an unconventional way. Peter enrolled in an evening metallurgy course taught by Professor Mac Adams at MIT, which inspired a love of sculptor David Smith. Later, at the Arthur D. Little machine shop, Peter found scrap metal and started making small sculptures.

This passion grew and so did his art output, creating many metal and later wood sculptures to fill the rooms of his home. His current home in Rockport, MA, lends to his artist lifestyle, featuring a separate, spacious studio space with enough room for his metal and wood scraps. Peter’s art making led him to join the New England Sculptors Association, and he participated in several exhibitions in the area. His love for art has grown over time, and his art making has expanded to painting, in a very Jackson Pollock-like process, by pouring paint directly onto the canvas surface then using a palette knife or other tool when necessary. He has also started to explore various textures and, most recently, has begun adding sand to the poured paint. He is presently a member of the Cambridge Art Association and has participated in their exhibitions.

Reflecting on his own art making, Peter wishes that the Student Art Association (SAA) had been available when he was a student. “What a wonderful resource it is for students of all interests and ability levels who are fond of the arts,” he notes. Founded in 1969, the SAA is a suite of four studios in the Stratton Student Center that provides space for hands-on exploration of drawing, painting, printmaking, darkroom photography, ceramics, sculpture, and metalsmithing. In the 2017–2018 academic year, the SAA offered more than 60 classes and workshops during the fall, spring, summer, and independent activities period (IAP). Total enrollments for the year were nearly 800 of which 67 percent were matriculated MIT students; the balance consisted of staff, alumni, and spouses of students, staff, and alumni.

Although Peter’s art making has taken a more traditional route in terms of modern art, he understands the importance of exploring the intersections of art, science, and technology, especially at MIT. Through the activities of the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST), Peter’s eyes have been opened to new avenues he never dreamed possible while at MIT. “Since its creation in 2012,” he says, “CAST programs have produced significant research and collaborative projects for the arts with science and technology by both emerging and mature artists and MIT faculty.”

Through unique cross-disciplinary classes, dynamic artist residencies, symposia and workshops, CAST provides arts exposure to students who might not have expected to encounter the arts at MIT. Peter continues, “It’s clear that MIT excels not only in world-class research, but also in cross-disciplinary discovery, with the arts as a key component.” It’s no wonder faculty and artists are drawn to MIT to create, as the environment encourages the identification of new connections between the arts and technology. For this reason, Peter supports CAST annually, wanting to help immerse the arts into the science and technology curriculum, for which MIT is best known. Peter understands the importance of the creative arts in a school recognized for scientific research, and agrees that MIT is unique. “With the exposure to world-class public art, stellar programs in music and theater, and engagement with the SAA and the Center for Art, Science & Technology, these opportunities help produce well-rounded graduates.  The arts at MIT are unique,” he adds, “and for this reason they should be celebrated and supported.”