Bringing Joy to Children (Oct 2007)
By Jessica Turner
DULUTH- Chances are when Art Vedejs received his PhD in Mechanical Engineering he never thought he’d be using his skills to build a robot, or maybe he did!
After retiring from Bell Labs, Art, whose last name is pronounced VA-DAY, began volunteering with his neighbor Johnnie Rowe at the Hudgens Center for the Arts in Duluth.
“It was the fall of ’03 and we knew that we were getting the robot from F.A.O. Schwartz to go outside the museum,” Art says. “Johnnie wanted to build a scale model of the robot for the children’s museum inside.”
While Art had always tinkered with things here and there in his own home, a robot was something new. Johnnie had sculpted the head and torso of the quarter-scale model and Art was to make the robot, who was to be named CAMBOT come alive. When first turned on, CAMBOT welcomes visitors to the Children’s Art Museum and senses movement to light up and move his arms.
“Since we were on such a tight budget, I used a sensor from motion detection lights and Christmas lights for his eyes and mouth,” Art says.
Throughout the museum, glimpses of Art’s handy workmanship can be seen: the modified playhouse that was a hand-me-down from Sci Trek, the working kaleidoscope, the frame for the dancing piano, even a life-sized penguin! Though his projects may not be as significant as innovations like fiberoptic cable in his engineering days, the projects that Art is working on today are enjoyed by children of all ages nearly everyday of the week.
Originally from Latvia, Art and his family escaped to a US controlled portion of Germany as the Russian front was moving into his homeland in 1944. His family immigrated to the US, settling in Michigan, where he spent his childhood. Art and his wife xxx, made their move to Georgia in 1972 where Duluth was quite different than it is today.
“It was out in the boonies at that time,” Art says. “We had to drive into Norcross to the Big Star to do our grocery shopping. It took us six weeks to get a phone line, and I worked for the phone company!”
Art has been an active member of his neighborhood Homeowner’s Association and is as comfortable tinkering with the electrical for the front entrance as he is wielding a chainsaw on the clean-up crew. “It’s been a very nice community to live in,” he says.
Having had a love for scuba diving and underwater photography since the 1970s, Art was eager to jump on board with the largest aquarium in North American when the Georgia Aquarium opened in Thanksgiving of 2005. Art volunteers at the aquarium every Tuesday in the Ocean Voyager Gallery and the exhibits and graphics area. One of his latest projects was to create a touch and feel area for children who are on school field trips. Students reach into boxes to “feel” bone, cartilage and fish scales (which are actually cloth, sand paper, brushes and other materials).
“I get a lot of satisfaction in seeing the kids faces light up,” Arts says of children in the art museum and aquarium.
One of his latest projects has been to build a birthday chair for the special child having a birthday party at the Hudgens Center. “I used PVC pipe rather than wood,” he says. “It was cheaper and easier to work with. I take whatever I can use and try to do it as economically as possible.”
Art and his old project buddy Johnnie, along with fellow volunteers, have also been hard at work redecorating the bride’s room at the Hudgens Center, which is a perfect venue for weddings and special events. A man of many talents, Art has also ventured into the Al Weeks Sculpture Garden.
“Right now I’m also dabbling in the fish pond,” he says, having brought many of the plants from his own water garden at his home where of course he built his own filtration system. “The plants are doing really well and the fish are thriving. The water lilies look great.”
On a visit to the Hudgens Center, chances are you will be touched at least one of Art’s many projects. The Hudgens Center for the Arts is open Tuesday through Saturday and more information can been found by visiting thehudgens.org.