Born in Jackson on 22 May 1936, James Lemuel Seawright Jr. is a pioneer of kinetic and electronic sculpture and America’s foremost technological artist. A graduate of the University of Mississippi, where he received a bachelor’s in English with a minor in physics, Seawright was a member of the art faculty at Princeton University beginning in 1969 and served as director of visual arts at Princeton from 1975 to 2001.
Seawright traces his love of making objects by hand to his boyhood discovery of machine tools at a friend’s house in Mississippi. Later, in the US Navy, he worked with additional tools and materials and realized that he could “use modern electronics and controlled technology to apply to sculptures.” After moving to New York in 1961 Seawright picked up further technical expertise while an assistant at the Henry Street Playhouse and at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. His work at Bell Labs, in conjunction with a year at the Art Students’ League, crystallized the direction of his artwork. Writing his own computer programs, Seawright began creating kinetic and interactive sculptures concerned with light and movement. His first art show in New York took place in 1966, and he quickly rose to fame in this abstruse field, showing early works at the Whitney Museum’s Sculptors’ Annual (1967) and participating in a 1968 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Sixties. The New York Times called his sculptures from this period “the most successful union of contemporary art and contemporary science.” Another review of this era described Seawright’s art as “combining a million tiny wires, lights, circuits, and quietly-whirring motors all forming the most complex, yet totally pure, sculpture units.” By the mid-1970s Seawright moved from analog circuitry to microprocessors, building specialized digital circuits to control interactive sculptures. Many of his sculptures adjust their volume, function, or position to interact with other works or the viewing audience. Alongside his electronic pieces, in the 1970s Seawright experimented with mirror reliefs, as in a large installation created for the Seattle-Tacoma Airport in 1973. Another mirror sculpture, Hexflector, is in the Mississippi Museum of Art. Echoing the interactive nature of his electronic pieces, Seawright used complex arrangements of multiple mirror surfaces to reflect complex images based on changing angles of light.
In the 1990s Seawright returned to kinetic computer sculpture. As computer technology advanced, so did the concepts behind his artwork. At this time, the laborious hand-wiring required for his Houseplants series of the 1980s was supplanted by more sophisticated and complex computer-based ideas. Corina, a work that appeared as part of the Mississippi Museum of Art’s The Mississippi Story exhibition, is a piece from Seawright’s Constellations series (2001–5). He describes the series as “meditations on particular constellations, their structure and their history, or rather the history of the lore that has grown up around them.” The three-dimensional works are constructed of metal, plastic, and electronic parts. In discussing the future of this original genre, Seawright said, “Nowadays, embedded systems hardware is universally available, and software is the whole ball game. It seems to me that, after a few false starts along the way, digital art has a limitless future—it’s no longer the language of a few isolated souls, but a language spoken everywhere.”
Seawright received an award from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1969 and has won several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the New Jersey State Museum, and Brandeis University, among others. In 2003 Seawright received a lifetime achievement award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 2004 he was given Princeton’s Behrman Award for distinguished achievement in the humanities.
Seawright is married to artist and choreographer Mimi Garrard, a Greenwood native.
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980 (1998)
- Patti Carr Black, The Mississippi Story (2007)
- James Seawright website, www.seawright.net