image title
100-year-old warehouse turns into a creative, inspiring space for ASU students.
Public can tour Grant Street Studios during First Fridays art walk.
November 30, 2016

Downtown Phoenix warehouse reborn as state-of-the-art Grant Street Studios, where ASU artists create and inspire one another

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.

Ceramic cows are taking over an old warehouse in downtown Phoenix where artist Elliott Kayser has his studio: small, painted cows spotted with little bumps in contrasting colors, medium-size cows giving birth to shiny golden calves, a large terracotta relief of cows on a modern cattle farm.

In a different part of the same historic building, Alvin Huff works on a massive steel sculpture threaded with and entangled by rope. He says he’s inspired by existence in macro and micro scales, the ecological view of things vs. DNA and the way things are structured.

The two artists are graduate students in ASU’s School of Art, and although their work doesn’t look anything alike, both say they’re influenced by the place where they produce it: Grant Street Studios. Once destined to become rubble, the 100-year-old structure now serves as the state-of-the-art center of activity and production for graduate fine arts programs in ASU’s Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts. And the public is invited to see the space from 6-9 p.m. the first and third Fridays of each month, including during this week's First Friday's art walk.

Kayser calls it “a beehive of sorts. The creative energy around here is buzzing, and there’s an opportunity for dialogue with artists from other disciplines.”

Huff agrees, saying: “I like that we have all the different departments together. It’s good to be inspired by other people, and I like to see them grow. We kind of mentor each other.”

A sampling of artists at Grant Street Studios; see their fuller video stories later in this story. Videos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now


Originally constructed by Paul Litchfield's Southwest Cotton Company in 1917-18, the sprawling two-story building at 605 E. Grant St. later housed Karlson Machine Works. By 2004 — when artist and developer Michael Levine bought the warehouse — it was, in his words, “bulldozer bait.”

Three years of restoration led to the building receiving the grand prize in the 2007 Governor’s Heritage Preservation Honor Awards: “Levine achieved a standard of rehabilitation that is rarely met,” judges wrote, “due to his skill in blending the contemporary with the historic fabric.”

Recognizing an extraordinary and extraordinarily well-situated space, ASU School of Art Director Adriene Jenik arranged to move graduate programs in painting and drawing into the building in 2014, along with the Step Gallery, and a critique space.

In their new home, the MFA students enjoyed spacious individual studios with high ceilings and natural light, wireless internet connections and the flexibility to accommodate special needs and equipment. Almost immediately, Grant Street Studios became part of the thriving downtown Phoenix arts scene, linking students with established professional artists and downtown gallery spaces.

Jenik says that Herberger Institute Dean Steven J. Tepper, who arrived at ASU a few months after the first programs moved to Grant Street, “got the vision that was being put forward, and he supported it 100 percent.” 

In fact, the School of Art’s presence in downtown Phoenix dovetails with Tepper’s vision for a design and arts corps that will serve the city, an initiative designed both to invigorate Phoenix and to give students the real-world experience they need to realize their ideas in a practical setting.

Between 2014 and 2016, other School of Art graduate programs in fine arts also migrated from Tempe to Phoenix, including intermedia, sculpture, fibers and photography, together with the Northlight Gallery, which showcases photographic work.  

In the spring of this year, ASU purchased the building from Levine, which made it possible for the ceramics program to move into the space as well. The printmaking program, meanwhile, is scheduled to make the move downtown in 2017.

At the ceramics program’s grand opening in the new space on Nov. 19, visitors toured the students’ new studio spaces; viewed “Exchange: A Group Ceramics Exhibition” at Step Gallery, featuring works by ceramics graduate students from ASU and San Diego State University; and admired the new Blaauw kiln, one of two that ASU received thanks to a grant from the Windgate Foundation. 

According to Susan Beiner, recently named Joan R. Lincoln Endowed Professor in Ceramics, Blaauw kilns have been internationally recognized as some of the most sophisticated and efficient kilns in the ceramic field.

“These kilns are state-of-the-art and can be controlled either manually or via computer to provide exceptionally precise firing conditions,” Beiner explains. “With their higher efficiencies due to better insulating material, zone control and burner technology, we are able to consume significantly less natural gas, thus reducing energy use and expense. The kilns are also designed with a safer burner system and produce much less heat loss to the kiln exterior, resulting in a safer environment for our students.”

Another resource Beiner points to proudly is the glaze room, which she says “helps stimulate problem solving and creative thinking of glaze chemistry.”

“There’s no other institution in the country with a diverse array of resources quite like ours,” said Garth Johnson, curator of ceramics for the ASU Art Museum, noting that the ASU ceramics program was already one of the top ceramics programs in the nation before the move. In addition, the photography program is ranked ninth in the country and the printmaking program fifth. U.S. News and World Report ranks the ASU School of Art 20th nationally among fine arts schools.

One important aspect of the ceramics move is the access to various kinds of equipment in the same building, Beiner says, which allows students alternatives for mixed-media works. A new 3-D printer lab opened to students this semester.

Touring the new facilities, Greg Lehmann, who heads the ASU Art Museum board, called ASU “a trailblazer in the development of creative spaces in the Valley. The fact that ASU stepped up to anchor itself in the arts district shows real vision.”

Ceramicist Kayser, meanwhile, says the space has allowed him to make his work bigger — he nods to the large terracotta ceramic frieze of cows, in progress, that takes up a good part of one of the studio’s walls. More than that, Kayser says, is the effect of having the whole community of graduate students from other programs such as sculpture, photography and painting in one physical place.

“It allows for impromptu conversations,” Kayser says. “Those ideas percolate, and they end up having a big impact.”

Jenik says that students being able to get together across practices is one of the most important aspects of the new space. The other, she says, is “the interchange with the public. You can see how it raises the bar for the students. And the public gets to see the students’ talent, which was somewhat hidden before. Now, we are in a space made for us, a space with an open door to the community.”

A closer look at artists in the studio

Four ASU students explain the inspiration behind their work.

Elliott Kayser, ceramics artist (follow him on Instagram here)


Alvin Huff, sculptor (follow him on Instagram here)


Molly Koehn, environmental artist (follow her on Instagram here)


Andrew Noble, intermedia artist (follow him on Instagram here)


Top photo: The exterior of Grant Street Studios in downtown Phoenix. Photo by Craig Smith

Deborah Sussman Susser

Communications and media specialist , Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts


image title
ASU roboticist discusses current technology and hit HBO show "Westworld."
ASU prof studies AI, machine learning, other topics involved in 'Westworld'
December 1, 2016

ASU roboticist Heni Ben Amor discusses artificial intelligence, machine learning, human-robot interaction

"Westworld" — the hit HBO show about a technologically advanced, Western-themed amusement park involving synthetic androids — riffs on questions about humanity, artificial intelligence and science.

The robot saloon women and gunfighters in the park exhibit intelligent behavior indistinguishable from a human.

Is anything like the tech in the show in the pipeline? Are roboticists thinking about the issues raised by creating something that looks exactly like a human? Should we make something as smart as ourselves?

To find out, we talked to Heni Ben Amor, a roboticist at Arizona State University and an assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering. Ben Amor’s research focuses on artificial intelligence, machine learning, human-robot interaction, robot vision and automatic motor skill acquisition.

Which is a woman and which is an android? (Answer at the end.)
Photo courtesy Heni Ben Amor.


Question: What are your initial thoughts about the show?

Answer: Personally I think it follows the typical trend in Hollywood to have a bleak outlook on what’s going to happen and how robotics is going to influence our society. In other countries, for example Japan, depictions of robots are more positive and have a slightly different attitude. Still, as a fan, I appreciate their artistic value.

Q: How far are we from creating what you see in the show?

A: Very far away. I think there are some underlying assumptions that are too far away from what we have at the moment. One of the things depicted there are sentient robots, robots that actually have a very good idea of what they are and what the environment is and what the emotional state of a human partner is. All of these things are not tackled by robotics at the moment. We are too far away from that, especially this aspect of having sentient robots with self-awareness and a goal or a mission that is their own. …  I think the current state of the art is the animatronics you see at Disneyworld, puppets that look fairly humanlike. They impress you the first couple of seconds, but it’s typically within seconds you lose this impression of having a real person in front of you. There is also no intelligence in the sense that these animatronics would stray too far away from the script.

Q: Can a machine act intelligently? Can it solve any problem a person can solve?

A: Definitely. Machines can solve problems humans cannot solve. For example, take the Rubik’s Cube, which for a long time was seen as a tricky task only smart people with dexterity and motor skills can solve. Nowadays robots are much better than humans at that. They can solve it in seconds. Recently I read a report where a robot solved it in a second. There are some tasks where robots can achieve super-human results, but I think what is so unique about human beings is that they are so adaptive and versatile. … We can do many, many things, and survive in a changing and challenging environment. Robots today typically can only perform a single task very well, even better than a human. But they are not able to transfer the knowledge on to new tasks or new environments.”

Q: What are your thoughts on creating an android of a relative, like a deceased grandparent or a child?

A: This of course is a very loaded question. I was working with a professor in Japan who created copies of himself and his daughter. These robots look very humanlike. Appearance-wise there is a quite a lot of progress we have done in the field, but again it’s a question of convincing results in behavior. This immediately brings the question of robotics and ethics to the surface. This is not something to take lightly and the community isn’t taking it lightly. There is an entire technical committee in the Society for Robotics and Autonomous Systems that is looking at the ethics of robotics. … There is an entire universe of ethical questions out there that need to be addressed. It’s not only the robotics community that has to think about that. It combines people from psychology, law — what does law tell us? What is the right decision from a legal point of view? At the moment I think the question of bringing deceased people back to life is too far away, it’s too Hollywood. You would not bring back the soul of that person.

Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro created a copy of himself. Photo courtesy Heni Ben Amor.


Q: How would you feel if you found out that someone you were working with is a robot?

A: The question is: Does it make a difference? Ultimately, I think the way we perceive the world is through the behavior of a person … We think, ‘Today he is nice.’ We try to figure out what is his internal mental status, and that is how we perceive other people. Ultimately, if a device is convincing enough to make me simulate its internal state, then I don’t really care whether it’s human or robot.

Q: But you would want to know ahead of time?

A: I’m completely indifferent. I think this is also the case for many people. Many people have watched an animation show. In animation, all of what you see if fake. It’s not true. What the word “animation” stands for is “life.” It does not stand for movement. … The idea is to create this illusion of life, and people get attached to something that does not exist. Many people have cried at the end of an animated movie. … Any artificial system is too far away from our human capabilities at the moment. People may be impressed by what you see on TV, but it’s not much different than these animated characters to which you get attached. If you get attached to it, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s an animated character or a robot or it’s human. Believing these robots could get a soul and become conscious and sentient, that part is horrible, and we are not there. But if a robot does something funny, I’ll laugh at it. I don’t care whether it’s a robot or not.

Q: One thing that strikes me in talking with you is that when you study robotics, you’re studying humans in a way.

A: We are very much inspired by biomechanics in order to figure out how humans manipulate the world, how we walk in the world. It’s very similar to how aerospace engineers study birds in order to get inspiration and basic principles. Once you have those basic principles, you can create an engineered solution and follow the same approach. … Similar to that, we as roboticists look at humans in order to get inspiration about modularity. A human being is not one big piece; it’s not this monolithic thing. There are millions of pieces inside that work together in synchrony. Creating synchrony among millions of pieces is actually really tricky. Even the smallest mistake can completely offset the system and make it fail. Despite that, we human beings seem to work perfectly. If you look at the billions of neurons in your brain, they work in synchrony. They also work with the muscles. It’s also about the physical composition of our bodies and why our muscles are created in a specific way and how that is shaped by the environment. ... If I need a robot for a manufacturing environment, then its appearance and behavior needs to be completely different from a robot that roams around the desert to find water. We definitely study a lot of biomechanics and how human cognition works.


Top photo: Courtesy of HBO

Answer: The one on the left is an android created by Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. 

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now